Displacement

    Christmas Trees in Jeddah, Bamiya in Germany
    How Being Out of Place Can Come to Feel Like Home

    Astonishingly, a bicultural background still provokes astonishment – though not quite as much as it used to. Our author Rasha Khayat experienced this herself. Initially surprised to find herself out of place, she finally learned to love it, with the help of books and travel.

    My mother missed parsley most of all. Not the parsley with the small, curly leaves, but the flat parsley you can buy in thick bunches at the market. She also missed fresh coriander and courgettes. We had just moved back to Germany with the whole family; we had lived in Jeddah for eight years, and my mother had got used to cooking certain things. We too missed various dishes at the dinner table – my brother soon accepted that there would be no more bamiya, but my father and I mourned our beloved molokhiyya for years. My mother, it must be said, really made an effort to cook us our favourite meals nonetheless. She faked, cheated and improvised, and immediately made a beeline for every newly-opened Turkish supermarket in the vicinity in the hope of finding parsley after all. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult!

    That was in 1988, in the little town in the heart of the Ruhr, and nowhere was there a bunch of flat parsley or a courgette to be found.

    Happy in Jeddah

    Perhaps I should explain that my mother is German by birth, whereas my father is from Saudi Arabia. The move to Germany, to the homeland of my maternal grandparents, was primarily due to the idea that school would be easier for us children – and above all for me, the girl – in Germany. It wasn’t easy for any of us, that was clear. My mother in particular, that blonde, capable woman, still says today with tremendous wistfulness how much she liked living in Jeddah back then, that even today she still thinks of it as a home and sometimes misses it.

    I have now learned (though it took many years) that for most people in our so-called Western world telling them something like this can disconcert them and prompt considerable need for explanation. A German woman, a mixed family – how can it be that they felt so at home there, in that distant country that in our part of the world is known primarily through negative headlines? And where, as a woman, you really can’t do anything at all. Drive a car! Open a bank account! And then they miss parsley and red lentils?! Have they taken leave of their senses?

    As far as food was concerned, at some point we had come to terms with our new home, for better or worse. Every holiday in Jeddah ended with a big shopping trip; we hauled tins of ful medammes, red lentils, various spices and fresh pomegranates back to Germany in huge suitcases. Then when the smell of baked aubergines with pomegranate seeds, garlic and coriander spread through our German house, it was always a bit like Christmas. Ultimately, though, it didn’t assuage the longing for this former home; perhaps it even made it a little more powerful.

    Other things were even harder to understand. Why, for example, were we constantly being told – in school, among other places – that we must be very happy to be living in Germany now because we were German, after all. Our otherness, particularly that of us children, was not particularly obvious – we spoke fluent, accent-free German, neither our skin nor our hair was particularly dark. Our strange names, which we were always having to spell out, were the only things that, on second glance, revealed that we didn’t quite fit in, there in that little town in the Ruhr. People were friendly to us, well-meaning, you might say. So why did we still feel so foreign? Such outsiders? And at the same time so involuntarily appropriated? Was it the cold weather? The strange children? The lack of Arab food?

    Attempts to fit in

    When I think back on these first years in Germany, on all the questions I asked myself and others asked me (or didn’t), it sometimes makes me feel quite dizzy. Our lives had been switched; the erstwhile holiday with our German grandparents had become home; our former home was suddenly just a holiday destination. And in spite of this we did not have the right to be foreign, thanks to the language, thanks to our German family members. Yet this longing, this homesickness was always present, for all of us.

    This, however, didn’t sit well at all with all the people who were constantly insisting that life was so much better for us now, in Germany. Much freer. Much nicer. I began to feel ashamed, and the feeling that there must be something wrong with me, because I couldn’t see it like that at all, couldn’t see what exactly was supposed to be better here, now, in the little town in the Ruhr, kept getting stronger. Displacement. We had no name for it. Just a diffuse inner voice that was constantly saying: ‘You’re doing something wrong if you don’t feel at home here. Everyone says you must feel at home here. It’s your fault, it must be.’

    This feeling lasted for quite a long time. I could never really explain it to anyone; the shame was too great, and the fear that it was a failure, a deficiency of my own. If I just try even harder, I thought when I was young; if I just fit in even better, make stupid jokes about Arabs, refine my German language and shed my Arabic language, if I myself keep asserting that I’m German, and distance myself more and more from my Arabness, then at some point the feeling will have to correspond with how everyone else sees things.

