Our Roots

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Artwork by Ashwaq Abduljalil

 A few friends and I were watching the game between Algeria and the Ivory Coast during the Africa Cup of Nations in an Arab café in the Belgian capital, Brussels. As soon as the match ended with the Algerian team winning, the streets were filled with Arabs celebrating with flags and honking to the point where one would imagine, if only for a second, that this was a scene in Oran and not a northern European country. The people out celebrating in the streets were young, and I expect that most of them had been born to migrant parents and raised outside their country of origin. This scene followed me to Germany, where I reside and where there is a mosaic of different people with roots all over the world. The media in Germany talks about the idea of integration, and some people believe that as soon as you step foot in another country, you must get started on the long process of ‘domestication’ until you are transformed from a guest in that country into one of the hosts. There is a pattern within original societies, with people seeing themselves as above everyone coming into their countries, through this idea of their being hosts, with its elitist and populist scope.

Imagine that you arrive at someone’s home and decide to live there, in a space that is privately owned by someone else. You will try, in any way possible, to show that you are one of them, showing that whatever your hosts chooses to serve for dinner is actually your favorite dish, the movie that you watch together that they find funny is the most entertaining movie that you have ever seen in your life, and their bedtime is actually the best time for you to go to sleep. You will do anything you can to show that the idea of hosting you was a good idea, and you will never want anyone to feel burdened by your being there, but you will continue to feel, the whole time, that your host is above you. You will feel that this dynamic between you could lead to you getting forced out for reasons not related to you or something that you have done, but maybe because they are no longer able to host you or because they do not want to share their space with you. This is a dangerous idea, and it becomes more severe and depressing when it is taken from the private sphere to public life. We see people looking down on us, considering us to be burdensome guests who have stayed for too long, and, in order to limit this view, you must prove that you are paying your share of the rent, making your bed every morning, volunteering to do the gardening, bringing in groceries, and feeding yourself whenever you feel hungry. Even in the best cases, this dynamic of a host and a guest remains as the invisible law governing your relationship with your new society, no matter how much a part of it you become. Even if you gain the right to residency and all of the documents required, you will be treated as a stranger because of the reality of the land, the genes, and the culture, and not because of your qualifications or citizenship. This idea seems to be innate and has nothing to do with how civilized a society is, or even what the laws are.

This idea makes even those who defend the guests in their countries feel like they are a force defending the weak, and they are not just looking at the principle of equality for human beings. I was with a friend from another Arab country, and we were meeting, for the first time, with a woman who works in the field of integrating migrants into German society. She was in her late 20s, and she was very passionate about defending the right to asylum and was a member of a leftist party that has taken a humanitarian platform towards the refugee crisis in Europe. She felt like she was taking care of some tame animals, that her country had given them an opportunity to live in a utopia. My friend and I were still in the early stages of our German language studies, and she recommended that we speak in English in order to facilitate our communication with her. When we started talking to her, she was shocked to find that our English language skills were much better than hers, and this might not have been what she expected, and she found that we had a very high level of general knowledge and were able to talk about topics with very specific and up-to-date knowledge about them. She suddenly decided, and this was a decision that she made alone, to change our communication into German, and she decided that we needed urgent “integration dose” , starting with the language. She purposely used very complicated language, as much as possible, just so she could regain her position of being our better, since she would not have helped us if she did not feel that was the dynamic between us. We felt how upset she was when a discussion between us escalated, when my friend made a comment about the widespread smoking of marijuana in Germany. Instead of discussing the situation, she blew up in our faces in an angry manner, saying: “You migrants smell very bad without smoking, and you do not need to add any bad odors to how you smell by smoking marijuana.” This was one of the most bullying statements that I have ever heard. With time, I have come to believe that we will have to confront, during our attempts to integrate into our host society, with people like this, once, twice, or even more, and that these kinds of experiences will only increase the further one goes down the path to citizenship.

Just yesterday I was reading a series of tweets by the American President, Donald Trump, in which he attacked a number of Democratic Congresswomen, asking them to go back to where they came from. It is enough to disorient someone to see this idea of the host and the guest springing up in one of the most diverse societies in the world, and it makes me ask what we have to do to be considered a citizen by this diverse society! If these American women, who are originally from other places, were not supported by their advantages as Americans, including their right to represent their constituents in Congress, then what would help me? The answer is nothing.

This feeling of nothing being on your side was expressed by Mesut Özil, who is of Turkish origin, when he wrote his statement on his retirement from the German national football squad. Özil is a German citizen and was born in Germany, and his statement was full of pain and heartbreak, which he expressed in saying: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.” Many Germans did not show their appreciation for Özil, for all of the championships that he helped win and for winning the German national team player of the year five times; and they blamed him for the German national team’s bad performance during the 2018 World Cup, because of the picture that he took with the Turkish President, Erdoğan, where his family is originally from. Mesut asked, during his statement, “Why do you not consider me German? Why do you treat me as a stranger? Are there special and specific requirements for one to be a German, and I do not meet them?”

