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Text by Aika Akhmetova

When I was 4 or 5 years old I was taken away from my parents at the Istanbul Airport. I have very little memory of the incident: maybe I remember being pulled away from my mom, maybe I remember someone screaming, and maybe I remember being taken into a room. Maybe I remember or maybe it’s my brain trying to generate a memory of a seemingly important and traumatic event. When my mom tells the story it surely seems important. She says that she was holding my hand and carrying my brother when she heard someone exclaim and point in our direction. Everything else happened quickly. Some guards approached my mom, then took me away and told my parents to follow them. Security questioned them in separate rooms and that’s when my parents found out that the authorities thought that my mom was stealing a child (me). I look a lot like my dad and I look nothing like my mom. The authorities thought that a white woman was stealing a Turkish child and both of those assumptions were incorrect.

We laugh at this story because that’s what we do about traumatic events. We laugh at this story because we know that coming from a country that is only 28-years-old independent means having our identity constantly rethought, questioned, and twisted. Today, I can proudly identify as Kazakh, Central Asian, Brown, Queer, Non-binary. Some identities were put onto me. Some identities I chose. 10-15 years ago the only way I was identified while traveling was as a Middle Eastern girl. In elementary school I remember words “metis” and “mulatto” being thrown around by my peers. Obviously, all three terms were incorrect. Now you hear words such as “indigenous,” “Central Asian” and “Brown”.

Just 7-8 years ago I couldn’t escape being Kazakh, “looking” Kazakh, my relatives would laugh at my attempts to learn English, saying that I will never run away from how Kazakh I am; it’s just pouring out of me. Now when I return home, I hear more and more “you don’t really look Kazakh.” Oh what a moment it was when I realized that they weren’t referring to my facial features and my skin. It was my short haircut, my clothes, the way I stand and walk, how deep I let my voice get sometimes, because my family would remind me that “we don’t have gay people in Kazakhstan” or that being gay was “some Western nonsense.” They want me to choose one; I can’t have both. Societally, I can’t be both queer and Kazakh. And what does it mean to be queer, Kazakh, and non-binary? Is this identity just a collection of sounds, which people claim to not know, but which are sounds that can trigger a violent response?

The idea that I can’t be more than one thing is what makes me invisible most of the time and most visible in moments of anger and danger. Queer and non-binary are invisible at home. Kazakh is most visible at home but invisible everywhere else. However, in moments of violence I am seen as all three but then I vanish again. This constant push and pull from being invisible is where the despair lays. Mainly, because you cannot advocate for something you “cannot” see.

Aika Akhmetova is an interdisciplinary artist and writer from Kazakhstan. They live and work in New York City.