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Volume 20

Nomad - Fall 2018


Sehba Sarwar

Written by
Sehba Sarwar

Sehba Sarwar spent the first half of her life in a home filled with artists, activists, and educators in Karachi, Pakistan, where she was born and raised. While based in Houston, Texas, for more than two decades, she started a social justice arts organization that collapses borders and brings communities together and is the recipient of multiple National Endowment for the Arts awards. Sarwar’s stories, essays, and poems straddle South Asia and the US and have appeared in anthologies, newspapers, and magazines in Canada, India, Pakistan, South Korea, and the US in publications including The New York Times’ Sunday Magazine, Asia: Magazine of Asian Literature, Callaloo and elsewhere. In 2019, a second edition of her novel Black Wings will be released (Veliz Books), while her short story, “Railway Track,” will appear in Houston Noir (Akashic Books). Sarwar’s video collages have been screened in Egypt, India, Pakistan, and the US; she has also created a large body of site-specific art installations. Her papers are archived at the University of Houston’s Library. Currently, Sarwar is based in Los Angeles, California, with her Chicano husband and their teenage daughter from where she writes, teaches, and creates art. (Photo courtesy sehbasarwar.com)


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On Belonging & Other Poems


water tank

we are fish
below the surface
in our aquarium
beneath broad
banana leaves
sunlight filters
casting green glow
upon our arms
around us
water pipes trickle
like rivers
in our emerald home
we swim
our dreams sheltered
by        mossy             cold     cement.


She heats oil
Rolls puri
Drops flat flour into bubbling oil
                You conquer
                        enforce rules
                        ban travel
In another pan
She pops coriander seeds
Tosses sliced potatoes
                You build walls
                        deport passengers
                        obstruct asylum-seekers
She serves flaky puri
With crisp potatoes
—we devour together
                You demand documents
                        collect fingerprints
                        require face-identification
Our choice: eat, speak, wear
Practice as we please
Where we wish
                You cannot hinder climbs
                        prevent tide
                        stop earth rotation
Like waves we cross
We fly
We roar
We stay or leave
—our movement permanent.

on belonging

a found poem

feet on red earth
twisted tongue embrace
sunburns from the beach,
music, good book
laughter from the belly
spaces in between
ocean in my blood.
amor, el desierto, long drives
smell of rain, tortillas, chile
coffee, brick sidewalks, stone walls
trees, waterfalls, mountains
dock in lake surrounded by farmland
horizon of cotton fields
yard in hot sun
2-lane country road after wheat harvest
winter coming.
borderlands, open texas skies
xi’an city wall, china
bangladesh, central space punjab
durango, in the heart of mexico
muraran hakkaido japan
houseboat in kashmir
my home country
my grandmother’s red house
& the smell of her pjs
atoms, cosmos
innermost self
everywhere, a global citizen:
love has no limitation of belonging.

This “found poem” contains words and phrases that were extracted from 34 out of 500 cards that were completed by anonymous respondents in six cities around the US (Austin, Boston, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, and McAllen). Photos of some of these cards, and more details on the On Belonging project are featured below:


Left: respondent based in Boston, Massachusetts; mother born in Xi’an, China;
Right: respondent based in Boston, Massachusetts; mother born in Bangkok, Thailand (Photo courtesy Sehba Sarwar)



Left: respondent based in Houston, Texas; mother was born in Mahachai, Thailand
Right: respondent based in Montreal, Canada; mother born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan (Photo courtesy Sehba Sarwar)



Left: respondent based in Boston, Massachusetts; mother born in Pratapgarh, India;
Right: respondent based in Boston, Massachusetts; mother born in Faizabad, India (Photo courtesy Sehba Sarwar)


Left: respondent based in Los Angeles, mother born in Karachi, Pakistan  Right: respondent based in Los Angeles, mother born in Tepic Nayarit Mexico (Photo courtesy Sehba Sarwar)

Left: respondent based in Los Angeles, mother born in Karachi, Pakistan
Right: respondent based in Los Angeles, mother born in Tepic Nayarit Mexico (Photo courtesy Sehba Sarwar)



On Belonging installation by Sehba Sarwar at the Menil Collection (Houston, February 2018), featuring 75 survey cards hung from on oak tree wrapped with ajrak, a fabric pattern claimed by Sindh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, provinces along the India / Pakistan border. Photo by Paul Hester.


About Sehba Sarwar’s On Belonging project

In 2016, Sehba Sarwar was commissioned by the Menil Collection (Houston) to create a performance to complement international artist Mona Hatoum’s exhibition Terra Infirma at the Menil. Sarwar’s On Belonging premiered in February 2018 with two live performances and an installation that featured a tree wrapped with ajrak fabric on which Sarwar exhibited 75 of the more than 500 cards she has been collecting since October 2017. As of May 2018, participants have completed cards in cities around the USA, including Boston, El Paso, Los Angeles, and more. Participants’ mothers were born in countries including Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, France, Mexico, Pakistan, Thailand, USSR, and USA. Fewer than 50 participants reside in the same city as where their mothers were born.

Sarwar began On Belonging (previously called What Is Home?) in 2012 during her two-year artist residency at the Mitchell Center for the Arts (University of Houston) for which she was awarded a Mid-America Arts Alliance’s 2014 Artistic Innovations grant. Sarwar’s project includes: storytelling workshops for documented, undocumented, and refugee youth and women; a blog showcasing conversations with community members, artists, family members; and reflections, and multidisciplinary productions (installations and performances).






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