Amanny Ahmad

Conversation held on August 4, 2020 

When I think back to our conversations in January and February, it seemed like you were actually having a pretty good year before the pandemic hit. 

I was! I spent the beginning of the year on the West Coast: first I went to Southern California to see my mom, and then my partner, Tony, met me in Joshua Tree, where we house-sat for our friend, Aidan Koch. We were out there for a few weeks, taking care of her birds and spending time in the desert, which was really beautiful. Then we drove to Tucson for the Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, to get started on this film project we want to work on around that whole scene. That was great, and then I held a dinner for a gallery in LA and came back to New York just as COVID was beginning to be a thing. I’d already been aware of it; I’m a little bit of a survivalist prepper type, so even at that early stage, I was saying to Tony, “We’ve got to buy some respirators, we need to get ready.” 

So at that point, you were still splitting your time between your house upstate in Bovina, NY, and Tony’s apartment in Brooklyn. What was it like for you when you first got back to the city?

Well, I have compromised breathing, so when we came back in February, I didn’t leave the apartment for maybe four weeks. Tony was taking his work clothes off outside in the hallway before coming back into the apartment, we were sanitizing every package… It was hectic. But then I lost all of my work engagements through June, since having in-person events wasn’t an option. Then it became this slippery slope, where just as I was losing all that income, my landlord upstate was trying to kick me out, and so I had to deal with that for a while. It’s a long story, and it got pretty ugly, but as it turned out, I was able to stay. Tony and I ended up moving upstate full-time in March, and since then, I’ve just been tending this beautiful, extensive garden. We’re very lucky—it’s been a really safe and quiet place to be these past few months while the world’s gone totally crazy.

Is that video piece about the crystal show still in the works?

Oh, yes. It’s an idea we’ve been talking about for a while. I’d been there before, so I knew what I was getting into, but Tony hadn’t been, so he was really just taking it all in. It’s a fascinating scene: the show started in the ‘50s in a school gymnasium, and now it’s blossomed into the largest event of its kind, with people coming from all over the world to buy and sell these crystals. So it’s an incredible nexus not only of minerals, but also of types of people. You have everyone from the weird rare minerals collectors that drive Teslas, to the freakiest New Age people, to the dreadlocked, Rasta Pasta white boys. It’s a crazy conglomeration of people, but there’s also this hectic crystal energy in the air, too. The event is spread out all over the city, in parking lots and conference halls and side-of-the-road makeshift spaces, like a giant flea market. It’s this really bizarre, massive thing. We went this time to get the scope of it, started shooting some footage and talking to different types of people, getting a sense of who we might want to include in the longer-form piece. Our hope is to go back next year and stay for a couple months to work on it—but now, because of COVID, we’ll have to see how things go.

What’s your prior experience, as far as documentary filmmaking goes?

None, really. I had this incredible video art teacher at Cooper, but I really wasn’t the best student of that medium. Tony’s an actual filmmaker, as well as a musician—he made this cool little doc about this African musician, Ata Kak. You might have heard one of his songs, called “Obaa Sima.” Anyway, Tony already had this nice camera, so we just decided to start messing around and see where the project takes us.

For the past few months, then, you’ve both been stuck upstate, neither of you able to work. How have you spent your time? What has a typical day looked like?

Well, I feel very privileged, because my days have been very open-ended: I really don’t have to do anything aside from taking care of my many plants. It’s been a harsh time, too, the same as for anyone else—we’re all just trying to hold on, dealing with COVID, and anxiety, and violence, and the world basically catching on fire. On top of that, it was still very deeply winter here well into the year; everything was just desolate and dead through spring. But since the weather’s shifted, and things have started growing again, and there’s more opportunity to be outside, it’s been mainly about taking care of the garden, foraging, going fishing, maybe buying groceries somewhere in town—but that’s kind of it. 

It’s weird to be living through all of this upstate, because it’s just so different from somewhere like NYC. There’s no one around, not a lot of activity. We go to town for the farmer’s market once a week—and yes, the people are wearing masks, but aside from that, you could be here and not even know that anything was happening. If I didn’t look at my phone, I really wouldn’t know that anything was going on—not just in terms of COVID, but also the protests. Being up here really is like being in a bubble, which of course sheds some light on why the experience of those who live in rural areas is often so far removed from the experiences of those who live in cities. 