Artwork by Ashwaq Abduljalil

In trying to find this answer, the behavior – of a migrant into a country or of someone who grew up there – is divided, and you will either find them very immersed and trying to show off or separated from everyone else, or they will stay in the middle, fluctuating between these two states. New migrants feel the need to be accepted and to fit in with their new society, and they are the good guest that tries to be invited to all future events because they will help prepare for the event, and then they will clap, dance, and make toasts with everyone. They are the ones who were oppressed in their own countries and work to forget their bitter past by trying to please their hosts, because they cannot bear the thought of being rejected by them as well. People have a strong and pressing desire to belong, and if they happen to have this need met by a reconciliatory and hospitable society, then this experience will be one worth living. If, however, you find yourself in an inhospitable society, you will have to work harder to get their approval and sympathy, then their acceptance.

A while ago, I saw a report in which immigrants who had immigrated long ago gave their opinions on new immigrants, and all of the immigrants who were surveyed are now German citizens. It was surprising that they were all complaining about the new immigrants, even though they had been in the same position in the past, in their new country, Germany. They were insulting and cursing the new immigrants, and one of them even demanded, in barely understandable German, that these newcomers be forced out of “his country”. A while ago, there was a video that became popular of a young Yemeni man who had just been granted asylum in Sweden, and he asked in the video that people stop coming to Europe because the continent is, in his opinion and unfortunately, full and must close its doors. He wanted to say what was shown in the report mentioned above, that these people are the last drops that the cup can hold, and these people are expressing their fear that the whole cup will spill, and no one will get anything! I imagined this young man to be one of those people who appoints themselves supervisors over others, and we meet these kinds of people every day in public life, like a sibling who believes that they are getting their parents’ approval every time they point out their siblings’ shortcomings, the jealous employee who talks badly about coworkers to the manager to gain the manager’s approval, or the flattering student who spies on their fellow students for higher grades. All of these people are trying to get the love of a society that they believe to be higher than them, because of the laws of hospitality or guardianship, and they feel threatened even after they have gotten their temporary or permanent rights to reside in these countries. This happens even after they have theoretically become one of the hosts, but they know that these rights that they have gained were built on the property of others.

This is the only way that I can justify the behavior of some people, who are very keen to show that they are just like their hosts, or even more like them than the hosts themselves! If they are in a society where people drink a pint of beer a day, they will drink five, and they will change their names, their religion, and even their hair, how they look, how they dress, and their sexual orientation. They will renounce everything relating to their country of origin, and they will give up anything that might mark them as being different. They will do this not because these are their personal beliefs or desires, but because they want to ‘factory reset’ their lives and start from scratch.

I was talking about this idea with people when someone made the comment that I agree with, saying that he can always tell new immigrants apart by the number, type, and cost of the brands that they are keen to wear, and that they always try to wear things that have visible logos on them. This is a real phenomenon, and I have always been puzzled by it. New immigrants want to wear shoes that cost 200 Euros, and they do not care if they will spend the rest of the month eating nothing but bread and butter. They live on welfare, but they look like millionaires, and this is what is important to them. The shock that this person will get after a while, taking on these efforts, is that the society that they are trying to impress does not care about them. This society only cares that the Rolex that they are wearing was not stolen and that they worked for it and paid taxes on it. You will always be the migrant who bought a Lamborghini, and this car’s powerful engine will not be able to change the course of your genes or make you a native citizen. What will you do then? Will you live with these differences, in the best case, and try to find an alternative community? Will you continue to try to deny your roots and invest your energy into reaching a false balance? Will you confront your alternative community and show your identity, which you were rejected for in the society that you migrated to? This last option happens a lot. Mesut Özil, who was born and raised in Germany, decided to marry a Turkish woman, in Turkey, with the President who he was subject to racist remarks for taking a picture with, in attendance. This reality was addressed by Amin Maalouf in his esteemed book, In the Name of Identity, when he presented what I see as the following theory: “People tend to enlarge and show the religious, sexual, or ethnic identities that they feel that they are being oppressed or threaten for having.” For me, I believe that this is a stage that migrants go through in the sequence of phases required by the place and society that they are ingrained in, and it is a defense mechanism that we resort to as a sort of resistance and as a response in light of everything that we have done to appease them, but to no end.

My sister told me, during one of our conversations, about a story that has remained ingrained in me, and one that I keep thinking about. She told me that she saw a patient that had symptoms of memory loss, and that she was 80 years old. This patient had left Moscow when she was 15 years old and has been living in Germany for the past 65 years. She married a German man, and her children and grandchildren are German, and her ties to her country of origin have been completely cut off. Then, she got a stroke that led to her losing her memory, and she forgot everything, including German, and only speaks in Russian. She left behind 65 years of her life and went back to her origins, and she remembers the details of her life in Moscow, including her mother, her school, and other details that might not even be there anymore. This is the real meaning of the nostalgia of memory, and, in this way, her mind is fighting against the idea of dying far away from the land that birthed and raised her. She has lost her memory, but she has not lost her identity, and is still holding on to her roots during the last stages of her life.

Anyone who has experienced dealing with Alzheimer’s patients knows what I am talking about, and how the mind resists losing its memories. The patient will lose their most recent memories first, and slowly get further and further away from the present, moving back into the past. Like a tree, the losses start on the outside, with the fruits, then the branches, and then the trunk, when the tree withers and keeps dying until only the roots remain. At that point, the Alzheimer’s transforms from a foggy memory to a physical illness, and this is when the patient loses their strength and the end becomes near. It is as if it is saying: “Nothing remains of a person after you have uprooted them.”


Photo Courtesy of the Author



Sana Mobarak, pediatrician, writer and blogger from Aden, feminist and actively interested in culture and literature. lives in Germany.

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