In August 1947, the Indian subcontinent was divided into two independent nation-states: Hindu majority-India and Muslim majority-Pakistan. The Partition was one of the largest recorded migrations of the 20th century. It forced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs to journey hundreds of miles, resulting in the displacement of approximately 20 million people and an estimate of more than one million killed. This was a pivotal moment for thousands of families and their generations to come. Their stories were defined by the legacy of this violent separation. One of these stories belongs to Mara Ahmed.
Mara Ahmed is a Pakistani-American activist, artist, and independent filmmaker. She was born in Lahore, Pakistan, about seventeen miles from the Indian border. Her deeply formative migration pathway has informed her practice and has helped her develop a body of work that addresses notions of history, heritage, and tradition. Deeply connected with her roots and in constant dialogue with her contemporaneity and the political moment, Ahmed’s work creates art that subverts boundaries and connects different cultures with the universality of her topics.
I met Mara Ahmed in 2019 in Rochester, New York, a few months before she moved to Long Island. At the time, she was preparing to show her series, This Heirloom, at the Douglass Auditorium, as part of Current Seen, Rochester’s Small Venue Biennial for Contemporary Art. Inspired by the words in “Snowmen”, a poem by Agha Shahid Ali, This Heirloom explores notions of identity by recreating Ahmed’s family history using photographs of her ancestors and juxtaposing them against South Asian architectural details. The vivid and colorful montages contrast with black and white images of Ahmed’s parents, Nilofar Rashid and Saleem Murtza, her maternal grandfather, Rashid Ahmad Qureshi, her maternal great grandfather, Adbul Majeed Qureshi, and her paternal grandmother, Niaz Fatima. By placing her subjects on the wrong side of the India-Pakistan border, Ahmed defies the dividing lines that separated territories more than seventy years ago.
After our first encounter, she and I met a couple of times to talk about our different experiences as immigrants in the United States. Soon after the current health crisis isolated us into our homes, I was interested in talking with her about the issues that keep us close: home, borders, art, and activism. We met once more, remotely from Los Angeles and Long Island, and, followed by our initial conversation, we continued the dialogue via email.
This is the first entry in a two-part conversation with Mara Ahmed. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A place called home
What does home mean to Mara Ahmed and where does she feel most at home were the first questions that came to my mind. “The idea of ‘home’ and what it means to us is something that’s always fascinated me,” she said. “When I made ‘A Thin Wall’(2015), a film about the partition of India, I didn’t want to limit myself to the politics of colonialism and nation-states, the backdrop to the dividing up of British India. I saw it as a much broader exploration of memory, nostalgia, and the meaning of home.”
Ahmed’s maternal family is originally from Gurgaon, India, a city 20 miles outside the Indian capital New Delhi. At the time of the Partition, Ahmed’s mother was only 5 years old but, according to the artist, her mother “has vivid memories of her home in Gurgaon – the hand woven beds (with mosquito nets) that would be placed outside to temper summer nights, the plays that her older brother and his friends would stage, the swing that her father got installed in the central, open-air atrium of the house. This was the happy landscape of her childhood. She has never been able to go back.”
When Ahmed’s family moved to Belgium, she spent her early years in a white suburb as one of the few students of color and the only Muslim in her school. Of these first memories she recalled, “I think I never felt completely at home. In Belgium I learned to live with double consciousness, this keen awareness of how white people saw me but also of who I was on the inside, someone they couldn’t fully access. Once we left, in my teenage years, we didn’t return for decades. It was something that haunted me. I had recurring dreams of being back but not being able to find our apartment. Like someone says in ‘A Thin Wall’, it’s a permanent ache in one’s heart. After we went back to Pakistan, I felt relieved to be home, but I also felt disconnected. I think class was something that was much more jarring in Pakistan. It’s a society where rich and poor (and everything in between) come into contact frequently. I felt a little bit like an outsider, for example, I could never get comfortable with the domestic worker culture.”
In 1993, her next move took her further away. After graduating from college, Ahmed married Aitezaz Ahmed, a young physician that later specialized in rheumatology. Shortly after their wedding, the couple moved to the United States where he was a fellow at the University of Connecticut Health Center. With an MBA degree from the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, Pakistan, Ahmed decided to go back to school. She received a second master’s degree from the University of Hartford, this time in economics. “The US was similar to Europe in some ways and initially I did experience racism, especially in corporate America where sexism was equally pervasive. But the US also has this rich history of resistance and once I was involved in activism, I began to finally feel at home,” Ahmed recalled.
