I Was a Young (Afghan) American: How Bowie Spoke to My Immigrant Experience

by Zohra Atash

Somewhere, on some craggy beach, Death rolled its eyes while scrolling through countless, “I can’t believe it—not BOWIE.” As if mortality is still a surprise to us.

As an Afghan-American, I’m all too aware of the certainty of death, and in it’s ugliest shapes. I toe the line between agony and rage when recalling images of dead and maimed children targeted with butterfly mines by the Soviets. Yes, these bastards left thousands upon thousands of mines that resemble toys to murder children. In a parallel universe, that could have been me. But it wasn’t, and I’m selfishly thankful and also agonized with guilt. 

I was in utero when both of my parents lost their fathers. One to bronchitis and the other, my grandfather who was a decorated, retired army general, martyred by the Communist regime. I can’t help but think that I absorbed that anguish on a cellular level as I don’t remember a time when I was “a happy child, but then…” when asked when I got to be so “dark.” 

Some of us are just born outsiders. Misfits. Undesirables. Long before any social construct deems it in our favor. For the last fifty years, a great number of these people all remember the pivotal moment that was their induction into the world of a one David Bowie.  

My experience with Western music is through a scope of the post-Communist invasion Afghan diaspora. Families were—if lucky enough to escape—torn at the seams and scattered like debris from a dust cloud. The less fortunate of the bunch ended up in Pakistan, while mine in particular ended up in the USA, Germany, Sweden, France, Norway, UK, and Canada. My father was in a Doctorate program in Florida before the invasion, which is how I came to be raised Southern (which for a daughter of refugees is not unlike being The Man Who Fell To Earth).

For a daughter of Afgan refugees, [being raised in the American south] is not unlike being The Man Who Fell To Earth

My father—like Bowie—born in 1947, had earned all his higher education at American Universities in the late ’60s/early ’70s—with a record collection heavy with American crooners and British rock. He still jams on the harmonium with his tabla drum machine with heavily-accented covers.  


My parents in the ’60s

Being the 0.01% other invites perpetual lines of questioning that even when not intended to be, are always completely alienating. From questions about the lack of Santa Claus and “how does that make me feel?” to “so your God is the elephant?”, the more they were asked with the intonation of disbelief, the more I knew I was of an ilk akin to mythology.  

The aloneness was crippling at times. Save for the constant rotation of some record or another, there was no sense of comfort or safety even though the American south was the only place I’d ever known as home. That was until around the age of twelve when I really started escaping into music and learning about the musicians I’d been listening to for years or buying records on my own. While I’d always listened and loved the music from my eastern side, I begin to form relationships—real friendships which I never really had prior to that—with my peers based solely on records.  

This was around the time of Bowie’s resurgence—starting with Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” to the Nine Inch Nails connection, and even the subsequent Placebo connection. He was all over records like This Is Hardcore and, obviously, Dog Man Star. Having listened to Bowie via my older sisters’ records I was familiar with him, but it wasn’t until then that I connected the dots.  I began to understand the Iggy Pop connection, and the Roxy Music connection, which is when I realized that the “old man music,” Bryan Ferry’s Taxi that I loved when driving around with my sister Alina, came from this glam beast. It was all so exciting.

The deeper I dug, the more I felt like David Bowie was one of the only artists who recognized my culture.

The deeper I dug, the more I felt like David Bowie was one of the only artists who recognized my culture. So often it felt like I was invisible. The West only paid attention when poking fun or when engaging in warfare. Records like Lodger which featured travel songs like “Yassassin” and “African Night Flight” to “Secret Life of Arabia” and collaborations with Eno with “Qu’ran” which could have been the impetus for the work of Muslimgauze—there was some recognition of the east without the insane and disgusting, asinine, one-sided portrayals in songs like Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Arabian Knights” or the “sorry I didn’t get the literary context in the pre-internetable era “Killing an Arab.”  

My sister Alina even named her first daughter Iman in homage to Bowie’s beautiful wife.

So much of my work has been inspired by him—from the first Religious to Damn photo shoot to the first Azar Swan…everything. And like Bowie, who never denied his love for Scott Walker, I wear my fandom with ferocious pride.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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