The Texas Panhandle is defined by absence more than presence. Its landscape is pocked by the Caprock Escarpment which hooks to the southwest of Odessa/Midland and slithers its way up to the northeast of Amarillo. There is some debate out there as to whether the full reach of the Caprock should be considered “the Panhandle.” Most of the time, this is debated by those in either Lubbock or Amarillo who have some ambiguous grudge against the other major city along the vast nothingness that the remainder of Texas still doesn’t know what to do with. However, it is exactly this perennial othering by the rest of the state which truly unites the Panhandle in its identity. That and the flatness. The miles and miles of wind-swept nothingness.
“Sweet, Shitty Stench”
Filmmaker Nadia Shihab grew up in Lubbock, Texas, a town of around 250,000 people, only the 11th largest city in the state of Texas. Most of its jobs are created by agriculture, manufacturing, education (Texas Tech University), and healthcare. It isn’t a city or a region that conjures up images of an arts mecca, though there have been a few along the way like Georgia O’Keefe, Buddy Holly, Natalie Maines (of The Dixie Chicks), and Mac Davis, best known for “Texas in My Rearview Mirror” which states, “I thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas in my rearview mirror.” This is the disaffected lament of youth throughout the Panhandle, yet people forget the end of that same song which finds Davis admitting:
“But now happiness was Lubbock, Texas growing nearer and dearer
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream
And I think I finally know just what it means
And when I die you can bury me in Lubbock, Texas in my jeans.”
For all of its faults and its absences, the land has a way of calling its children back. There is something unique about its landscapes and its people, dust-bitten and hardened though they may be. There are few other places where one can see a thunderstorm build in the distance hours before it arrives or where one can see the full palette of colors offered by the sun at the beginning and end of each day. Or where the wind can reach a constant 50-60 miles per hour (or faster) because there is little to get in its way. Add in a dash of cow refuse from the nearby feed yards and it’s not unusual to have a brown dust storm—a true “shitstorm,” if you will.
This land can be hostile.
Lubbock – Ours Is Not A Caravan Of Despair
This hostility is not unlike the physical and socio-political landscapes of Baghdad, Iraq from which Shihab‘s mother, Lahib Jaddo, immigrated to the United States. During the meditative observations on the Panhandle of Texas and her mother’s life in Lubbock showcased in the documentary, Jaddoland, the viewer begins to see a delicate dance between displacement and freedom, the two tethered largely by one’s state of mind and connection to their ancestry. The displacement plays out consistently as Shihab‘s camera lingers on the Panhandle flatness allowing the viewer to imagine Iraq’s history, narrative, and troubles playing out amidst the rolling tumbleweeds.
Yet her mother’s relationship with her art is where her internal war is being fought, where she fights to untether herself from her past and heed that clarion call of freedom echoing out from the Caprock. Yet that sense of freedom comes at the cost of breaking ties with the history of her past and the trauma that funnels through those ancestral and geopolitical channels. When we attempt to untether from our families and pasts, we lose a part of ourselves in the process. A part that is perhaps marred by grief, suffering, trials, and the sins of our fathers and our father’s countries. Yet often these are the parts that connect us the most, the cracks where the light shines through.
Her mother’s life is a lonely one with few friends and a community that neither understands her nor accepts her (or her cultural heritage). The Panhandle may be a spectral reminiscence of Iraq, but the lands are given their life and character through the people and histories that inhabit them. The Panhandle and Iraq are both hostile lands, but the people and their intimate histories are unique. Shihab‘s mother is left in a state of personal abstraction, neither feeling like she can untether herself from her people nor remain in another land without starting from scratch. This is the soul-shaking choice of the immigrant. Their homeland is not safe, but this new land isn’t home.
The art, then, finds these conflicts being fleshed out in paintings, sculptures, and found objects as she attempts to meld these two parts of her being. A hope that the fractures of being will be made whole and that peace would find its way into her soul and no longer feel “the vastness of her longing.” That she can seek out the both/and of her—and so many other immigrants’—experience.
“A Flower Could Still Stand Tall”
The Japanese art of Ikebana was passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. As Shihab speaks about this art of flower arrangement, she is flipping through a book with drawings and notes that were seemingly passed down from her grandmother. The wisdom flows forth at this point in the documentary when these words are spoken:
“Even without its roots, a flower could still stand tall.”
This statement finds its rest in the central conflict of the film. Lahib can still stand tall. There is hope that she can make a new life in this land without forgetting where she came from. After all, the permission to stand tall without her roots comes from the wisdom of her mother back in Iraq. It’s a cost that not all are willing to pay either way: emigrating to a new land or remaining where one’s roots are planted. There is no perfect choice and that truth echoes throughout the sparse cinematography of this documentary. There are no simple answers, but there is beauty and wisdom in the paths taken. And the courage and bravery are in knowingly choosing a path.
As her mother gets married (gets “hitched” in Texas parlance) and packs up to move out to Florida with her new husband, we can sense a sorrow, but also excitement in her choice. She is courageously choosing a path and seeking to make a new life while she still can. Taking the wisdom of her mother and untethering herself from, not just her familial roots, but from the spectral reminders of her homeland in the Panhandle. This is as close as I will get to grasp the difficulties of an immigrant’s life in the United States, let alone in a land that I, too, called home. Jaddoland is a documentary that showcases the brilliant sparseness of my homeland while recognizing its hostility towards those brave souls it doesn’t consider its own. Its imagery and meditations will echo through the hearts and minds of its audience.
Does Jaddoland make you reconsider your home and familial past in a different light? Let us know in the comments!
The shortened version of the Jaddoland is available at America Reframed.
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