Both this poem and painting were born of raw emotion. Early this January, I traveled with Maddie Hilf, my research partner and good friend, to Tucson, Arizona to research how faith and spirituality play a role in the lives of migration activists at the border.

After hiking and speaking candidly with Laurie Jurs and Jennifer Clarke — two amazing souls — in Green Valley, a rural area south of Tucson, Maddie and I left feeling so inspired. When we returned to our Airbnb rental, I immediately sat down and wrote this poem. 

Afrah Bandagi, Untitled, 2022

We had been in Tucson for six days at this point and with every day we spent in the desert, the more we saw, the more I didn’t want to leave. This was a very difficult emotion for me: I was born and raised in New York and I had never seen myself living anywhere but the Northeast. The Southwest is quite literally the polar opposite. But Jennifer said something that really resonated with me: “It sounds like you’re falling in love with the desert, but you’re scared.” And as I looked out the window on our drive back to Tucson and I saw the night sky clearer than I ever had, I felt everything clicking into place. I couldn’t deny how I felt about the desert anymore. 

I completed this painting on the day after I came back to New York. All I could think about was the border and the desert and how soon I wanted to go back. Without thinking, I just let my paintbrush pick colors and move. The end product is what you see!

I fell in love with the desert

I fell in love with the desert at 6:55 pm on I-19 North
It had been coming for a while, really
I denied it as much as I could until I looked out the window and saw
The stars shining with a fire my heart yearned to burn with

In that moment, I saw the universe and there was no one but me
I saw God through his creation
I heard Him speak to me,
“This glory I have created is for you alone”

We stopped at a rest area to look closer
I could never capture the awe, the emotion
But I try my best to immortalize it in this poem
The stars called to me, the drew me in, they broke me in ways I wanted, and they healed me in ways I needed

I fell in love with the desert 5 days before I turned 21
Not quite a child, not quite an adult
I closed my eyes and saw babies, friends, lovers
I saw a life through the desert, in the desert, only the desert

I fell in love with the desert on the drive from Green Valley to Tucson
As we had just left Laurie and Jennifer
The tears still struggling to be held in
I wanted them to hold me and tell me a while longer,
“You will be ok”

I fell in love with the desert while I was on the precipice of madness
The thoughts, the intrusions
I breathed without thinking
And I loved without hurting

I will return for you, my love
I hear you calling for me
Not a void, but a story
I thought you wanted to trap me in your cat claw and mesquite
But you were only giving me un abrazo
I left my mark in you with my torn clothes you clung to so fiercely
“Don’t go, don’t go”

You clung to me because I clung to you and didn’t even know it
You loved me because I loved you and didn’t even know it
You rebirthed me among your many rocks and rubble
Life anew

I can still feel the wind on my face
A gentle caress, a soft whisper
“We have waited for you as we have waited for many others before you”

I fell in love with the desert against my worst wishes and chose to embrace my best

Afrah Bandagi is double-majoring in Philosophy and Political Science at Fordham University and she is a 2021-2022 Duffy Fellow.