Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 May 2006
Issue No. 795
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Qader Yassine

The homeland of my imagination

As empires shift and die, victims of violence and destruction on the margins are unwelcome in the heart of the colonial countries that robbed them of citizenship and the possibility of going home, writes Abdel-Qader Yassine*

What happens to a person suddenly deprived of his home, his homeland, his history and his identity; who becomes a refugee? If you belong to the Third World, someone else is dictating the parametres of your life. Not even as a writer can one maintain integrity and claim membership of some universal community.

For 25 years I have dwelled in the dubious terrain of a territory I often refer to as "the country of my imagination". I find it daunting to attempt to explain or elaborate why I have had to weave a country out of the intricate web of a need; why I have felt that the construction of this country was necessary through a score of troubled years.

For one thing I have had to parley my anxiety all these troubled years, for another I cannot help assuming that it would be something close to a miracle to get across the workings of such a denizen's mind in an idiom accessible to other people, many of whom have always lived in the same place, who live where they were born, who have resided in a country with a physical existence as prominent as the international boundary lines on a map.

Maybe such communication seems difficult because I have always considered countries to be no more than working hypotheses, portals opening on assumptions of loyalty to an idea, allegiance to the notion of a nation: a people pledging their eternal vows to a locality which happens to be where they were born, and which they choose to call home, a place with whose physical geography, climate and vegetation they are familiar.

Alternatively, one may pledge allegiance to another, equally valid idea; a putative idea, a hypothesis brought forth by a dream, something to do with one's ambition; the seedbed of migration: the possibility of a wealthier probability for one's own economic self-improvement, for one's family's well- being, or for one's immediate safety.

During the long travel out of one hypothesis into another, one journeys further away from one's self. Somewhere between fleeing and arriving at the new destination, a refugee is born -- who, in effect, is the citizen of a country too amorphous to be favoured with a name but one delivered out of the womb of sublime hope; a country whose not-yet spoken language is imbued with the rhetoric of future visions.

I ask what becomes of a person -- indeed what becomes of a people -- when their country-as- hypothesis ceases to function? How full of tragedy, how full of inexpressible agony is the instant when it dawns on one that one's country does not anymore exist, neither as an idea nor a physical reality.

I can remember when Palestine, the country of my birth, became dead to me in the construct of my logic, like a postulate that has been discarded. In that instant I felt at once displaced and incredulous, as though a mirror had broken. Eventually I would ask myself if on account of what had taken place, I would become another.

I remember standing in a flat in London and holding a dead telephone receiver in my hand. I was leaving for home, and had rung my elder brother in Jerusalem requesting that somebody please pick me up at the airport; he advised me not to return. His words have stayed with me: "Forget Palestine, consider it buried, dead, think of it as if it no longer exists for you."

A few minutes later, still clutching the receiver, I felt as though something live was surging up from inside of me. In that moment another country was fired into existence, a new country with its own logic and realities. Born of psychic necessity, this new country stole in upon my senses as quiet as a moth approaching the lit window to one's world: quietly, like the moth of my sanity. This moth became of necessity a butterfly, circling the crystallising fruit of my exile: an exile that perforce jump-started the motor of my imaginative powers.

Still, I must ask what becomes of a man or a woman upon whose sense of imaginative being, upon whose night, no moths tap? What if, at the portal of one's cosmos, no imagined fruit is given a crystalline form and no butterfly pays a visit? What becomes of a man or woman whose economic and professional position does not afford them the privilege to create another country out of his or her sense of displacement?

In other words, what happens to a people who cannot go back to the hypothetical reality of their homes, neither to their actual residences? Is this the clay out of which the refugee is moulded?

Given the suddenness of the decision that had been imposed, I wondered if I would manage to cope -- a Palestinian writer stranded in Europe, barely known outside his "former" country. I found myself combing the arid brush of my memory, recalling my years in the hope that these might somehow help me to better see my predicament. I had hailed from a region in the eastern Mediterranean with a history of tumultuous dislocations, a region that has known more years of strife than it has stability and peace.

And I remembered how my family was caught up in war; I remembered how my whole family had fled across a border whose existence we, Palestinians, had refused to acknowledge; I remembered how in Beirut, our new place of refuge, we started to reconstitute our identities from an idealism that had its ideological correlates in a sense of nationalism. At the time the newly minted idea of the nation was in the heart of all Palestinians.

As I reminisced, I recalled the games of invention I had played in my youth: how, as a boy, I would mentally assume animal forms, metamorphosing into new states -- birds, lions, horses, cows, donkeys, dogs. I wondered if I could hold triple citizenship, migrate from one country to another; from that of my birth, say, to that territory newly-fired into existence by the need to remain loyal to the ideals of the writer's vocation, and thence from there to London, my new home. Thanks to the kind intervention of friends I was able to fulfil the obligations of my triple citizenry, with the moth flying here and there, its shadows falling on the window to my creative energy, past the opaqueness of a writer's self- doubts.

It was during this period of self-questioning that I ran into an old friend from Denmark to whom I explained all that had taken place, adding that I intended to keep my country alive by writing about it. My Danish friend was of the opinion that no matter what the economic, political or asylum status of a writer -- whether he or she has papers or not -- a scholar is no refugee. We parleyed, she and I, and agreed on defining a refugee as a person who has lost the ability to express the fullness of his or her nature, and who flees across borders if necessary in order to articulate the essence of his or her being, his or her human nature.

