Spotlight on Gazelle Samizay
BY NINA KIM and NEGIN ALMASSI
Asian Community Leadership Foundation
Is art relevant in a country with a power vacuum outside of its capital — a country that the international community seems to have forgotten about since being eclipsed by the war in Iraq? In spite of, or perhaps because of, the current insecurity that Afghanistan faces, Gazelle Samizay thinks art is relevant. Born in Kabul, she and her family left Afghanistan in 1981 due to the Soviet invasion and settled in Pullman, Wash. Samizay now lives in Seattle, where she combines passion for photography with dedication to cultural dialogue.

Samizay’s most recent project is a photography exhibit from her March 2005 trip to Afghanistan. Her photography from Iran was featured at the 2004 Axis of Art event alongside artists from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Cuba. The event sought to create an understanding of the “Axis of Evil” countries and to illustrate the impact of world politics on international artists.

Currently, Samizay is working on a multimedia project, “Resonance,” for women living in Afghanistan and in the United States to exchange stories and build a deeper understanding of each other’s lives.

ACLF: Why did you travel to Afghanistan in 2005 for the first time since coming to the United States?
Gazelle Samizay: I felt like it was hard to see what it was like through the stories in the news. I wanted to go and tell people here what it was like, from a personal perspective … Going there closed an open-ended chapter for me: to see the hospital that I was born in confirmed that I was actually born in Afghanistan.

ACLF: What barriers did you overcome in order to pursue the photography project that came out of that trip?
GS: At that time, I was kind of afraid to speak up and ask more questions. If I were to do it again, I would’ve been more vocal and asked everybody different questions … I was afraid to photograph people and afraid of what they would think … whereas my uncle had his video camera and was all over the place. I was putting myself in a box, when no one actually said that I couldn’t do it.

ACLF: How did that trip lead to your current project, “Resonance”?
GS: When I went to Afghanistan, I saw that even though the Taliban is gone and women legally have freedom not to wear the burqa, they are not in the public sphere. In Kabu, you might see some women with scarves walking around, but in other places like Jalalabad or Mazar-e Sharif you do not see any women.

I got to talk to men, and now I want to hear what the women have to say. In this project I want to give an opportunity to women not only to voice their stories, but to also communicate on a deeper level.

The idea of “Resonance” is to connect Afghan and American women with one another. Given the language barrier, it will be mainly visual communication where both groups of women are given cameras to photograph certain aspects of their lives. Those images will be posted to a Web site so that both groups of women and the general public can see what kinds of conversations are going on, comment on the images, and learn from the online exhibit.

ACLF: How does your identity influence the reason and passion for why you do this work?
GS: A lot of my projects revolve around wanting to know more and to investigate. Being an Afghan that lives in the United States, I’m connected to Afghans, Afghan-Americans living in the United States, and non-Afghans. The project “Resonance” is a reflection of me being a link between the two cultures. I want to create more understanding between these two groups.

ACLF: What opportunities do you see for collaboration between Afghans — either here or in Afghanistan — and the greater API community in Washington?
GS: I think that there are definitely common issues. The basis for the work that I do is that we’re all human and that we all have the same common desires – we all have families, we all want our families to be safe, we all want education to a certain extent. In that sense, we have similar goals.

It would be great if Afghans and [other] APIs in Seattle would join up. Afghans are in the middle and they don’t fall into any category. I think that the two communities could strengthen one another.

The Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation (ACLF) trains and mentors ethical,
highly skilled and caring API community leaders. We are partnering with the International Examiner to spotlight emerging leaders in the API community. Through these interviews, we hope to identify opportunities for collaboration on issues affecting our community and to strengthen our united voice. For information on Gazelle Samizay, visit www.gazellesamizay.com or www.aclfnorthwest.org.

About the Authors: Nina Kim is a 2006 Community Leaders Program participant and graduate of Washington State University, where she was chair of the Council of Multicultural Student Presidents and member of Association of Pacific and Asian Women, APA Student Coalition, and Students for Equity and Diversity. Negin Almassi is the ACLF program manager.
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