As I am reading, Dwarf Umbrella Tree (Schefflera Arboricola) and African Mask (Alocasia x Amazonica) are shading me, while Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura) is over my head looking like floating fishes. Behind me is a shelf that once was part of an old cabinet but now holds the Chinese Money Plant (Pilea peperomioides), a baby Prayer Plant that I rescued, and Swiss Cheese (Monstera deliciosa).
I sit on my balcony with a book in my hands, surrounded by plants, the scent of French pressed coffee, and the sound of Sharjah’s endless construction works mixed with the chirping of birds.
I extend my arms; I can easily touch the metal rails with one hand, and the entrance door with the other. For the past seven years that I’ve been living in this flat, its tiny balcony has always been an abandoned dusty space. Then, in February 2020, my mom came back from school where she teaches Math, holding dried wild basil flowers. We planted the seeds and waited. I was not expecting myself to get so excited when the first baby leaf sprouted, but from that moment on I started reading about seeds, learning new words such as “germination” and “true leaves.” I planted pumpkin, pepper and lemon seeds in recycled coffee cups. A year ago, my balcony had four tiny cups on the floor—today, I have so many plants that I can barely find space for myself to daydream or read a book.
“How can design, itself entangled with and complicit in planetary disasters, help communities heal, sustain and empower themselves?”
I’m sitting on my balcony and reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. I chose this book hoping to find the answer to a question that has been floating in my head: how can design, itself entangled with and complicit in planetary disasters, help communities heal, sustain and empower themselves? In her book, adrienne maree brown explores human relationships, and ways to seek liberation and justice. Magically, she does all of that by crafting her theory around every word in a single poem by Octavia Butler, exploding each verse to unfold possible directions of seeking help for the self, society and the planet.
adrienne maree brown adds that we are constantly impacting and changing—each other, ourselves, our partners, strangers. Emergent Strategy explores how to “shape change” and how to transform a world that is, by its very nature, in a constant state of change. As I read these words, the dried-up basil flower that was shared from my mom’s friend’s garden was a kind, simple gesture, but it channeled a whole new world for me. The words of Octavia Butler spoken by adrienne maree brown echo in my head:
All that you touch
All that you change
I was born in Syria, to a family of immigrants. My grandparents were part of the Caucasus diaspora, now known as the Russian Caucasus, an inhumane forced resettlement of many of the Republics in the Kavkaz region. My dad’s family immigrated from the Republic of Dagestan, while my mom’s family immigrated from the Republic of Adygea. A couple of years after they got married, they moved to the UAE, which is where my sisters and I were raised. We only ever visited Syria three times, during the summer vacations.
The forced resettlement of the Caucasus region has touched many lives, scattering them like broken beads across the vast lands of the earth. Sometimes we find each other, either by recognizable facial features or by a family name. When this happens, it feels like home—even if only just for a few minutes before we scatter again.
Growing up in the UAE, I was never exposed to, nor did I ever interact with the simple forms of nature. My parents were always occupied with work, and trying to make ends meet; there was very little energy to take us out on road trips. The summer of 2000 was very memorable for me and my sisters, as we spent our vacation in the very first house they lived in, in the neighborhood of Jouret al-Shayyah, in Homs, Syria. At that time, the house was occupied by her older brother (my uncle) and his wife. It was the same house in which my uncle took his first steps as a baby, and where his sisters and brothers chased each other around as children.
The house was magical, bare and truthful. It sheltered my mom’s childhood photos, drawings and schemes. I never felt bored there. Its architecture followed the traditional Syrian open courtyard layout that was very common during the 1900s—offering space and volume, being intimate yet dense, while mischievously playing with light and shadow. Its wooden frame had been nibbled on by a turtle, then a rabbit, and even a goat that my grandpa once rescued. Its walls proudly exhibited cracks, its metal windows were rusted, its floors discoloured. There was a dry well in the courtyard garden, as well as a staircase that led to nowhere—the place which became my spot.
I used to sit there and observe the insects between the cracks of the stones, and the plants in the small, raised garden-bed made out of small dark stones. There, every night I would endlessly babble stories and theories, and ask my uncle tricky questions such as: do insects have feelings? Do we all see the same color green? Do you think there are tiny lives inside the stones? It was also on these stairs that I met one of its tiny creatures for the first time: the ants.