Even before COVID hit, your decision to get the place in Bovina was part of a shift that you were starting to undergo, where you were transitioning from this transient lifestyle, which you’d maintained for many years, to the idea of permanent or even semi-permanent residence. I know you were excited to try it out—but then obviously, because of COVID, it went from dipping your toe in the water to full-on immersion. What’s it been like to be in one place for an extended period of time? What have you learned about yourself?

That I’d love more alone time. [laughs] I mean, I love Tony. He’s the most absolutely gracious, giving, patient human you would ever meet. But as a person, and especially as a creative, I’ve realized that I need a certain amount of space and alone time—even just to do nothing, or be whatever I need to be. I’m finding that it’s harder to cultivate certain aspects of myself when I’m in constant contact with other people. For a long time, travel provided that for me; I’d always be traveling alone, so I’d have time to explore and incubate and understand myself in relation to the world and my ideas without any distractions. So it’s interesting now to be forced to figure out how to make up for that loss. Of course, I think it’s also worth mentioning that the very concept of “alone time” is a privileged (mostly Western) idea that does not really exist in many other cultures and places. 

At the same time, I’m still wondering about traveling, and what international travel will look like for us as Americans, coming from a country in which this situation’s been handled so badly. It’ll go back to normal in the long-term, I’m sure, but I do wonder how long that will take. My ability to travel is also directly connected to my ability to work, and in this shifting landscape, I don’t necessarily know what that’s going to look like. So that’s something I’m also trying to navigate and preempt, thinking about how I can adjust. 

Have any interesting new solutions come to mind?

I’m not sure. To be honest, I’ve been wanting to move away from working as a chef for a while now.  I love cooking, and I’ll still do anything that’s related to celebrating and bringing attention to Palestine—that part of my work will always be there. But even this year, when it came time for my annual Summer Solstice dinner, my friend who runs this space was encouraging me to do something socially distant—but this was right at the peak of the George Floyd protests, and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t cook this celebratory meal there, for an audience which I’m very conscious of being predominantly white and well-off, while so many other people have no access to that space. I’ve become very sensitive to that, and to where I’m directing my energies. So I’ve been gravitating towards something else, where I’m thinking, “OK, what skills do I have that I can build on? What can I do that might be useful in this new world that we’re trying to transition into?” I’ve been focusing more on herbalism, on survival-related things, and growing food that’s related to my activism, a lot of Palestinian varieties. It’s also been a really great year for reishi mushrooms upstate, so I’ve been processing those and making them into tinctures. The same goes for a lot of the other herbs I’m growing and foraging. So that’s something I think I’m going to be working into my practice more in the future. 

I know your mom’s been a long-time practitioner of natural medicines.

Yeah. She’s more of a “plant-based medicines” person—her practice is geared primarily towards psychedelics and their medicinal uses. I’m more interested in the herbal side of things. But she was the first person I knew who brewed chaga tea, which obviously has become very trendy, popular to the point where you come across it less frequently in the wild. So I’ve learned a lot from her, but I think we’re at a point where she also learns a lot from me. It’s more of an exchange. There are certain things she doesn’t research—and I’m totally not that way. I’m always studying, because with each new thing you discover, you realize there’s a thousand other things you don’t know yet. There’s just so much left to learn.

The other thing is that although my mom is a practitioner, both of my parents are interested in natural medicines. When I was growing up in Utah with my dad, our counter was always covered with vitamins and supplements; everything we consumed was all-natural, no sugar, and we grew a lot of our own food, using all organic produce. These were ideas I was raised with. At the same time, it’s also a cultural thing: in Palestine, before the popularization of pharmaceuticals that came with colonization, people relied on wild, natural plants for medicine. My great-grandmother was a medicine person/healer in her village; my grandmother wasn’t, but even for her, it was an everyday thing to use plants rather than pharmaceuticals. It’s an ordinary cultural presence, the same as foraging for food. So on some level, it just feels natural to me. 

When you first got the house in Bovina, I remember you mentioned that you were getting back into ikebana, which you hadn’t been able to focus on as much for the past few years. How’s that been, now that the weather’s improved?

