Lauren Joyce

I used to understand “being” as an inherent, singular verb with odd conjugations; to me, “am,” “is,” and “are” all signified the act of merely existing.  Yet, the time I spent intensively studying the “self” in recent months (through the Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program) and unforgettable encounters with the work of Evar Hussayni (a Kurdish archiver) brought a new realization into focus: “being” is not a constant state but the sacred unfolding of individual action and agency contingent on the spatial and temporal circumstances that surround the individual.  The works that sparked this particular “lightbulb moment” were Hussayni’s poem “Love Letter,” and her three-photo collection Three Kurdish Girls Swimming (Figure 1).  In the poem, a work detailing the tremendous struggles of her best friend, her mother, and Kurdish women as a whole, Hussayni contrasts two different forms of existence for Kurdish women: “resisting” and “being.”  Especially for those living in contexts of occupation, persecution, restriction, and subjugation, “being” is sacred and worthy of capturing, remembering.

Something about the first of Hussayni’s three photos takes a hold of me (Figure 1, top left photo).  Is it the laughing smile on the face of the girl on the left?  Or the way the girls’ drenched t-shirts cling to their shoulders as they swim and create resounding ripples in the water?  In these details, I see myself; the faces are so far in the distance that if I squint hard enough, I could swear that I am one of the lively girls. The photograph transports me back to the summer before seventh grade; my best friends and I are sprinting into the Pacific Ocean, fully clothed, at sleepaway camp on the Oregon Coast; I behave recklessly, whimsically and laugh at my soggy self with the same laugh captured on the Kurdish girl’s face.  The girl on the right seems to lie down on the water, floating, allowing the lake to support her.  The sun’s light frames the water and the women; the body language of these swimmers is free of tension, their limbs sweeping the water’s smooth surface.  The corners of my lips turn upward into a slight smile as I zoom in and out of this image.  To me (and Hussayni), this is what “being” looks like; not a sign of industry, military, politics, or patriarchy in sight; each of these girls is operating according to her desires, existing as she sees fit.  

When viewing a still like this, where Kurdish girls seem to remain freely “being” forever, I find it easy to forget that these moments live in liminality for Kurdish women.  Hussayni explains:

. . . I know what came before these images were taken

Occupation

Shame

Violence

Imprisonment

Policing

Fear

And what came after these images were taken. (Hussayni, “Love Letter”)

She then repeats the same list and, finally, confirms that this oppression is the “direct result of being a Kurdish woman” (Hussayni, “Love Letter).  For the Kurdish woman, existing is far from “being”; fleeting moments of existential agency are too often superseded by unwelcomed societal dictators of nearly every facet of her being: her femininity, her freedom, her safety, and her interactions with both individuals and with the world at large, especially through digital media.  Yet, the Kurdish woman is not the mere receiver of these forces, as Western media outlets would portray; she is the active resister to the oppressive forces attempting to overrun and narrow her life path.  In defending the wholeness of the personal identity upon which she acts when she has the chance to simply “be,” the Kurdish woman is forced to abandon her right to “be” in order to resist.  Speaking on behalf of her fellow Kurdish women, Hussayni notes, “[e]verything about our identity is related to resistance” (Hussayni, “Love Letter); that is, this demographic is deeply and potently interpellated into sacrificing original, instinctual action in order to constantly defend the very operator of “being,” the “self,” from damage by the attacks by oppressive institutions.  

Hussayni offers a quintessential example of this defense of the Kurdish female identity in the story of how Three Kurdish Girls Swimming came to exist.  In her lecture “Kurdish Women, Coloniality, and Archives,” Hussayni explains that she and her cousins were hiking in Kurdistan when they discovered this lake.  The next thing she knew, her cousins had jumped in, fully clothed.  She warmly recounts herself thinking, right before snapping the pictures, “Wait, I need to capture this before I jump in myself!” (Hussayni, “Kurdish Women . . .”).  She goes on: “[t]hese [images] aren’t something that you really see of Kurdish women in the digital sphere” (Hussayni, “Kurdish Women . . .”).  Even in a moment of seclusion, while meandering through nature with beloved comrades, Hussayni carries an awareness of the mission to defend her identity as a Kurdish woman.  In her presentation, she explains that she immediately reached for her camera when her cousins jumped in the water; Hussayni’s first impulse was to actively combat and “resist” the factors that attack her identity by intentionally documenting holistic Kurdish womanhood.  She remains an active defender all the way up until she finally jumps into the water and finally begins to “be,” too.  