One early morning, I dropped crumbs of biscuits on the floor. One ant emerged to check, circling the crumbs and analyzing, and later summoned more ants to help carry the crumbs into the tiny cracks of the step. The following days, I dropped bigger pieces of food to challenge the ants, and every time they figured out a way to carry it back into their home. Every time I lost the challenge, I whispered to myself: “Crazy ants!” I thought they were arbitrary, and did not understand their movement or their actions. I believed that I could outsmart them, and that one day they would no longer figure out a way to carry the food.
Their life was not always peaceful in that jasmine-scented courtyard. Some days they were lucky enough to find food, while other days they were hit by earthquakes and tsunamis—children running around, sending vibrations through the floors, and the weekly cleaning routine sending waves of water into each crack. To my surprise, the ants always reemerged as if they had not suffered a great catastrophe.
“The most resilient communities are the ones that learn from each other, collaborate, adapt and partner up. ”
On the staircase that led to nowhere, my uncle explained that ants and many living creatures, including humans, are echoes of one another. Each creature has its community; some are elaborate and intricate, while others are simple. Some are systematic and collaborative, while others are chaotic and disconnected. The most resilient communities are the ones that learn from each other, collaborate, adapt and partner up. He then shared: “I, your mother and many children that visited the house have never won against the ants.”
From the moment I stepped into my uncle’s house, touched its stones and its old wooden frames, to the moment I met the ants, ran up and down the stairs a thousands of times, sitting every night on the first step listening to my uncle’s stories, to the moment I left in tears back to the UAE—I changed, and I was changed. My mind slips back to reality, to the book in hand, to the page where adrienne confirms my childhood conversations: “Ants societies function through individual ants acting collectively in accord with simple, local information to carry on all of their survival activities. Every ant relies on the work of others in producing their work. Cooperative work, collective sustainability.” I dropped the book and grabbed my laptop to research ant communities.
I found their very human-like strict hierarchy system extremely unsettling. How did they end up in such roles? In the Netflix series Alien Worlds, entomologist Magdalena Sorger heads out to the deep green forest in search of an ant trail. I had assumed an ant trail would be barely visible, but the trail that Magdalena found was, as she called it, a “highway”—a deep and demanding presence in the forest. This highway leads to their so-called “colony” containing their “queen” and relies on a “division of labour.” Ants have different stratification, and therefore different functions. However, when they are born as larva, these functions are indistinguishable. “As they grow up, some of their genes are switched on; others are switched off. Depending on the food they are fed any of them can become workers, foragers or soldiers,” explains Magdalena. But who chooses to feed the soldiers’ food to which larva, and the workers’ food to another?
Typically, an average ant community, such the one found by Magdalena, has its own chemical badge that comes from one single queen. The scent is their tool to spot foreign ants and usually attack them. In Empire of Ants, David Attenborough narrates the story of a super-ant community, whose single nest includes hundreds of queens. When combined with thousands of interconnected nest mounds that belong to that same super-ant community, there may be as many as millions of queens. This means that the ants are not relatives of one another but somehow, they are still all living, working and eating together. As a result, they have created over a hundred kilometers of trails and links between thousands of nests. They give members of the colony access to resources that are of great value to them. They hunt in packs, fight other creatures together to defend their nests, and farm other species such as aphids to get access to food. They build complex homes, and they produce their own medicine from natural resources. They are resilient—able to overcome and move on.
It seemed to me that the ants’ super-community chose to adapt to one another, rather than constantly compete and attack. But what is adaptation? Do you lose part of yourself to adapt to the community and collaborate? According to adrienne maree brown, adapting is a process of altering to be able to live in a particular place or fit a purpose. The concept of changing myself to fit in a place is something I will forever struggle with, but the concept of changing myself to fit my purpose is something I can perhaps do. This is what she calls “intentional adaptation.” She explains: “How we live and grow and stay purposeful in the face of constant change actually does determine both the quality of our lives, and the impact that we can have when we move into action together.”
“When a crisis hits, it generates fear and anxiety. It throws the ‘normal’ upside down, when for most of us ‘normal’ is our comfort zone. ‘Adaptation’ in this case does not come naturally, but it is forced upon us.”