Great! I’ve been doing wild ikebana, so I’m not manipulating the natural materials as much as simply arranging them. That’s been a beautiful tie-in to one of the larger ideas for me right now, which is about being fully in the moment and place you inhabit. Even as I’m saying this now, I’m looking at the kitchen counter, which has a vase with an okra plant in it that I grew in my garden but couldn’t bring myself to compost. It’s a Palestinian okra, too, which makes it particularly special to me. 

You were growing fakoos at one point as well.

Yes! My very first one has burst itself and is extremely fuzzy. I screamed bloody murder when I found it, but I couldn’t be happier. With things like that, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be here at this time, to have a place to be able to grow all of these different seeds that I’d originally brought back from my most recent visit to Palestine.

How did you source them? Was it through Vivien [Sansour, founder of the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library]?

Most of them. Some of what I brought back were seeds from my grandmother, but everything I’ve grown this year has been using seeds from Vivien. So I’m growing fakoos; Palestinian white cucumbers; a Palestinian kousa squash; eggplants from the village of Battir; molokiyeh, which is a type of mallow; arugula, and sunflowers. The white cucumbers have been the most prolific, which is great for me, because they’re so delicious. I’m letting some of the vines go to seed so I can save them, make more later, and hopefully share them with others.

So these varieties are comfortable with the climate in upstate New York?

Well, I was worried at first. I’ve had this perpetual anxiety that my garden is going to look really lush but bear no fruit—but they’ve actually been producing a lot so far. I’ll go down every morning and harvest four or five cucumbers. Obviously, there are differences in climate between Palestine and New York, but it’s been really hot here this summer, which is helpful. We will see how it works out. 

We’ve talked a lot about your foraging and plant research practices—and specifically, your methods of cataloging, which range from notebooks and spreadsheets to spore prints and watercolor sketches. Have those continued in your time in Bovina?

Well, I always have five different notebooks happening at once, with foraging notes and sketches next to phone numbers and whatever else I’m dealing with at the time. It’s all mixed together. But I did start a garden log to try to keep track of dates: when things are fruiting, specific placements, so I can record how different varieties grow in different conditions and hopefully learn from any mistakes I’ve made. I like that gardening is a compound learning experience, that spans many seasons of trial and error. I’ve also been keeping a more extensive catalog of notes about foraging, but now specifically as it’s related to plants’ medicinal properties and uses. On a more personal level, I’m also keeping a list of flowers as they appear, as a kind of time marker, a different way of seeing how time passes. When I first got here, everything was dead and desolate, but then I saw it change: one morning, the entire yard was a sea of yellow from all the dandelions. It was crazy, like someone poured yellow paint all over the lawn. It’s been a privilege to be here for this extended period of time, to see things go through their cycle. 

In terms of your plant research, it seems like moving around had been a bit of a hindrance: even when you were able to stay in one place for a given period of time—for instance, your residency at Marble House Project in Vermont in 2018—you would accumulate these materials, only to leave everything behind when the time came to move on. This was well before Bovina entered the picture—but even then, you were saying how if you ever settled somewhere, you foresaw part of your living space becoming a kind of working lab, with specimens and notebooks spread all over. Is that what’s happened?

Actually, yes! Along with the notebooks and logs, I have this bulletin board on the wall where I pin things as I find them in the surrounding area: from this year, there’s a snake’s skin, a series of feathers, different weeds, and various types of mushrooms. That will basically accumulate until the winter, and then I’m left with this living sculpture that documents the past season. But then the kitchen turns into a lab, too: I have bundles of herbs drying from the ceiling, baskets all over the place with items I’m preparing for a tincture or a tea. Then, in my office, I’m constantly gathering wild seeds, as well as seeds from my own plants. There are random plants, leaves, insects, pieces of the outside, and it’s all over the house. Every time I go out, I end up finding something and taking it home, trying to figure out what it is, where it came from and what it could be used for, or even simply admiring it.

