AT AGE SEVEN, Zahra Marwan left her home in Kuwait’s desert by the sea for a new home in New Mexico’s desert by the mountains. Her family was forced to leave when laws deemed that anyone without patrilineal Kuwaiti citizenship was living in the country illegally. “Three of my grandparents were citizens of Kuwait, but my dad’s dad wasn’t,” she says. Despite having been born there, Marwan’s father never applied for citizenship, rendering his children stateless and at risk of discrimination or worse. An Albuquerque fine artist whose work is displayed at Santa Fe’s Hecho Gallery, Marwan released her debut children’s book, Where Butterflies Fill the Sky (Bloomsbury Children’s Books), in March 2022. In it, she uses whimsical watercolor illustrations and short, potent prose to convey the confusion, loss, and innocent wonder she felt as a young immigrant—and the New York Times selected it as one of the best illustrated children’s books of the year. Her second book, The Sunflower (Feiwel & Friends), is expected in the fall.
BEING UPROOTED from your home, you begin to bear all of the names—like “immigrant” and “minority” and “Middle Easterner”—that are put on you.
YOU BECOME DECONSTRUCTED in a way. You manage to know when to hide parts of yourself while constantly carrying all the roots from which you grew.
FRIDAYS were the only days off my dad had, so we would go out to sea or he would take me to the fish market with him—which usually is reserved for men, but not in my case, for some reason.
EVEN NOW, since he’s passed away, his younger brother takes me.
I WAS BACK IN KUWAIT as a 30-year-old. I could spend three months there but no more, because I was only a tourist. Being at your mom’s house as a “tourist” is horrible.
EVEN BEFORE CREATING the book, I kept wondering if these feelings were sincere.
WHEN I WENT BACK TO KUWAIT, and said goodbye to my mom and family again, it was just like, Oh, yeah, this does keep hurting. So I try to work from that place.
A LOT OF THE IMAGES in the book were sketches that I made while helping my mom when she came out of the hospital in Kuwait in 2019.
I WAS ATTRACTED to Byzantine art, how they used gold, and how the perspective is flat and abstract. And the Persian miniatures, I like how small and intimate they are.
I SAW THINGS my ancestors left there—the Mesopotamian art that remains along Kuwait’s shore, such as the sculptures and ruins at Failaka Island.
THEY ARE A PART of who I am. I felt like, If this isn’t where I’m from, where could I possibly be from?
MY PARENTS grew up in the old neighborhoods where houses are made of mud and materials from the sea. They looked like the traditional houses in New Mexico.
THE SHOCK of landing in New Mexico is a story my family laughs about a lot. They expected an idea of the United States that’s green, with lots of trees and water.
IN MY STUDIO at Harwood Art Center, I have a corner table next to very large windows that create so much space and light inside. I can see the petroglyphs.
I WORK really fast, with a sense of urgency, as if I need to get things done.
THE SAME FEELINGS I have for missing and loving Kuwait, I feel for New Mexico.
I GO BACK and read this book a lot, and a lot of times I read it and it makes me cry.
IN KUWAIT, I’m working with a photographer. It’s a really sweet project. She took Polaroids of the neighborhood where we both grew up, and I’m drawing them.
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SEE FOR YOURSELF
See Zahra Marwan’s art at Hecho Gallery, in Santa Fe. Purchase Where Butterflies Fill the Sky at nmmag.us/marwan.