A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
What is exile? Identity? Nostalgia? Memories? Fears? Am I really in exile? What is belonging? If you are in your homeland, does this mean that you belong instinctively, consciously and unconsciously, because this is not a matter of choice but a default?
In my personal experience, these questions came up repeatedly during my three years of exile. I was often the person asking the question – and also the person responding. During this time my convictions and responses towards these questions changed, and I think they will continue to change; this is the way the universe works. Mainly because these answers shifted with my sense of self. However, despite the complexity of the questions and the changing answers, I held on to a general idea that embodied all these questions and answers: that the soul is the first homeland and representation of the idea of belonging. That the ultimate identity should be above all human.
Talking about exile inevitably involves talking about belonging. The idea of exile would not exist if we felt a sense of belonging to the whole world, to all people, to all kinds of foods, to all dialects, and to every kind of humor. People would not feel alienated if they did not distinguish between streets, daily routines or seasons. They would not feel alienated if authorities do not instill fear, if they did not have to carry their passports wherever they go. Where would one feel alienation if not for these moments?
In my experience there were three stages, beginning with hardship and ending – or not yet – with trying to reconcile my reality. The first stage that I remember vividly is the horror I experienced in Morocco. The war in Yemen was in its early days. I kept repeating that it is realistic, normal and an everyday possibility – albeit a cruel one – that a person loses their loved ones, their things, or even a part of their body. But I could not comprehend losing a homeland; not to be able to locate it on a map, to see it disappear from airport screens, and to be prevented from returning to it, to a life left behind, to loved ones and beloved things. It was beyond my understanding.
At that time it seemed to me that every stone that lay atop the mountains of my village was the most precious to me, every single stone was a beloved one, and more valuable than anything in life. I tried desperately to keep the images of the streets vivid in my mind. I walked in my imagination, passing Hayel Street sloping towards Dairy Street. I cried in frustration because I could not remember whether there was a tree on either side of the road or not, whether the number of grocery shops I could remember were right. I closed my eyes to remember the names of the cities we passed when we were on the bus from Sana’a to Aden and vice versa. It was the least I could hold on to. Every time someone would tell me that the streets were not our streets anymore and its walls were no longer ours, I would repeat the process to keep the memory of what I remembered alive. I was terrified that they would really disappear. I carried those streets with me through the streets of Casablanca, hiding my vulnerability and fatigue, afraid of security officers, harassers, killers, pickpockets and other people.
Here and now, I am without a homeland, without a wall to lean on. If I am killed here or disappear, then my end will go unnoticed. The way we were treated by airport security and border control made me feel this way. It was the kind of humiliation that is exercised by people who know that humiliating us is inconsequential. Others flashed their blue and red passports and the names of their countries appeared on the arrival and departure screens, protected from the humiliation and the barbarity of border control. At some point I had held the belief that the whole world was my village, but at that time I had not yet encountered the airport security in Morocco and my passport had not been held at airports as an expired commodity. My feeling of alienation grew to the extent that it became the only thing I could feel. Belonging had only one definition to me: There is no place like home! Alienation meant fear.
The second stage was my arrival in the Czech Republic. At that point fear no longer determined my sense of belonging or feeling of alienation. I was not afraid. Even the worst of my nightmares barely compared to the slightest feeling of terror that I experienced in Morocco. Instead, guilt was the shadow that followed me and weighed heavily at every sign of a normal life. I would constantly repeat, I’m sorry, when I had access to hot water. I’m sorry, when I went shopping. I’m sorry, when I got back safe at night, when I had a wonderful meal, when I received my salary, and when I enjoyed the remarkable beauty of the Eastern European summer.
I spent two-thirds of my days reading Facebook and following the news. I tortured myself for being far away from the struggle of my loved ones. I watched the beauty of the world around me and felt that I had no right to experience it. This was neither my country nor were its days my own. I hid the shame of my identity card as if it were a crime. The title ‘Temporary Protection’ was softer and more ambiguous than that of a ‘refugee’. Still, I had to tell myself it was my way out of the battle. I came up with these explanations both for myself and for others who would ask what brought me here. My sense of being a ‘Yemeni’ doubled and blew out of proportion. I adored everything related to this country. I reread its history and memorized the images of its cities, lost myself in its music, and chronicled its chapters and periods. I realized that the love I have for its people is like no other. I felt breathless at the sight of its flag and the utmost grief at the sound of its tragedies. But I also sank into my sense of shame and guilt. No moment would pass without my repeating to myself: I am a stranger here, all this is temporary, whatever I do now is just in preparation for return.
As the seasons changed, the tone of my conversations with my mother and family changed. I would tell them that I belong everywhere. This everywhere – deep down inside – was family and friends whom I couldn’t think of losing; friends and family who whenever I felt pain, I would compare it to the pain and suffering they were living through. Alienation was the feeling of guilt.
The third stage was when I came out of my shell to embrace life. Day after day I felt a sense of reconciliation with reality. I no longer carried my shame around. I did not care if the world was for or against me. It did not matter if people loved me or not. I was busy in my own world. I realized that the feeling of alienation no longer exists in every act I do or moment I experience or dream of. I was overwhelmed by other feelings of love, discovery and contentment. I found myself enjoying life: what does it mean to be in exile? Does it mean that I should be sad and let my pain take over? Why should I live with the guilt of a crime I did not commit, over a situation I had no control over in the first place?
I took a decision to shed every layer of misery. I recognized that a force greater than myself would determine the fate of my country. And until this decision is made, I am here now, young and capable, surrounded by possibilities and choices. The feeling of shame lifted, though the guilt comes and goes, but I will not push it aside. Nostalgia too sleeps at my side. It surrounds my heart with an embrace that reaches deep into my memory. It rests its head on my shoulder, and with a whiff of its smell, brings back memories of days long gone. It is as if times and places from the past suddenly came back. I take a siesta to relax but I am in a dream now. I hear my mother calling my brothers. I taste the Tawa bread when I pass by the bakeries, I keep looking for any culture that shares Sweet Aseed with us and together we celebrate ‘Salta’ on Christmas Eve. When I meet new people I keep talking about my country; I mean, my beautiful sad country. I keep pictures of everyone I love as I left them, holding them in a moment where they never grow old. I wear a Dera, the Adeni dress, in the afternoons. In the summer, I walk under the jasmine trees like an intoxicated person. I recall the scent of jasmine that accompanied every happy occasion. I place a jasmine in my hair and let it sink into my soul, for there it lays better. Alienation now is a feeling of nostalgia.
Reem Mojahed, a Yemeni writer, who lives in Czech Republic. She has published multiple articles in both Arab and Yemeni publications.