Something I’ve always been interested in is the idea of distilling a place into a single item, whether it’s a meal or a scent or whatever else—whether it’s in terms of creating a meal or making an essential oil of a particular plant that’s specific to that region. But I’m also starting to think about that in terms of medicines from local plants. So for instance, as I mentioned, this year’s been an incredibly prolific year for reishi mushrooms in my area. Tony and I have been on hikes where we’ll come across twenty pounds of mushrooms in one outing; I’ve harvested maybe sixty pounds of undried reishi overall, which will end up being something like thirty pounds dry. That’s a crazy amount, so I’ve been able to use that to make a lot of medicine. Reishi is called “the queen of mushrooms” in Chinese medicine. It’s one of the most healing and protective mushrooms, a stress regulator and immune supporter. So I’ve been thinking about how prolific the reishi has been, so much greater than last year’s, and thinking that maybe this is the earth’s answer to so much collective anxiety and stress and diseases and unhealth, responding by giving fruiting bodies that are an antidote for that. It’s interesting to think of the mycelium responding to this collective feeling that’s happening all over the Earth, giving us what we need right at this moment. So again, as with the ikebana, it’s very connected to the moment and the place.

As we’re having this conversation, there are protests happening in New York and all over the country and globe in response to the Israeli government’s planned annexation of Palestinian land. As a means of approaching that subject: you were talking earlier about your most recent visit to Palestine, which I know was also momentous for your being forced to claim your Palestinian ID card before you could enter the region. Can you talk about the implications there, and why that was such a big deal for someone in your position as a Palestinian-American?

Well, I guess the first part to understand is that not everyone of Palestinian descent has to claim an ID card. In my case, it all came about because my mom had registered me as a Palestinian citizen of the West Bank when I was young, even though I was born in the United States and living with my dad in Utah at the time. I split my time growing up between here and there, so I spent a lot of time in Palestine, and at the time it made sense—but I’d never claimed my citizenship, because it would have really restricted my ability to move around within the Occupied Territories. Without it, I was able to travel to other parts of Palestine, to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv if I wanted to. But then, on this 2018 visit, I’d chosen to cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Palestine, the other side  of which is guarded by the Israeli port authority. The experience of being a Palestinian, or really any Arab person who may be Muslim, and dealing with Israeli authorities is always difficult. But in this case, I was detained and held there for hours and hours, long after the border crossing had closed; my grandfather was waiting on the other side, with no idea where I was or what was happening. Eventually, they agreed to give back my passport, but they told me that while I was free to enter the country, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave again without claiming my Palestinian ID card. I had no choice but to do it. So during the month and a half I was there, I applied for it, and I now have a Palestinian ID and passport.

The reason that’s such a big deal is that in doing so, I essentially lose whatever rights I have as an American citizen while I’m in Palestine or the Occupied Territories. I can now only travel and be treated as a Palestinian citizen of the West Bank. Palestine is divided into a few separate regions of land: Areas A, B, and C. My family lives in Area A, near Ramallah. With A and B, you can kind of go between them; you can access C, but it’s basically controlled by Israel. I mean, it’s all essentially controlled by Israel, economically and otherwise—which of course will only become more true with the annexation. I posted a piece from Al Jazeera this morning on my Instagram Stories that did a great job of laying this all out, and showing some of the challenges that come with being a Palestinian—especially if you live there, but even for those living across the diaspora. The Israeli government has found so many ways to make it difficult for you to be a person born of this culture, of this place, of these people.

The thing is, nobody really knows what annexation even means at this point. If you look at everything that’s happened there over the past seventy years, it’s been one long process of de facto annexation anyway. Every time they build a wall, every time they establish a new checkpoint, every time they bulldoze a house and replace it with a settlement that’s illegal under international law, every time they violate the Geneva Convention, it’s an act of annexation. The difference here is that they’re now being greenlit by the US government and their own government to continue doing what they’ve been doing. They’re just giving themselves permission to do it.

When you talk to your family, or to other people you know there, how are they coping?

They don’t really know what it’s about, but they’re definitely freaked out about it. Vivien’s been telling me about settlers seizing land with firearms, under the protection of the Israeli army; that’s happening all over, and there’s not much we can do about it.

In the article you posted, the writer at one point lays out the implications for different regions once annexation goes into effect. There’s the suggestion, for instance, that because the West Bank is situated directly among Israeli settlements, Area A might be safer from widespread bombing than Area C or East Jerusalem, which could be in greater danger of outright warfare.