When a crisis hits, it generates fear and anxiety. It throws the “normal” upside down, when for most of us “normal” is our comfort zone. “Adaptation” in this case does not come naturally, but it is forced upon us. I have not lived through a war, but I am living in the aftermath of several wars—generations trying, decades later, to adapt to a new culture, new food, and new language. I think most of the Caucasus diaspora have managed to figure out the food and language parts of adaptation, but are still culturally torn. My great-grandparents’ purpose at that time was thrown off. They needed to figure out what was next, but as years passed the temporary blurred into the permanent. My grandpa and his siblings needed to constantly adapt to attend school, to converse with their new neighbours, and to find jobs. My parents’ adaptation process was much easier, though their culture’s past and traditions were constantly haunting them. My grandparents and my parents were never treated as a minority, and were offered similar equal benefits as any other Syrian. At that time, Syria was the super-ant community for the diasporic Kavkaz population.
My balcony faces the southeast and it is surrounded by so many hundreds of buildings that I can barely get three to four hours of direct sunlight. During summer, the sun is scorching hot, and during winter, the sun is too shy to appear from behind the surrounding buildings. Such conditions make it very challenging to grow vegetables, fruits or flowering plants. Besides having such a tricky environment to grow plants, I was also an inexperienced gardener. I caused leaves to burn, over-watered plants, and I freaked out at the sight of spider mites. I ended up losing the four paper-cup plants, and many more. But I started feeling attached to my potted plants, because I began to understand the similarities between us, constantly being forced to adapt to change. Dwarf Umbrella Tree (Schefflera Arboricola) is native to Taiwan, Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura) is native to the Brazilian tropical forests, and Chinese Money Plant (Pilea peperomioides) is native to the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in southern China. All four of us are a native of one place, yet living in another. Therefore, their adaptation and constant growth always astonished me.
In the summer of 2009, I was 17 years old, and it was our third and last visit back to Syria. I stepped into my uncle’s home, which still proudly carried its war with time. People had grown older, and kids had become teenagers. It still safely kept our family’s memories between its old walls. The house was now witnessing another cycle of change. The smell of jasmine was stronger and was accompanied by the smell of a pomegranate tree, which in the meantime had grown out of the last step of the staircase leading to nowhere, from one of the hidden homes of the ants. The tree was beautiful. Playing with colour hues ranging from greens to reds, it was flowering and feeding many other creatures. The healthy and systematic community of the ants did not only benefit them alone, but also ended up branching out and benefiting many other living creatures. We harvested pomegranates, birds made nests, and ants farmed other insects who lived on that tree for honeydew.
After our last visit to Syria, troubles started arising. I did not understand then why and what caused it. I never lived there long enough to properly experience the country. All I knew was that I loved being there because of the people, the neighbours, the smell of the morning coffee, old ladies’ gossip, for all the laughter I experienced, and of course for my staircase.
The war has caused many to lose their lives and their homes. After 200 years standing tall, my family’s house was completely demolished. My uncle and his family lost their shelter, their comfort. They were forced to find another place to live in, to figure out how to get enough food and electricity. Their memories were stolen and buried. The staircase no longer exists. My uncle’s and my memories of the house became sorrowful ones. All I have left from that site now are memories and a rosary my grandma had gifted me. My heart aches, though my sadness cannot be compared to theirs. Words are not enough to reflect their mental, physical and emotional losses. Crisis, disaster and catastrophe become inseparable. In 2021, it is still a complex situation. Many are still trying to hold onto the remaining hope and integrity as much as they can to find ways to adapt and heal. As for the diasporic Kavkaz population in Syria, it is again another loss of a home. Three generations are still constantly struggling.
The path to the pomegranate tree is not a straightforward, easy one; it is a labyrinth. There is so much that is out of our control. A war spans across years, affecting generations after generations, constantly reminding them that they are foreigners. Traces of cultures, beliefs and habits fight with new ones. I am half Adygea, half Daghestani, and labelled Syrian. My food is a mix of them all, and my traditions are a confusing hybrid. My entire life, memories and experiences are in the UAE. But I do not belong to Adygea, to Dagestan, to Syria, or the UAE. At times, I feel a sense of familiarity with all four of them, and at other times it is a constant struggle to understand how to adapt or belong. At what stage does a “forced adaptation” turn into an intentional adaptation?