    Liberation through literature

    Then came the one sentence that, back then, when I was about seventeen or eighteen – shortly before I graduated from high school, anyway – described to me for the first time a feeling that to some extent I recognised: ‘My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.’ It is the first sentence of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia. This ‘almost’; this little word, this afterthought, so simple, so understated – and it contained all my doubts, all my malaise with myself and the world around me. Here was someone who was English, but at the same time somehow not. Here was someone who was a different person to the one his name was giving him out as. The novel tells of Karim’s British mother, who is forced to listen to her neighbours’ racist remarks; it tells of Karim’s Indian father who, although socialised as a Muslim, suddenly, in this lower-middle-class neighbourhood, starts portraying himself as a Buddhist guru, giving yoga workshops and esoteric lectures, reinventing himself with a new identity. With every single character the novel plays the full register, loud and soft, subtle and aggressive, and always with the question in the background: what’s it like to live with foreign names, a foreign appearance, in a small, parochial suburb?

    Long before this I had started to read incessantly, even taking a part-time job in a bookshop in the hope of finding an explanation somewhere for this nebulous fissure within myself. Kureishi’s novel explained to me, and to a whole generation of migrant children, perhaps for the first time, that it wasn’t our fault, this strange feeling of displacement; that it came from outside. That the others, our fellow pupils, our colleagues, our neighbours, were the ones who, with their well-intentioned remarks on the one hand or with open hostility on the other, were constantly exposing us, putting us in the position of the ‘other’. To this day The Buddha remains, for me, one of the most important books of my life.

    I felt inspired, understood. The same way others my age had felt understood by Hesse’s Steppenwolf or by the beatniks. I began to write. I wrote and wrote, filling diary after diary; tried, like Kureishi, to find words and images for the feeling of being foreign on the outside. I read and I wrote, wrote myself out of the little town, out of the internal conflicts and the external ones, with my parents, my family, my fellow pupils. I wrote myself out of isolation and into a new, other, wonderful form of isolation: that of the writing reader.

    I left the little town in the Ruhr and moved to a medium-sized town on the Rhine. It had very green meadows, brightly-painted old buildings with lots of stucco, and an old palace, yellow as the sun, that housed the university, to which I then went. There, there were more books, more literature; there were new people who became very dear to me, who showed me foreign films, introduced me to modern art and put Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever under my pillow. The world seemed to be opening up, fresh air made its way into a life stifled by small-town constraints. As with Karim; as in The Buddha, when it takes him to London, where he becomes an actor. For the first time I felt truly at home – in art, in the language, which I had in all its aspects so painstakingly made my own.

    And at the same time – though I only realised it much later – I was growing further and further apart from the family with whom I shared this sense of foreignness, the longing for things left behind, for parsley and fresh coriander.

    Travelling to the Islamic world

    It was only an advanced seminar on Orientalism that roused these things again, the background I had finally left so far behind me. Edward Said roused them, the nineteenth-century travellers to the Orient roused them, Nerval’s The Women of Cairo roused them. There they were again, all the images, the sounds, the smells, described here from a Western perspective, with this ‘Orientalist gaze’, we students learned. And again and again I wanted to shout, ‘Yes, but it is a bit like that! You don’t know, but I do, I know it! Believe me, I recognise it, I know what I’m talking about!’ There it was again: this lacuna, this peculiar, painful lacuna.

    After Orientalism I also read Edward Said’s autobiography, Out of Place. A story that was so absurd, so full of dichotomies, full of love, grief, questions and attempted answers about his own origins and his own place in the world. It was a new Kureishi moment. And this time it resulted in not erratic but systematic reading. I read my way right across colonial literature, especially British and French, took inspiration from Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, wrote, as Didion said, ‘to find out what I really think’, reclaimed my old, my first, my own language, read Arabic newspapers and books, got hold of Arabic films and series. I opened the door again, let in the Arabic language. Reunion after a long time. I began to travel. For three, four years I travelled for months each year in all the Arab countries. Usually alone, sometimes not. I blanked out all the questions about what I was actually doing, what all this was for; I simply didn’t answer.

    On these travels I read and wrote. Wrote letters, articles, copious stories in brightly-coloured notebooks; wrote about the encounters we had, dangers and delights, all the things that happen when you travel. Suddenly I was writing trilingually in my notebooks, my mind was completely unfettered, the pages filled themselves with German, English and Arabic words and sentences. In a strange way I felt free for the first time. Free of other people’s evaluating, judgmental looks.