Right—but at the same time, even though Area A might be safe from bombing by the IDF, we’re still not safe from settlers on the ground wielding semi-automatics, or gasoline, or blades. For many Palestinians, the fear has as much (if not more) to do with settlers as with the Israeli government. I grew up being aware of instances in which settlers might kidnap a Palestinian man walking home and burn him alive, or shoot up a random person and leave them on their doorstep for their family to discover. It’s brutal. Many settlers are the Israeli equivalent of the heavily armed, nationalistic, right-wingers we have in the US, but they act with complete impunity. They can basically do anything they want.

One of the biggest things I try to impart on people in this country is that US money is helping to pay for all of this. We, along with the rest of the international community, allow our economic interests to take priority—and I really believe that if we allow these things to happen to other countries, it could come to the point that it happens here as well.

That slope’s already slippery—sending the NYPD to be trained by the IDF, for instance. 

It’s really scary. And I know that for a lot of people, this all feels far away—but at the end of the day, you shouldn’t be waiting until it directly affects you in order to care about it.

It’s strange being aware of this impending annexation in Palestine, only to then turn around and see the Israeli government making declarations of solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives on social media. On some level, it’s hard not to find similarities between the treatment of Palestinians and the way the US government has treated populations of color, starting with the indigenous nations that preceded its arrival. The tactics are largely the same: a violent, forced relocation of people from their homelands to allocated spaces, where they’re forced to choose between genocide or submission, either dying out or becoming reliant on—and ultimately absorbed by—the colonizing entity.

Exactly. That’s the other side of the occupation: Palestinians have been put in a position of relying on the Israeli economy for survival, whether it’s trade, or for work, or for imports and exports. There are so many different strategies involved with this level of occupation—it includes land grabs, intimidation, and violence, but there’s economic subjugation as well. There’s cultural appropriation and erasure. Just the other day, I wanted to look up some videos on Dabke, which is a traditional style of Palestinian folk dance that goes back many generations—and the first video that pops up features two Israeli women teaching and speaking of the dance as being Israeli. Obviously, it’s the same thing with food, where you see things like za’atar and hummus being rebranded as “Israeli cuisine.”

I actually saw an article the other day about a Native American tribe who had formed an alliance with this Israeli group because they were convinced their narratives were so similar. It’s crazy. I showed it to one of my indigenous friends, and he was just like, “Um, sunken place much?” [laughs] I would say the Palestinian plight for the last seventy-one years—and really, even longer than that, because it goes back to British colonialism—is definitely analogous to what happened (and continues to happen) to other indigenous peoples when they encountered white settlers. Even in this country, it seems like people are only just coming around and recognizing those injustices—like the Esselen Tribe being given back their ancestral lands in what’s been called Big Sur. That was amazing to see—but then I think, “This took hundreds of years, and we’re only now taking the first steps towards coming to terms with it. Is that what’s going to happen to my people? Where the only ones left of us will be those in diaspora, who’ve been anglicized, and then maybe two hundred years from now (assuming there are still humans on this planet by then), we’ll get some kind of offering or acknowledgement?” Why should we have to wait for that? Why can’t we learn from our mistakes as human beings? That’s what I think when I hear about the annexation. Between that and COVID, I have no idea if and when I’ll be able to go back to Palestine, if and when I’ll see my family again. It’s a very strange and scary thing. 

In that Al-Jazeera piece, the writer at one point suggests that in addition to occupation at the hands of an outside government, Palestinians must also contend with the authoritarianism of their own leadership.

Right, that’s definitely true. It’s not like it’s a totally chill situation beyond the occupation: there is a patriarchal society there—this insular, almost tribal structure to society. Beyond that, I think the Palestinian National Authority is corrupt in the same way that other governments are corrupt, being driven by money and politics. You have puppet candidates serving private interests, just as we do in the US. It’s the same with the police: if we have a problem, we don’t call the Palestinian police—we deal with things ourselves, within our villages. Even when we talk about issues surrounding food sovereignty, it’s not just about the land grabs by Israel—we also have the PNA basically forcing Palestinian farmers to sell them their lands so they can install industrial agriculture and generate produce that’s filled with GMOs and pesticides, or even rent it to outside corporations who end up planting huge fields of tobacco. It’s putting smaller, more traditional farmers out of business, and they can’t find new jobs, because they don’t have any other skills. On top of that, because Palestinians have fewer means of growing food for themselves, it also forces people to buy cheaply made produce from Israeli food companies, or to buy Israeli-brand hummus from the grocery store. It’s really terrible. 