The New York Times article The Social Life of Forests explores the breakthroughs unraveled by Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology. She analyzed the DNA in the root tips to trace their particle movements throughout the forest’s floor, and discovered a form of symbiotic relationship called Mycorrhizas that exists between trees and fungi. They exchange carbon stored in their roots, and when a tree is stressed it can send signals to the underground fungi networks. The signals inform other connected trees to accelerate their production to send aid to the stressed tree. Similarly, when a tree is being selfish and hoarding resources to itself, the networks send signals banning the selfish trees from receiving any more resources from other trees.
Simard’s breakthrough challenges the misconception that forest trees exist in solitary fighting for resources and space. But instead, it is based on a complex system of communication, negotiation, reciprocity and selflessness. Trees, plants, fungi, and microbes are all tightly connected, communicative and codependent to create a “super-organism.” The mycorrhizal do not only bridge trees together in one forest but also connect them to earth’s meadows, woods, arctics and life.
The forest’s super-organism and ant super-community are two examples of communities that show resilience and empowerment against crises. How about us, the human community?
I started having conversations with people who have witnessed the Beirut explosion, lived the past ten years of the Syrian civil war, survived the 2011 Japanese Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, or lost families and jobs due to COVID-19. Each disaster is completely different, and it was hard to comprehend it as an outsider. With regard to Beirut’s explosion for instance, every Lebanese person that I have spoken with had their own story of August 4, 2020 at 6:00 pm. The moment of rush and vulnerability for each person was individual and unique. The explosion affected those who were physically near the blast and those who were physical away from the blast. It only took an hour to change their entire life, their relationships and their sense of belonging.
“If the majority of individuals witnessing disasters come out bloody and injured physically and psychologically, what happens to those who are struggling in normal circumstances?”
If the majority of individuals witnessing disasters come out bloody and injured physically and psychologically, what happens to those who are struggling in normal circumstances? How can design, itself entangled with and complicit in planetary disasters, help communities heal, sustain and empower themselves?
Maybe clues could be found in adrienne maree brown’s observation of social movements, and how we can learn to harness the “shocks” or the sudden moments of disruption such as planetary disasters; and direct the “slides” which are cumulative over time, such as rising food costs or sea levels. “We define a shift as social, political, economic and/or cultural transformation,” adrienne maree brown explains. “From our perspective, we want shifts in the direction of ecological resilience and social equity, as an imperative. We believe that shifts can emerge from collective ‘aha’ moments when social movements awaken the popular imagination to new possibilities and spark social action.”
Each member of a community has a key role in creating a tightly connected community that can prepare and anticipate the shock and slides; a community that does not rely on the dominant systems for help. Such behavior would create a “shift” in its people’s lives, catering and responding to their needs for housing, food, mental and physical aid. This means transforming a forced adaptation into intentional adaptation.
My potted plants are part of a different complex system, and I am part of their system. If one requires aid, there is no way it can send signals to another neighbouring potted plant. Instead, it sends signals to me, and my role in this scenario would be to investigate its leaves, the soil and the light conditions. When I first started caring for the Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura), I placed it on a shelf that gets direct sunlight during summer. The leaves started turning brown, curling and falling, signaling that the plant was burning.
Since the Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura) is indigenous to the Brazilian tropical forests, it grows on the forest floor shaded by all the neighbouring trees, not exposed to direct sunlight. It enjoys a humid environment and moist soil. Therefore, I had to mimic a similar situation, so I moved it away from the sunlight and placed it next to other potted plants. The latter would provide the prayer plant with enough shade, comfort and humidity. It is no longer being forced to adapt to its new environment. A couple of months ago, the Prayer plant started flowering, small white flowers with strokes of purple. I observed it every day, mesmerized by its willpower to grow and overcome.
Heba Daghistani is half Circassian/half Daghstani born in Syria and raised in the UAE. She studied Graphic Design in the University of Sharjah. Her practice focuses on questioning social stigmas through research, design and storytelling.
This text was produced as part of the Troublemakers Class of 2020 workshop.