    I felt old longings, but suddenly I missed my German bed, too; I finally ate freshly-prepared falafel from the street vendor and was happy each time I returned to Germany that my German grandmother put sauerbraten, red cabbage and dumplings on the table. But the lacuna started to close. Slowly and gradually. And it was a healing process.

    All of this did not happen smoothly, without casualties. People fell by the wayside, as always happens when you shed your skin, when you believe you have to keep moving. Others grew along with me, stayed, or went back. Helped me to keep being present in the Here, or the There. I established a world for myself between many lands and languages, and with many people everywhere who were dear to my heart. I had finally shed the constraints of the little town in the Ruhr. And begun to write a book.

    Integration is not assimilation

    A while ago, the British author Taiye Selasi gave a lecture entitled ‘Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local’. A lecture that is perfect for the twenty-first century: it observes that something like ‘origin’ can now no longer be established with any certainty, that identities are fluid and that today we, as the younger generation of a globalised society, are ‘locals’ in many places. In her speech Selasi writes that she is ‘local’ in various cultures, that she doesn’t necessarily feel British, Ghanaian or American. Every experience has its origin in one or the other particular culture. Every identity is the sum total of experiences.

    Biographies like these, like that of Taiye Selasi, like my own, have long since become normal. People with parents from different countries, cultures, religions, who settle in entirely different parts of the world. It’s only in praxis and in daily perception that there still seem to be problems. This feeling of not really belonging, of being an outsider, is and remains a component of all these biographies. We are looking for a new home, in the world, in art. A place where the gaze can be free of judgement.

    No one displaces him- or herself. It is not a decision, an autonomous act, to feel displaced. Its origins must, therefore, be external. Something that is displayed towards the one who feels displaced, that prevents him from feeling himself to be in the right place.

    Arriving as a migrant or emigrant or refugee or third culture kid in a place where you settle, for the time being or for good, you inevitably start to assimilate. You learn the language, if you don’t already know it, as we did back then; you pick up local dialects, perhaps a certain body language, habits that belong to the environment. You observe your fellow man very closely, become a quick-change artist in the crowd, try not to stick out, are almost pleased when you are told more and more often how well integrated you are. You become a chameleon; every form of perceptible otherness suddenly seems burdened with shame.

    At the same time, what is all too often forgotten, or not taken into consideration, or overlooked, is that successful integration is not the same as annexation or assimilation. Because then a part of your Self disappears, is given up, pushed or taken away.

    Arab food under the Christmas tree

    We felt foreign in Germany, because we missed familiar things – our big family, with whom we spent a lot of time in Jeddah. The warm weather, the sun, the regular weekends by the sea. The loud adhan five times a day. The language, which suddenly felt foreign, because it was only ever used, mixed in with German, by our little core family in our kitchen; it no longer blared out of televisions, radios or telephones, was no longer omnipresent. And last but not least, familiar smells and tastes: courgette and parsley. All that could not be overwritten or even replaced by the freedom to ride a bicycle to school, without a school uniform, or by the fact that my mother was now allowed to sit behind the wheel again, too.

    I dream of a time when all of that will be allowed to exist side by side. When people will no longer see if someone has darker skin or a name that sounds different. And when no one has to be ashamed any more because people look down on them, because of their foreignness. When it is permitted, even taken for granted that one can play and switch freely between all the worlds we carry within ourselves.

    My biggest inspiration in this – and I don’t think they’re even aware of it – are my own parents, who made a home for us in which there was a Christmas tree every year but also, several times a month, Arab lentil soup with fresh sambusak.

    And you can buy parsley and courgettes everywhere in Germany nowadays.
    Rasha Khayat, born in Dortmund in 1978, grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Her family moved back to Germany when she was eleven. She studied Comparative Literature, German Studies and Philosophy in Bonn, and has lived in Hamburg since 2005. She works as a freelance author, translator and editor. Her first novel, Weil wir längst woanders sind [Because we’re already somewhere else], was published in 2016.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

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

    Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

    Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

    Take Fikrun wa Fann "Displacement" with you as an e-paper. In Arabic, Persian, English, German. Go to download...

    Order now

    Application form

    Institutions or people in Islamic countries who are employed in the journalism or culture sectors have the option to obtain a free subscription.
    To the application form ...