Displacement

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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Onion Technique
    A Violent Encounter with Exile

    When a refugee reaches his or her destination, they are still very far from feeling they have truly arrived. Friends play a very important role as they try to acclimatise to their new life abroad. Doha Hassan, a prizewinning journalist, describes her experience of this in Berlin.

    Berlin is a beautiful place, complicated and amazing, full of possibilities and options. I fully understand this, but what really annoys me is that I have to pretend that I’m doing well, which puts me in a state of lethargy and apathy. The symptoms of this state of mind are that you refrain from doing things that make you happy. The place seems cramped, confined and so ‘consumed’ that one sometimes feels nauseous.

    Getting out of the house is no longer an easy matter. Those who came to this city before me warned me, but I didn’t take what they said seriously. I resorted to the Onion Technique, a defence mechanism to which I have recently succumbed. I put on a summer sweater, then a winter sweater on top; a light jacket, then black cotton trousers, a pair of jeans on top of that and a thick winter jacket. All these mismatched layers are just to buy a packet of cigarettes, although winter hasn’t really started yet in this city.

    As I was fighting my way into the wind towards my destination, I noticed an old friend. I kept my head down in an attempt to ignore him because the icy air was stinging my face and the street wasn’t the right place for idle conversation, but I didn’t get away with it. He came up to me with his red nose and his smiling lips shivering, put his hand on my shoulder and asked me how I was, and I answered him along the lines of those evasive answers that are based on an artificially positive attitude, such as saying that I’m as well as I could hope to be.

    Answers of this kind usually wrap up a wide range of casual conversations, but the friend ignores my hints and proceeds with his complaint, directing his words at me. ‘Homesickness is hard, and being in exile is even harder,’ he concludes. ‘Fifteen years, and whenever I think I’ve got used to it, I have to start from scratch.’ I stare at his frozen hand as it digs into my shoulder, and he smiles again. ‘Little by little you’ll get used to it. The cold here isn’t like the cold back home. How long have you been here?’

    Second exile

    More than half a year has passed since my second exile began. The months seem stranger than my more recent memory, because the sense of time is no longer clear. The defence mechanism has undermined a whole load of psychological strategies that I didn’t consciously choose. Denial of everything associated with ‘our country’ is now a black hole in the way I measure time – a hole created by the fact that the cells in that part of my head that deals with the perception of time have disengaged from each other, after being subjected to many shocks, and now my perception of time is totally distorted, along with my memory.

    Our wiser selves turned to each other at the first shock of exile and we formed one large group. We ate, hung out and did things together, pulled together by a natural and primordial need for the familiar and for sympathy in a strange place. We seemed to believe we could suppress the unbearable sense of impotence and fear, in a space that was more complicated and vaster than we were used to, by being part of a familiar greater whole in which we could immerse ourselves and take part as much as possible. So we ended up in the café where we carried out the joint activities for which we planned every morning and where we spent our long evenings, all of us together, parting only at night when we went back to the foetal position and fell asleep.

    A few weeks after the group of displaced people had formed, the two longest-serving individuals withdrew automatically from the usual routine because they had entered the acclimatisation stage: going to language school and looking for work. The impulse to acclimatise gradually fragmented the group and in the end each of us was an individual with a separate identity. We each had to put our feet on the ground, to be self-reliant in everything, to draw our sense of personal confidence from within ourselves rather than through the lost relationships of the past, or more recent replicas of them.

    Another enforced displacement

    The past – Haifa, Kuwait, Damascus and then Beirut, one enforced departure after another. On my last journey, I had written: ‘On 8th April 2015, I will embark on a new enforced journey, to a European country. In the country I’m heading for I have many friends, most of them newly arrived residents of Lebanon. So the place will probably offer a certain amount of familiarity, but I am well aware that any resemblances that arise will be no use there; everything will be very different. Because this time I’ll be away for a long time. I’ll observe with curiosity my psychological reactions, and what form my defensive reactions take. New losses are said to produce changes that will bring a flood of repressed, old emotions to the surface: emotions that resemble the feelings that result from being abandoned.’