I can’t imagine what it would be like to live there and not be able to leave. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, as people in the US have been talking about COVID and quarantine, being stuck in their houses. I completely understand why it’s been hard for people—I feel that way, too—but at the same time, we have to realize that this is a constant reality in some places. There are people in Palestine who don’t feel safe leaving their homes, who aren’t able to move around comfortably for fear of venturing out too far and being shot at by guards in watchtowers, who aren’t able to visit the nearby ocean—although even if you lived in Gaza and were on the ocean, your portion of the shoreline would be overrun with sewage anyway. I do wonder when people around the world will be able to recognize these things on a more empathetic level. Even recently, as it’s become more common for people to post about issues and events surrounding the mistreatment of other human beings, I’ve seen friends post more readily about the situation in Palestine—but then they’ll send me screenshots where people who you’d otherwise perceive as being liberal or “radical”-ish are commenting, calling the posts anti-Semitic. There’s this idea in some circles that anything said against Israel is inherently anti-Semitic—and that’s a really scary thing, aside from not being true. People have to understand the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. I completely understand that if you’re Jewish, culturally and/or religiously, and you were raised in in a certain context, you might feel defensive or even implicated—but at what point do you just check out on human empathy and say it’s OK to do these things to other people in the name of getting what you want, what you think you’re entitled to?

With that said, and amid all that’s happening at the moment, is there room for optimism? Would you say you’re a hopeful person, be it in terms of this situation or simply in general?

Well, I realize that all I’m saying here doesn’t sound too hopeful. [laughs] I also want it to be clear that I’m very grateful, that I see my own privileges, and that I think it’s very important to find joy in your life. But at the same time, you can’t follow your joy at the expense of being oblivious. You can’t put yourself in a bubble. It’s hard for me to be hopeful sometimes, but I’m definitely not a nihilist—I’m somewhere between an optimist and a realist. Even aside from the pandemic and the super fucked-up political situation and endless racism in this country, I’ve also grown up in a certain position, into a situation that’s been egregious for a lot longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve really had no choice but to be politicized my whole life, to be part of a struggle, a movement, while trying to build knowledge and pride. It’s something that was ingrained in me—and then, because of my personality, I feel this need to do whatever I can about it. So I’ve tried, and will continue to try, to find joy in my life while undertaking my own forms of activism. But it is disheartening when I talk to my family in Palestine, and I can hear how exhausted they are from trying to resist. For people in their position, simply existing is an act of resistance, and I can tell they’re tired. I hear that, and I think of all the ways that the world has turned its back on us as Palestinians, and then of all the ways that people of color suffer so greatly around the world without receiving the help and care that they need, without enjoying the rights to which we’re all entitled. The problems just feel so big, and it’s hard sometimes to imagine any real solutions. I don’t know what has to happen for these things to change.

Honestly, the only place I continue to find hope is in nature. I think about this past winter, being here and looking outside, and everything looking dark and dismal and dead, like nothing could ever grow there again. But then, all of a sudden, everything is green, and there’s all these varieties of plants, and each of them is coming back out at just the right time for them. You think, “How do they know? How are they able to survive this deep darkness but still arise as this flower, or herb, or weed, or whatever it is they are?” You realize that regardless of whatever’s happening with us, the whole surrounding environment is still doing its thing. So maybe this is our hour of darkness, and people will find a way to return to the more balanced, mutualistic space that nature intended for us, and we can start looking at things through new lenses and transcend. I don’t have a ton of faith in human intelligence; I think we tend to create problems and then scramble to solve them. But I do believe in natural intelligence, and in life’s ability to continue—even if it’s without us. Nature will keep going. The spiral of time will keep going. New species will appear to replace the ones we’ve destroyed (including, potentially, ourselves). I’m not a religious person, but my ideas of spirituality fall along these lines: recognizing and appreciating the non-human-centric nature of nature. So yes, of course, I hope we’re able to find ways of addressing these different problems and somehow end up in a more balanced place. But even if not, I know things will work out as they should.

Photographs by Tony Lowe