Behind burqas, more than bodies

I first became acquainted with the righteous, personable, accomplished (and stylish!) Grace Aneiza Ali when she wrote a guest post for the blog Idealists in Action, which I was co-editing at the time with one of the great platonic loves of my life, Celeste Hamilton Dennis.

To put my introduction to Grace in context, I should begin by saying, perhaps quizzically, that I don’t read too awfully much on the internet. I mean read-read. For sure, I look at the news, I peruse my neighborhood listserv, and I click over when I see an acquaintance has a new job. But—though it’s not a point of pride—after staring at the screen all day in the service of most of my work and life tasks, I don’t usually feel I have the energy to sit down with it for even longer when I actually want to read. (For this, I turn to paper books and magazines.) The loss is all mine, I know!

But occasionally, something does first catch my eye, then keep my attention, then resonate with me enough afterward that I keep a link to it in my “favorites” doc, look for ways to share it, and sometimes even read it again. Grace’s story for Idealist, “Do we miscast rural communities as places to leave behind?” was one such piece.

Grace Aneiza Ali and Celeste Hamilton Dennis

Grace + Celeste (photo by Terrence Jennings)

Grace caught my eye again a while later when I saw her in the New York TimesSunday Routine, and then a third time (the charm?) just last week in NYC. The occasion was the event The Art of the Burqa, produced by the art-meets-activism magazine Grace founded, OF NOTE, and hosted by Pen + Brush (“the only international nonprofit organization offering an outlet for women in both the literary and visual arts in the city of New York”) with help from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

Through the fortitude of their mutual awesomeness, Grace and Celeste have stayed in touch since the Idealist days, and Celeste recently became Editor of OF NOTE, which was pretty thrilling news for me. (And here I’d been thinking that ’90s Hillary and Bill were the world’s most iconic two-for-the-price-of-one!) Naturally, I high-tailed it to Gramercy/Flatiron for the event, and spent the afternoon feeling more enlightened by the minute.

Highlights for me included the conversation between Suzanne Russell—an extremely badass lawyer, writer, and visual artist—and Afghan artist Hangama Amiri about the latter’s portrait series that features her burqa-clad mother inhabiting a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces; and the multimedia artist, educator, and writer Gia Harewood on the artist Behnaz Babazadeh’s Burkaphilia project—especially this wild video. But all the afternoon’s segments went a good distance toward illuminating the meanings and impacts of this iconic garment that extend far beyond the cloth itself and the body it covers.

It’s hard to picture a better event than one that combines a visit with beloved friends and mentors and a timely and affecting program—all in a beautiful space with a rapt audience. So my hat’s off to all of you! I look forward to only more greatness.

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