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Forward, No Matter What

by Fatimah Asghar

This season, First Person will feature people from our community who have a unique personal connection to each play. Take a look at the upcoming plays, and if you have a story to share, feel free to e-mail me at Fatimah Asghar was the Literary Apprentice and a Multicultural Fellow with Steppenwolf for the 2012/13 season. I had the pleasure of getting to know her—and her fascinating family history—as we worked together reading plays, scheduling post shows and creating actor packets. Fatimah is also a poet and can be seen performing at venues all over the city. Her voice—intelligent, compassionate and uncompromising—is one that I am happy to share with you.
—Aaron Carter Director of New Play Development

My uncle tells the story of his first memory like this: He is four years old. He is alive and awake in a field of long grass. Not too far from him his mother hangs up laundry. His youngest sister, my mother, is inside with her dolls. It is a typical day. There is nothing strange, no warning in the air or buzz of guns in the distance. He sees his father running up towards the house from the road and thinks they are playing a game. He joins his father in the run, unaware of the urgency in his father’s gait, the panicked way he is yelling something to his mother, that his mother has become a wailing body, pulling the laundry from the wire, collapsing to her knees.
Before he knows it, he is holding my mother’s hand and a satchel packed with toys and clothes, following his family as they walk down the road. He remembers his mom saying that they had to find a forest to lose themselves in. On their way, they passed a field full of brown Muslim bodies, the air thick with flies, the ground a pool of blood.
The Wheel is a fascinating play that explores the disorienting world of war and violence. The play employs tactics of magical realism, creating a world that bends time, space and place to talk about fundamental issues of war, innocence and humanity. In using the fantastical elements of magical realism, it is able to more accurately depict the cyclical nature of war and violence on people than standard realism.
Much like the world created in The Wheel, time and war has become a monolith for my family, an ever-present backdrop. Reading this play felt like peeling back old family albums, seeing the continuity of violence that has been a constant drumbeat to the stories I grew up hearing. My extended family lived through so many wars that they don’t even differentiate them by years or place anymore. They can only tell them apart by how the sounds of the bombs marked changing technology. Or by what bodies looked like when they were extracted from collapsing houses, by the circumference that a mortar blast left on the sidewalk. To tell the story of my family without telling the stories of war or the lasting effects of violence is impossible.
In The Wheel it becomes more and more evident how much war affects Beatriz and the children the longer they stay in it. In dealing with so much violence, part of them hardens. On their journey, the young girl surprises strangers with her tough skin and the way that she does not cry. Operating in a ‘survival’ mode, there is no time for weakness or emotion. The weak don’t survive. The strong are the ones who move forward no matter what, even if it means hollowing themselves out.
My family behaves similarly. I’ve never seen an older member of my family cry or show an emotion other than anger. Not even when they had to prepare a funeral for a loved one or when there was a fight or disagreement. They never spent time dabbling in memories or being nostalgic. It was always about getting to the next thing. We rarely looked at photo albums or watched home movies, though oddly enough my uncle always had a camera. When he would show us what he recorded, it would be hours of squirrels at a bird feeder in my aunt’s backyard, not a single shot of our family at the barbeque. It was a mindset I learned early on: move forward, show no emotion.
In moving forward, Beatriz clings on to her mission with such stubbornness that she doesn’t see how much the journey is affecting them until it is too late. Growing up with my own family’s trauma around war and violence, this is something that I instantly recognized. Like Beatriz, my uncle also stubbornly remains on his path, letting it build until he is completely surrounded by it, afraid to let it go. Like Beatriz, he is willing to run in the forest for so long that he ends up losing himself. I know part of this comes from constantly being on the move, shifting from location to location. He won’t get rid of material goods because the fear of not having enough is engrained in him. Throughout my childhood, I watched his friends bring him their junk cars, too rusted and beaten down to even work. He made my sister drive one of these cars—an old white Cadillac that could barely run—ignoring her warnings that something was wrong with it until the axel gave out while she was driving her car. And still, he was reluctant to give it up to the junk shop. All the cars would take up parking lots on the street, a disgrace for the neighbors to look at. But it brought him an odd joy to walk past this barricade he had made from scrap metal, almost as though each accumulation of material good made him believe more strongly that he was here, alive, and would not be moved. I’m very blessed that the closest I personally have come to war has been through stories.
But because of my family’s complicated history, my whole life has felt like a quest to try to understand war, or at least some small sliver of it. When I was 21, I decided to move to Bosnia and Herzegovina for a year to research the way that war shapes art. Every day I lived there I was reminded of the way violence stays in each of our bodies and our communities, how the trauma shows up uninvited in our conversations, how it stares us down in our day to day lives long after the shelling has stopped. Once there is a moment of violence in your life, it becomes a consistent threat. You feel it everywhere. It corrupts the light of the world; it lurks behind every corner, ready to take you.