Monday, December 18, 2006

reflections on being lost

[dedicated to alaleh, baraka, koonj, path2hope and all those others who have that feeling of homelessness]

Umm Aisha, "Grief, Anxiety and Sadness" (2005)

On 20 December 1983 my family was on vacation. It was, in a sense, an odd vacation, and no doubt my parents did not think of it as such, but for me...well, I am a victim of that uniquely modern, liberal and capitalistic phenomenon which Heidegger identifies as homelessness – a failure indicative of a spreading Americanism as far as he was concerned. Homelessness: to be without roots, and thus lost. We had gone home for Christmas after spending the better part of the year abroad in Saudi Arabia. I slept on my grandmother's couch and read Cosmo in the dim light of an old lamp while others slept: issue after issue with absolute fascination: an exposure to something exotic and new.

My parents have always been sure where home was. And they returned there as quickly as possible. Trips there were not vacations, they were returns from exile. But for me, it was never so.

But one wonders if there is not a virtue to homelessness, despite what Heidegger might say. On 20 December 1983 Donald Rumsfeld was shaking the hand of Saddam Hussein. Despite my most cynical moments I do not truly operate under the illusion that Mr. Rumsfeld thought of Hussein as a real ally. I doubt anyone was under any misperception of how reprehensible the leader of the Iraqi Ba'ath party was. But Mr. Rumsfeld knew quite clearly where home was, and this was not it. But he could use Iraq to the interests of his home. When you know where home is, everything outside the door becomes "barbarian" to a greater or lesser degree, and what more can you expect of barbarians than brutality and violence. If Mr. Rumsfeld could, by shaking this hand, aim this particular barbarian at Iran, then that would, by the basic calculus performed by those back at home, be useful. 'Let them kill themselves and we will gladly give them the encouragement and means to do it.' And when the barbarian lord became unruly and was no longer able to be controlled or directed at the right enemy, no longer killed the right people, he could be removed.

I am homeless to Heidegger because I do not unequivocally know where home is. I failed to fully develop the appropriate loyalties; I was not able to draw the distinction, so important to Mr. Rumsfeld's little outing on 20 December 1983, between we-who-are-civilized and they-who-are-barbarians, and so instead I found myself a guest in my grandmother's house no less than I was a guest in Saudi Arabia. I was invited to share Christmas with her much as I had been invited to share in the wonderful nights of Ramadan with my friends in Saudi. There would no longer be a cultural door which I could step through and be finally and decisively at home, though I found myself warmly embraced by many as their guest and neighbor. I have committed that sin, so unforgivable, not only to Rumsfeld but also to Heidegger, of being at home with my homelessness.



Um Ibrahim said...

Intriquing blog;),I always envy the people who have a real place on earth which they can call "home".
I was born and raised in south east asia, in different contries, because of my father's work, spend my college & working year in Europe for 10 years, Now have been settling down in Jordan for 4,5 years, 3 different passports.
I guees am only hoping the "jannah" will be my home hereafter;) insy'Allah

Baraka said...

Thank you for this.

I think being strung between worlds is a gift - and a curse.

As a gift, it has allowed me to appreciate that humans everywhere share common traits - we love our children, hope for health and security, and love to laugh.

I could never demonize or willingly hurt someone from elsewhere as a faceless them.

This outlook has been crucial to forming my political convictions of the greater good rather than the limited good of one nation (or home).

This all makes me a very bad candidate for the foreign service, of course :)

The difficult aspects of it are more personal and emotional. Having a husband in San Francisco and a family in Islamabad just rips me up inside sometimes.

Simply, I love the feeling of being a part of a global family, but sometimes I miss my immediate family.


Lawrence of Arabia said...

umm ibrahim: i think the sentiment about jennah is right on target. we will not be at home until we are whole, and how can we be whole when there remain so many borders that divide and separate us from one another.

baraka: as the indigo girls say, "the curse and the blessing, they are one and the same...". i suspect you are right. none of us are going to be called up for the foreign service any time soon. at least i have been able to move from annoyance to amusement when i get called a traitor when i express a lack of jingoism.

it has always seemed to me that our faith should be pushing us towards transcendence and thus should be resistant to an easy identification of what constitutes home....we are all strangers and aliens. i find it frustrating that faith in god has become co-opted to agendas of division and violence. we seek the Good without which we cannot be whole and yet everywhere we turn there seems to be alienation.

i understand the personal struggle you mention, if only dimly. my sister and i both still feel very strong ties to the middle east and to saudi in particular...and apart from iraq and lebanon, its hard to think of a bigger disaster than the state of things in saudi arabia, where things seem to have steadily regressed over the last decade or so. we cannot even travel there, so we visit egypt or jordan or dubai (im not sure dubai counts...its like visiting europe, but warmer...which is a plus in my book, so its not like im complaining). BUT we do not have family there which must change the stakes dramatically for persons like yourself and shabana, etc.

anyway...the ramblings of a gora

best wishes,

irving said...