The very type of archive Hussayni is actively creating with her photography is the one that first provided her with an enlightening glimpse of joyful, organic, unfragmented Kurdish womanhood.  In her poem, “Love Letter,” Hussayni recounts her first encounters with a collection of old photos of her mom and aunts, photos in which these Kurdish women, whose existence Hussayni previously framed as “[c]ontinuously . . . [resisting] death and violence,” were wearing “mohawks, the chokers, the coordinated outfits between friends and sisters” and “constant grins with teeth showing” (Hussayni, “Love Letter”).  Her fascination with the snapshots of Kurdish women “simply just . . . . . being” (Hussayni, “Love Letter”) translates to an outlook shift for her; she glimpses hope in these images and internalizes these moments as glimpses into an ideal future.  The conversion of this outlook shift into action, known as praxis, is prominent in her immediate utilization of her camera to capture (and ultimately publish) Kurdish women “being.”  In this case, the act of taking these pictures reveals Hussayni’s orientation towards visibility for Kurdish women; her socio-ideological path directs her to the impulse of capturing “being” even before personally “being.”  Perhaps, in the future, a young Kurdish woman will see Three Kurdish Girls Swimming and have Hussayni’s same epiphany, a realization that will inspire the capturing and recognition of even more “being” and promotion of holistic portrayals of Kurdish women in the digital sphere. 

While the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic are extremely different from the precarious circumstances controlling and warping the existences of Kurdish women, both bear influence on the existences of the affected individuals.  I remember, when I first saw “Three Kurdish Girls Swimming,” it immediately oriented me towards my recent observation of the pattern of sudden recessions of pandemic tension and behavioral expectations during times of communal eating.  I distinctly remember thinking, as I considered these two instances simultaneously, that both moments exemplified fleeting “normalcy” in the midst of confining circumstances.  Yet, as I mined this initial connection for the true root of what first drew me to both of these moments, I realized that “normalcy” was not quite the correct term for the sacred time I had witnessed; the more precise word, I found, was (you guessed it) “being.”  Finding an unexpected lake and then jumping into it, fully clothed, is “being”; grasping a friend’s arm as you uncontrollably laugh at the lunch table is “being.”  While the COVID-19 pandemic poses a much different external circumstance, its brutal attack on public health jolted nearly every dweller of this globe out of the (varying) degrees of freedom they had, especially spatially; social distancing and mask mandates largely eliminated the ability to gather and form spatial intimacy with others.  These restrictions infringed on the self-motivated tendencies of many, increasing reservation before action and impairing the ability to “be” in public spaces.  Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, I constantly found myself tip-toeing in public in order to (attempt to) accommodate an unspoken, ever-changing code of conduct completely foreign to me; this health crisis ruptured my previous existence, my ability to regularly “be” like before. (My opportunity to simply, joyfully “be” for the majority of my existence is the result of immense privilege; I am not at all intending to equate COVID-circumstances with the oppression of Kurdish women.) Personally, COVID-conduct heavily augmented my germophobia and mild OCD, further separating me from acting in a way that ever felt right to me, right for me.  Still, during the ongoing pandemic period, I still found moments of respite, moments to operate apart from imposed governance, like blissful nature walks with my mom and movie nights with my sister filled with booming, boundless laughter.  I gravitate towards the pockets of “being” amidst restriction, so Evar’s poem, photographs, and her explanation for why she took them became instrumental allies in my understanding of “being”; they affirmed and steadied my orientation towards the moments captured, whether by film or memory, of blissful, organic action taken without hesitation and exempt from external restriction, driven by the rumblings of the self.  These pockets of respite, like the lake’s ripples and the girls’ smiles in Hussayni’s frames, “are a glimpse into what joy could look like” (Hussayni, “Love Letter”).  These are quintessential moments of human experience that serve to reorient us towards our optimal existence: constant, uninterrupted “being.”  This orientation provides integral direction to an optimal destination; so long as even just the smallest glimpses of “being” are documented, even if the evidence lays untouched for decades, as Hussayni’s catalysts had, they retain the power to reorient the resisting body toward the opportunity to “be,” if not now, then tomorrow, if not tomorrow, then someday.  

 

 

Figure 1. Three Kurdish Girls Swimming, Evar Hussayni, 2016.

     

Works Cited

Hussayni, Evar. “Kurdish Women Breathing, Existing.” Evar Hussayni, 2018, evarhussayni.format.com/kurdish-women-breathing-existing.

Hussayni, Evar. “Kurdish Women, Coloniality, and Archives.” Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program: Reorienting (in) the World, 3 March 2021, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. Guest Lecture.

Hussayni, Evar. “Love Letter.” Date. Unpublished poem.


Lauren Joyce is a first-year student studying psychology. She loves playing the guitar and singing with her a cappella group, the Undertones. When at home in Portland, Oregon, she enjoys taking long walks amongst the evergreens that she deeply misses!