"Don’t you ever think of going back to our country?”; I ask my aunt, and she answers, “Every day”. I ask her once more, “Will you not go back some day?” She is silent for a while, then says, “I told you before, I am a stranger here, but if I go back to our country, I will be a stranger there too. Exile among strangers is better than exile amongst family in one’s country of origin.”
As I begin writing about the ones who are “trapped” between two worlds; the place of origin, and the world of exile or estrangement. I remember the conversation I had with my aunt, who has been living in the Netherlands since 1997. For twenty-four years, she has been living far from her childhood memories, and the streets she grew up and played in. I mentioned this conversation in a text where I wrote about my many exiles, and said that I, like my aunt, am a stranger here, and a stranger there.
We Create Our Own Protective Bubbles
After many years in exile, one wouldn’t really know how to describe himself; for he is neither someone who resembles the people of the country he sought refuge in, nor has his life developed the way it has for those who live in his country of origin - and here, I am mainly talking about Europe based on my experience as a foreigner who has lived there for more than ten years, and on the stories I heard from foreigners and exiles in different European countries. We are no longer like the people we had left behind in our countries, and we did not become European the way ‘true’ Europeans are, but rather we have become “something” in between.
We have created for ourselves parallel societies, small gatherings/communities, and protective bubbles, that preserve our memories on the one hand, but prevent us from integrating into our new societies on the other (this isn’t the only reason for being unable to integrate, as racism and unwelcoming laws, among other things hinder our integration, but that’s a different discussion for another time).
We were not born here to be Europeans, and we did not live here for many years (thirty, forty, and fifty years), to change our ideas and habits and become like them. But we have been away from our country for many years, and do not know what is going on there.
“Don’t you think of going back?”; I ask my aunt. She replies: “Every day”. I then ask, “Won't you, one day?” She says: “I am a stranger here, but if I go back to Syria, I’ll be a stranger there. Exile between strangers is better than exile at home”
I have a friend who visits Damascus once every few months. This friend of mine - whose name is not disclosed here for security reasons - has been living in Germany for nearly fifteen years, after he went there to study. He tells me that, during every visit, he feels more alienated and more like an outsider, even though he had lived the first twenty-five years of his life in Damascus.
“I just don’t know how people live there? I need many days to pass there just so I would be able to walk the streets and buy normal things,” he tells me.
After completing his university studies in Germany and obtaining German citizenship, my friend decided to stay and live there, while embellishing his life with Syrian details. He shows me things he brought with him from Damascus; small pieces of décor, wall paintings, pictures, and books. He tells me that German life tires him; “I am not yet German, and I will probably never become German. I will always be Syrian, but I am not like the Syrians who live in Syria now.”
I relate to what he’s saying. I ask myself everyday questions as if I were in Damascus: How do I go from this area to that one? What are the best ways to commute? How do I get bread? What will I do if the electricity goes out?...etc. But I have no answers. I try to listen to the local Syrian radio stations, but I don’t feel like I can follow the everyday details of the country that I fled. Sometimes I get the feeling that I have no connection to Syrian life. Despite closely following the country’s news, occupations, battles, prisons, arrests, courts, and even its technical and sports news on a daily basis, I am not a part of its details and everyday life, especially since all my immediate family members have now left the country.
“Now, In Exile... Yes, At Home”
On the front steps of my building, I run into my neighbor, who seems to be in her late fifties. I hear her speak Arabic with her granddaughter, who is around the same age as my daughter. I then tell her in Arabic: “I thought you were Turkish.” She replies, “I thought you were a Kurd.” I tell her that I am Syrian and that I speak both Arabic and Kurdish. She informs me that she is from the Arabs of Mardin and her husband is from the Arabs of Iskenderun, and that they are Turks but have preserved their Arabic language, despite living in Germany for more than thirty-five years. Her children and grandchildren were all born here.
Her granddaughter wants to play with my daughter, and so does my daughter. So she goes with them to their house where the two young girls play together and chat in German.
The same applies to most of the residents in my region who hail from the countries of the Middle East. They came here many years ago to live here, but for a variety of reasons, they didn’t fully integrate into the new society. I am talking about the first generation here, unlike the second and third generations, who have become 100% European. My German friend of Jordanian descent was born in Germany. She tells me that she is 100% German, but she feels 100% Jordanian as well, even though she has only seen Jordan for several days while on a few sporadic visits with her father there.
Those who belong to the first generation still speak in their own languages at home, they go to restaurants that make their food, they buy bread like the bread back home, they sit in cafes that look like the cafes of their cities and hometowns, they listen to music that reminds them of their past, they read books by writers that come from their country, and they write about things they can relate to.
The people of Europe call them foreigners, and if they visit their country of origin, its people call them foreigners as well.
The first generation of migrants still speak their own language at home, and go to restaurants that make their food… The people of Europe call them foreigners, and if they visit their country of origin, its people also call them foreigners
I do the same as them, and I say to myself: I am also from the first generation of exiles, and my daughter belongs to the second generation. My daughter may feel that she is 100% German, and she may also feel some sense of belonging to Syria. But I, I will never be German (probably?), but I am 100% Syrian, imbued with Kurdish-Arab culture (or shall I say Middle Eastern culture?), and I read the poems of Salim Barakat and Mahmoud Darwish about exile, and I tell myself they have gone through what I have went through. Otherwise, Mahmoud Darwish would not have been able to write the following verses:
“Now, in Exile… yes, at home.
At the age of sixty, in a brief fleeting life,
They light candles for you
So rejoice.. as silently and calmly as you are able,
because reckless Death lost the way to you,
He missed you in the crowds…and postponed his visit to you”