By 2003, Ahmed, her husband Aitezaz, and their two children, Gibran and Mimi, moved to Rochester, New York. “Rochester is an incredibly important city for me,” she explained. “I found my voice in Rochester, in activism, in film, in collaging together all the hybrid aspects of who I am and where I come from, into a composite identity – something that continues to evolve. Yet there is always this longing for the monsoon rains in Lahore. There is also this mourning for the loss of fluency in French. I still understand it perfectly, but when I speak it, I am translating from English. It’s another ache in my heart. I wrote a piece about this called ‘Knowing is Beautiful,’ which my friend Darien Lamen turned into a wonderful audio poem. His sound design is simply exquisite. It brings all these memories to life.”
The beginnings of her art practice
Ahmed’s interest in art started at an early age. When I asked her about when and how she discovered art, she recalled “I’ve made art for as long as I can remember. I was very visual, even as a child. I had non-stop ideas about how to combine various materials and create art and objects. I also wrote poetry, starting in first or second grade. I wrote exclusively in French for many years. Some of this came from a need to organize the world, make sense of it. I think I’ve always been obsessed with that.”
Growing up in a supportive household with a mother that encouraged her to explore art, Ahmed experimented with different mediums. “When I was still very young, in Brussels, I took classes in pottery and sewing. Later, in Islamabad, I took a summer class in oil painting. I began to paint these large canvases – still lifes and a copy of Yves Ganne’s lithograph ‘Sous le Pêcher’, because it had such clean lines and my mom loved it. In high school, although I was a pre-engineering student, I took part in an art competition and created a lone female figure who embodied the given theme of ‘famine.’ I won first prize. It was such a shock.”
Ahmed’s early paintings decorated the walls of her parents’ home and later they would become protagonists in the peculiar story of courtship between Mara and her now-husband. “I made paintings inspired by poetry but also by activism. My favorite one, which was prominently displayed in our house, was a critique of empty-talk activism instead of on-the-ground, action-oriented protest and social work. It was an abstract painting that my mom enjoyed explaining to our guests. Those early paintings played a crucial role in my life. I got married because of them.” As Mara has told NPR’s StoryCorps, according to the tradition of her culture, she and Aitezaz had an arranged marriage. But in the end, their marriage was settled not exactly by family decision but by the special connection they felt toward each other and her art.
After moving to the US, Ahmed’s interest in art continued to grow. In 2004, she decided to resign from her job as a senior financial analyst and give art another serious try. That year, she enrolled in an art class at Nazareth College and attended courses at Visual Studies Workshop and the Rochester Institute of Technology. She became a very involved activist and independent filmmaker. According to Ahmed, the main reason to turn to moving images was in order to make “The Muslims I Know” (2008), a micro study conducted with a particular group of Muslims in an attempt “to counter the barrage of misinformation about Islam and Muslims that was coming out of mainstream media after 9/11”, as she explained recently in an video segment with WXXI.
In conjunction with her production company Neelum Films, Ahmed has completed another two documentaries, “Pakistan One on One” (2011), and the above mentioned “A Thin Wall” (2015). Her films have been shown in the US and abroad to diverse audiences and have gained her recognition. When it comes to post-screening discussions, she said “One of the most memorable screenings of ‘A Thin Wall’ took place in Dublin, Ireland. Obviously, the Irish know something about British colonialism and partitions. For the post-screening discussion, the organizers had invited Mícheál Mac Donncha to be on a panel with me. He’s a Sinn Féin politician and, of course, the Sinn Féin is a left-wing political party dedicated to the reunification of Ireland and an end to British jurisdiction in the north of the country. I got some of the hardest and most specific questions that night. It came to a point where I had to admit that although I researched the partition for my film and I am familiar with a large repository of oral histories, I am not a trained historian. It was a great lesson in humility. It was also deeply moving to have a full house, on a dauntingly rainy weeknight, and to be engaged in such a sharp, scintillating conversation with another colonized people. I love Ireland.”
COMING NEXT: In PART 2, Mara Ahmed talks about her views on borders, racism, and the impact of the Coronavirus on immigrant communities and people of color.