PJ Harvey Made Me Feel Less Invisible as an Afghan American Woman

Growing up, I felt I had two distinct incompatible identities. But I found refuge in the music of weirdos like PJ Harvey.

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Jun 21 2016, 4:00am

PJ Harvey at Primavera Sound on June 4, 2016, in Barcelona, Spain. Photo by Xavi Torrent/WireImage

The last time I saw PJ Harvey play was at the 9:30 Club in DC the day before 9/11 in support of her uber-polished Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Although the events of the next day would be a catalyst for Harvey's particular, explicit political awakening, I never imagined 16 years later US troops would still be in Afghanistan, and that PJ Harvey would be one of the few artists paying attention to the war. To have someone I'd long viewed as a musical savior pay attention to my people as people rather than victims or savages, is—for lack of a better word—touching.

Harvey's earlier work didn't dive into politics in the traditional sense, but her sheer being inspired mine in a massive way. From her jagged, minimalist guitar playing to her thrilling, subversive poses on album covers, she was a creature all her own. I remember picking up 4-Track Demos as a young "riot grrrl" at the Record and Tape Exchange when I was in middle school. At first glance, you see Polly Jean striking a power pose, the bralette and underwear. It's nothing shocking, until a closer examination reveals the dark, wild tuft of hair under her arm. It takes back control, as if to challenge the notion of power and femininity being mutually exclusive. Her all-male backing band of collaborators John Parish, Mick Harvey, and Flood didn't make me think, She needs guys to make her art . Rather, it made me think, She's the conductor here.

Although Harvey has created varied music—from the avant-blues of her early 90s albums to the electronic atmospherics of 1998's Is This Desire? to the piano-drenched White Chalk a decade later—her first real foray into the geopolitical started in 2011's Let England Shake. On this year's The Hope Six Demolition Project, Harvey creates a disquieting ambiance, combining hummable rock melodies with heavy lyrics about war, greed, poverty, and sickness drawn from research trips with photographer Seamus Murphy to Kosovo, DC, and Afghanistan. (In October, Harvey and Murphy released The Hollow of the Hand, a collaborative book of poetry and photographs also based on these trips.) The album maps the otherwise invisible edges of violence, chaos, and incommunicable horror of isolated conflict zones and urban communities in disrepair. Harvey's exploration of art's limitations is important—it's an attempt to represent narratives so painful that they exist beyond language.

My own family knows something of this impossible-to-describe pain. My grandfather, Issa Nuristani, a beloved general in Afghanistan, was imprisoned and eventually executed during the Soviet–Afghan War in 1980. Not long after, my mother was in the house when her father and brothers-in-law were taken to the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison for refusing to sell out their people to the Communists. She and my sisters soon fled to be with my father, who was finishing his PhD in the States. Returning would have meant certain imprisonment and likely death for my father. With a new baby on the way (me), things were too dangerous, and so we remained in the US.

It took me a while to understand my mother, a teacher, was now forced to stay at home and take care of four children in a country she had never planned on permanently staying in. Years later, in 1996, I remember coming home from school in DC to see her crying with rage and sadness as she learned of the Taliban's execution of her cousin, the president Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, in the morning paper. The news was accompanied by grisly photos, and it was part of a long line of dehumanization our family was subject to: first by the Communists, then by the Taliban, and finally by the American press, which she believed would never print such a graphic photo of the death of a Westerner.

As a result, growing up, I felt I had two distinct incompatible identities. Following my grandfather's example, comfort never came first in my family. But even before that, when my personal struggles were informed by getting into fights with local kids and being called "terrorist," I found refuge in the music of weirdos like PJ Harvey.

Disconnecting with your homeland is torture, especially when the disconnect is violent and abrupt. The gulf between a parent and child who speak two different languages is massive. Miscommunications and frustrations abound, compounded by the inability to explain just what it is that's wrong.

All throughout my childhood and into the present day, I have viewed myself as an American. Afghan, in my view, was more of an adjective. This has always caused my parents pain, to have a child who was so alien to them. My mother would ask of the rock music I brought home, "Are you sure these aren't devil-worshippers?"

The author. Courtesy of Zohra Atash

And yet it's rock music like The Hope Six Demolition Project that provides a much-needed relief from the Republican Party's Islamophobia, which continues through its presumptive nominee's response to the horrific events in Orlando last week. I know the shooter was American, born and raised, like me. But, also like me, he was of Afghan blood, and I can't help but feel dual rage at his actions and an aching fear at the inevitable repercussions for my nephews who share the shooter's name.

Listening to the album again, I had to stop the closing song, "Dollar Dollar" ten seconds in, I was so choked up. The song drops us onto a street somewhere in southern Afghanistan, from what I could tell of the accents, and I thought of the Afghan children, laughing and playing, despite the constant threat of US airstrikes. I wished I could help them, but all I could do right then was listen.

Zohra Atash is a musician and writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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