Very touching post :) Home is where you feel most comfortable and loved, the parental house usually, where family is. I couldn't wait to leave, and have never felt at home anywhere. Perhaps that is the fate of a darvish in the dunya, longing for the real home to come.

Ya Haqq!

Baraka said...


it has always seemed to me that our faith should be pushing us towards transcendence and thus should be resistant to an easy identification of what constitutes home....we are all strangers and aliens.


You know, I just thought of the Qur'anic idea of division as being not one inextricably linked to violence, but of directing us to greater good:

49:13 "O humankind! Behold, We have created you all out of one male and one female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another."

and in

2:148 "Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works."

The differences of tribes and nations are of course superficial.
We all belong to God and to Him is our return. And we are united also in having a responsibilty to reflect His light in the world.


Lawrence of Arabia said...

"why are you fighting?
crossing borders in the desert heat
the stories in the rocks and stones
signatures of time written on every face
the syncopated heartbeat of arab and jew
a song that keeps saying remember
if you are cousins why are you fighting
listen to your hearts and the truth will be clear
it's written on your bones"

natacha atlas, from "leysh nat'arak" (why are you fighting), _diaspora_ (1995)

she refered to herself once in an interview as "the human gaza strip"

Lawrence of Arabia said...

wa salaam,

i just commented a while ago on one of irving's comments over at eteraz that the religius dream of a common language, a common culture, a common nation, is to re-dream babel...not to mention the idolatrous belief that we think we might already possess god as our own.

the quotes from the qur'an are beautiful. i am reminded of the biblical book of ruth which insists on the centrality of the foreigner to the history of salvation (ruth the alien becomes the grandmother of the great king and prophet, david and thus, likewise, great-grandmother to king solomon. or jonah going to nineveh and they, in their own way, turn to god with repentence (much to jonah's disappointment).

augustine is my usual reference point on this topic. in his criticisms (city of god, etc., early 5th c.) of the roman empire he protests against the latinization of the world as the creation of a false-wholeness, a reduction of everything to sameness. the drive to sameness will ultimately leave no one left standing because none of us are the same: nation is divided against nation, city against city, family against family, husband against wife, desire against reason, until there is only a universal war of all against all and the rule of death.

a politics that remembers that it exists only as a way of pointing beyond itself toward the infinite does not aim for sameness but for harmony. the Whole, the unity of which is not one but is beyond identity and non-identity, is not prefigured in undifferentiated sameness which is death, but in harmony which is life. thus, contrary to what the empire taught, latin and religio could not be equated.

the dream of the Same (however defined) is the idolatry of babel: the belief that we contain our end within ourselves.

best wishes,

Basil said...

"I have committed that sin, so unforgivable, not only to Rumsfeld but also to Heidegger, of being at home with my homelessness."

I too know this sin...and I relish it on some levels while rejecting it on others. Strange how we find comfort paradoxes. Then again, without contrast, what is there really?

Great post.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

basil, thanks for stopping by. one's attachment to a nation is a bit paradoxical isnt it. on the one hand it may be true that i feel a kind of national-ambivalence and detachment. and on the other hand, i am someone immersed and tied to america, and all the privileges granted thereby, in a way i cannot walk away from. they are simply mine, want them or not, carry an american passport or not. and there isnt really a sword to cut that gordian knot is there?

koonj said...

Yes, we should aspire to transcending every bond/limitation/boundary. And we look upon people who are securely "home" as a manner of children. Yet we envy them and regret our own loss of "innocence." Our rootlessness is a home too, but it's not meant to be a warm, snug one.

BTW, you are one big nerd.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i think i have to plead guilty to the charge of nerdliness. *sigh* maybe we can use 'bibliophile' as the pc-word for nerd. or does the very fact that i suggest bibliophile confirm that i am in fact a nerd? alas.

you are so terribly right about the homeliness of homelessness not being warm and snug. but it is nice to find a few other pilgrims with whom to share the journey.

best wishes,

koonj said...

Yep. Nerd it is.

Yes, it's good to journey together. Your blog is a very welcome nerdy addition to the blogosphere. I enjoy it. Even I tire of ditziness sometimes.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i am able to hold my inner-ditz in check when i write. it allows me to appear more calm and in control. on the other hand, i have a feeling my students, who have to sit through my lectures think there is a very fine line between nerdly and ditzy. that's another post totally...but i had one student who was a very poor note-taker, but when she did take notes it was to write down things i don't even remember saying (e.g., "yes i wore stripes today. they are thinning.").

*wonders why i they haven't offered me a full time job yet* lol

Path2Hope said...

"I have committed that sin, so unforgivable, not only to Rumsfeld but also to Heidegger, of being at home with my homelessness".

How very true and so beautifully written. I've missed your writings, hope that you'll be returning to update your blog soon!