    I have no desire to be here or to be there, but even so I have to establish a basis for stability. I have to calm down and little by little move closer to the real world in all its details. But how can I calm down? Place and time now exist because I am present in them, through my momentary interaction with them. And because I have to live in the existing present, I have to accept that place and time in the past no longer exist. They are no longer my property, other than in the folds of personal memory that we have to arrange ‘based on priorities’.

    So denying the past and breaking out of its framework seem to be an insufficient condition for confronting the present in a more rational and less anxious existential sense; but that is precisely what makes me seem more worried than ever about the past.

    It’s a lane that runs in two opposite directions, towards the past and towards the future in strict alternation, while the present remains wavering among daily events, on the one hand in the country of exile or of refuge to which we have come, and on the other in our original countries, among the people we have abandoned under duress. In countries of refuge, people seem to be hovering between the sky of the past and the ground of the future.

    In our exile here, there is always a present that exists in duplicate. Today is Friday and it is nine o’clock in the evening in the city of Berlin. The occasion is the wedding of two old friends. I have come out of my isolation, and with hesitant steps I head to the venue for the party. Many friends and old acquaintances will be there. It is an encounter with the past in the present. I go down the few steps towards them: familiar faces, smiling. I smile; my muscles relax. I take off my winter sweater and my jacket and, with exaggerated sociability, I circulate among them and chat.

    I stop for a while and look at the screen of my phone: familiar faces, a picture sent by friends in Beirut, all of them gathered there. I hurry up the stairs and feel my heart close in on itself. Another picture arrives, also of familiar faces and the face of a baby girl in her first hour of life. My friends in Damascus have had a baby and the man is calling me. The couple say what they have to say. I put the phone in my pocket, go down the stairs, and stand among the party guests. We all smile.

    On my way home I have that sudden sense of instant gratification. At last I could smile. Apparently an occasion such as this, meeting the familiar in my present, was enough, if only for a few hours, to make me see, in the unfamiliar that was present, my refuge from my constant anxiety, which produced a terrible tension inside me.

    After the encounter

    Berlin is a beautiful place, complicated and amazing, full of possibilities and options. By repeating this sentence I am insisting on recognising the possibility that exile, despite the dry bureaucracy that is involved, has aspects that I could not have accessed in ‘my own country’, which is governed by dictatorial regimes and social and religious complications. I recognised that possibility after embarking on the first stage of my encounter with exile, so it seems that I have finally realised that the process of suppressing the past and the other present, the present in the country I have left, cannot be called a defence mechanism for the sake of survival – quite the opposite: in fact, it’s a mechanism that might unwittingly do psychological damage.

    Six o’clock in the morning. The cold laps the walls of my house in Berlin. I go into the kitchen and for the first time turn on the old radio the landlady has left behind. The reception is poor and sometimes fades, but it adds a certain cosiness to the place. I put the little coffee pot on the gas, sit facing the window and look at the clock. Darkness is still lurking outside, like the sleepiness on my eyelids. I light a cigarette and stand up, move towards the stove, look at the water boiling, shut my eyes, pick up the coffee pot and put it aside. I hear a familiar tune, a tune similar to the music they play to introduce the news. Involuntarily I turn up the volume and carry on making my coffee. The presenter speaks in a guttural voice: ‘Guten Morgen.’

    Moments pass before I come to my senses. Immediately, and without me noticing, the defence mechanism that I wrote about after it failed last night comes into play. I head to the sitting room, completely ignoring the sound coming from the kitchen. I put my coffee cup on the desk, next to my computer. I sit down, push my shoulders back a little, and write: ‘I have been in exile for ten months, just ten months.’
    Doha Hassan is a Syrian-Palestinian journalist and photographer, born in Kuwait in 1985. She now works at the German public service television broadcaster ZDF, and writes for several newspapers and websites. She won the Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press in 2013.

    Translated by Jonathan Wright

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2016

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