Does one need to leave home in order to truly understand what that word means to him or her?
With migration inching its way to “top headline” status in news media around the world, the notion of “home” bubbles into my mind repeatedly. I don’t mean just “immigration,” because one can merely mention that word to someone (particularly an American) and know that a forceful stream of opinion will begin to gush forward. Yes, “migration” is in the news because of debate about immigration to America and Western Europe, but migration also refers to refugees, a general spirit of “multi-culturalism” (when you’re married to someone of a different nationality, you’ve obviously got to choose someplace to live and make roots), the globalization of the world’s economy and where multinational companies are sending their employees, and simple but gradual population shifts. The Wittengenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital recently released an interactive map showing major migration pathways from 1990 to 2010. Take a look because it is fascinating: The Global Flow of People
Do you remember in elementary school when the special treat was watching a film reel, which was even more of a special treat if you were the one to be selected to wheel in the projector from whatever mysterious place housed it? My favorite was a film about the day-to-day living of four families from different continents because I was transfixed by the ways these people lived. And, now, as an adult, this fascination has turned into a real-time issue, because in the literal sense of the word, I, too, am a migrant.
Since moving to Ireland in 2011, the notion of “home” has permeated almost every interaction I have with both people and static things such as the shops I frequent, the way I drive, how I speak, and in the very broadest sense, the way my family and I “do” things. As soon as I open my mouth, one of the first things people ask, of course, is some iteration of “where is home?” What I’ve realized, though, is that besides the way-too-broad reply of “America,” I don’t have a good answer to that question. And this need to go into my entire history (“Well, I grew up in…”) causes me to reflect that “home” is a tricky thing to pin down.
The recent lapse in blog posts is due to the fact that I’ve spent the last few weeks traversing America, visiting a handful of cities—an amalgamation of “home.” On my plane and train journeys, I read Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hanan al-Shaykh, a book I learned about via Arabic Literature (in English). The blog lists another one of al-Skaykh’s other novels (Story of Zahra) as a recommended place to start with English-translated Arabic literature. I had recently reflected that an overwhelming majority of my reading is produced by Western authors, and more specifically, authors from either America or British Commonwealth nations. So I dove in, wanting to learn more about this author. This work is described as a book about four women in an unnamed Gulf community. Women provides a detailed and harsh look at how women search to find their places in a repressive land. But, at its core, I think the book is about the different ways we search for “home,” despite the physical parameters and limits of the community in which one resides.
Women of Sand and Myrrh is divided into four sections, each narrated by a different woman who has found herself in this unnamed city in the desert (but most likely modelled after somewhere in Saudi Arabia). The English translation of the book sequences these women’s stories differently than the original, so I’ll discuss them in the order I read. While I read, I sometimes popped over to Goodreads or Amazon to see what other readers thought; the reviews of this particular book weighed on the more wishy-washy side of things, with a common complaint being that the women al-Shaykh writes are too “dramatic” and “shallow.” What I found, though, is that each woman—however much a caricature—represented a different facet of the notion of “home.”
Home as Place
The book’s first section describes the life of Suha, a Lebanese woman who moves from Beirut with her husband and son. While her husband’s new life revolves around his job, Suha finds expat life stifling: “Like the other women, I’d thrown myself into the life here so that I wouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I’d given up following the news, local or international, and occupied myself with cake recipes, and with finding friends for [my son] Umar…I’d congratulated myself when I’d prepared dinner for five businessmen in an hour…” Suha recognizes that expat life—in this case, she is relegated to compound life, the antithesis the freedom she found in her “real life” home—doesn’t allow the opportunity for her to carve out a “normal” life. For her, home is specifically rooted in place. She thinks, “My desert experience had to be related to the place, not just the people: I determined to try and communicate with my surroundings.” Similarly, the author gives Suha these words: “But the first impression is the most important, because your eye grows accustomed to its surroundings and no longer connects with the mind and the heart in its responses.”
Home as Culture
Unlike Suha, Tamr is from the desert. And although she struggles with the repressive culture, she believes that “A person away from his country and his nearest and dearest isn’t worth a stick of incense. It’s true I was happy abroad. But how I missed it here! I even missed the humidity and the dust and the heat, believe me. And what would they say about me? That I’d run away. For what reason?” Rebelling against a patriarchical society, Tamr has been married three times and proposes a personal hunger strike when her wish for an education is met with rebuke. As she explores more of her country, she “was astonished to find that there existed in my country women like the women in London and Lebanon and Egypt, the kind of women I’d seen on videos.” Yet the push-pull between what Tamr knows (and inherently is) and what she may see as new and exciting results in her understanding that on some level, one cannot choose what home means or looks like and in order to invoke change, one needs to work within the limits and structure of one’s culture.
Home as “Un-Home”
On the other hand, Suzanne, a stereotypical Texan brought to the desert by the same circumstances as Suha, seems to find a sense of home in her utter “otherness.” Seeming to find home—even a temporary or fleeting one—in embracing another culture and straddling the line between foreigner (and curiosity) and citizen, she takes a local lover and endeavors to marry him and infiltrate his life. “The difference between me then and me now was a difference in the way I felt. The world beyond the desert seemed far away. I seemed to be a different Suzanne now…” Out of the cocoon of her former home she realizes that “[she’d] been an ordinary American housewife in the past, washing [her] children’s nappies and enjoying folding them up neatly…[she] never gave a thought to other countries or even to neighbouring states, until [she] talked to Barbara [a neighbor who owned an art gallery]…” In the desert, Suzanne finds a new sort of freedom in herself, and she sees it as an indicator of a new identity—and therefore a new understanding of home.
Home as a Person
Nur, a woman who appears to others as one who “has it all,” is also a local. From Suha’s view, “An odour of permanence emanated from [Nur’s] home…” She is settled in her community, yet unbeknownst to others, she feels untethered. It is through one of the aforementioned women, however, that a sense of home and belonging emerges; in short, Nur looks to people as the means to find the comfort of home. “Plenty of people had occupied that place before her, men and women, but only for a short time, and before I got to know them well.” Finally, however, she seems to find someone who fills this void permanently—the tricky part is determining whether this person seeks the concept of home in the same fashion. “I wished Suha would come to me at that moment, or to be honest, I longed for any human being who would hold me until the first ray of sunlight stretched down through the darkness, but the silence deepened.” Nur is not at home unless the right person is there.
Despite the sometimes unrealistic portrayals of women (Will a Western woman truly abandon her previous life to move across the globe permanently?), Women of Sand and Myrrh deftly provides a moving look at the many components of this often intangible idea of “home.” Rather than being defined by a mere dot on a map, these women instead draw from the individuals in their community, the visual markers of a location, how a place stacks up to others they’ve known, and a location’s culture as a way to conjure up a feeling of “home, sweet home.”
Do you have to live away from your home of origin to truly understand what “home” really is? In my opinion, yes. In the twenty years that I’ve lived away from the city of my childhood, a more finely tuned sense of what brings me comfort and makes me tick has emerged. And I feel for migrants—as best as I can, given my limited personal knowledge of what that experience may entail—because whether migrating under duress or migrating willingly for new opportunities, abandoning home and conjuring a new one is a simple process to judge from afar, but an intricately knotty one to actually execute.
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