I came to understand that colonial subjects die a kind of death when they lose the birthright to define themselves in the terms of their birth, as they are made to respond to the multiple identities imposed upon them by others: when they are forced to see themselves as someone else's invention. There is a perverse ingenuity to these invented identities, the malefic effects of which can often go unnoticed for great stretches of time. Only when things go awry do people take notice: whether in the Middle East or the former Yugoslavia, in the Indian Sub-Continent or the Horn of Africa.

Whenever or wherever new empires are created in place of old ones, a mass of humanity necessarily is made refugees. The Palestinians, the Kurds, the Armenians, the Somalis, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese and the Tamil share a common condition: all these peoples have all been coerced into becoming part of an empire, and then cast off, and recast again as a new empire is constructed in place of the one that has been dismantled. In drawing arbitrary imperial borders, builders of empires create a network of political and economic tensions with a legacy both explosive and implosive.

It has become increasingly obvious of late that the world is going through a radical transformation, and that these profound changes are making us take a fresher look at ourselves, and our neighbours, as everything falls around our ears. We cannot take anything for granted anymore. Most strikingly, one sees in the expressions of one's interlocutors a distinct unease, the tincture of distrust.

Values of humanity and decency, the humane principles that have held many a community together the world over, are increasingly devalued. New times have brought along new anxieties for many of us. An ugly temper is rising across European capitals, as a sense of gloom, paranoia and unjustified dread unsettles these citadels. Newspapers describe the "human flood", tributaries of asylum- seekers, rivers of refugees, flotillas of boatpeople, ramshackle rafts bearing bogus men and women arriving at European ports of entry in search of haven, as immigrants or refugees.

Thirty-eight years ago the British Conservative Enoch Powell warned that increasing immigration would lead to "rivers of blood"; we listen today, with the same predictable horror, to the ugly noises coming out of respectable quarters in France and Germany, not to mention the rhetoric of neo-fascists and acts of savagery as they throw petrol bombs at specially designated hostels housing asylum-seekers, to intimidate them. The presence of these migrants touches on the political and economic anxieties of the so-called developed parts of the globe, anxieties that are spectacular in their far-reaching implications.

These fears are comparable to those of the turn of the 20th century, ironically the very period when the legal shape of the present-day world was determined, the period when the undeveloped world was divided into unequal portions among European powers, boundaries assigned by the inexact but grand design of capitalist zeal.

Two world wars and a century later the inhabitants of that world are standing at the crossroads yet again. Where, now, are the architects of empire? Or do we now confront a world divided, a world of desiccated empires and small minds, islands of insularity?

Or are we witnessing a sorrier spectacle, one in which the West abandons ship at the "end of history", at the same moment that it claims to be its undisputed captain? No doubt we are seeing a radical change in the attitude of empire building at the very breaking-point when the wounds caused by Europe and North America have not ceased to bleed.

For centuries, Europe had as its basic policy an aggressive, relentless imperialist expansion. Europe invaded, looted and colonised the rest of the world, transforming worldviews and tampering with the cultural values and identity of those subjugated. Europe prospered; its cities became metropolitan centres. Africans were brought as slaves; Asians imported as indentured labourers; destitute people the world over admitted into Europe as migrants, or Gastarbeiter (guest workers). And now that the rest of the world has been turned into a collection of shantytowns, cramped cities of cardboard and zinc, slums compared to Europe -- now, Europe has lost interest in the rest of the world.

The trajectories of empire, and its attendant identities, can only be understood against the backdrop of shifting political situations that formed their construction. But the closing of European and North American minds and hearts to the question of refugees precedes the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Laws curbing access to the European Union differed from one country to another, but legislation limiting the possibility of coming into Europe was in place long before the arrival of Afghani, Sri Lankan, Somali or Assyrian refugees to these shores.

In Britain, this sentiment was first codified in legislation in the early 1970s, following Idi Amin's expulsion of Ugandan Asians. The British home secretary of the day introduced legislation limiting the number of aliens to be granted entry into the United Kingdom. For hundreds of years there had been "recruitment drives" aimed at enticing blacks to emigrate, to swell the ranks of the menial working class; unskilled labourers from the West Indies arrived in boatfuls, and although these were not treated with civility, they were nonetheless allowed in and given the right to stay in the country.

Hundreds of thousands more came from the far- flung corners of the former empire, and restaurants opened to the joy of Britain's citizenry. One at last began to eat well and cheaply. All the same it soon became clear that there was a racist logic to the immigration laws, for one was treated differently if one came from what was referred to as the "Old Commonwealth". In short, one was treated humanely if one was of European stock, whether or not of convict ancestry. Ready to join another empire of a more sophisticated order, the European Community, Britain negotiated away its imperial responsibility.

The key words are "integration" and "disintegration" of empires, and both notions challenge the old ideas that they aspire to replace. Empires and alliances have largely been eclipsed by a series of exclusive clubs -- the G7, the EU, the nuclear club -- with membership limited to nations with the right credit rating. One is left with the impression of a political establishment bereft of vision, lacking ability to deal with the intricacies of the situation at hand. For how does one explain this "return" to 1930s politics; how does one explain the rise of the neo-Nazi right? How, indeed, can one explain the recourse to blood, the cultivation of ethnic absolutisms?

Even as the EU is the single most cohesive economic unit the world has ever known -- the wealthiest and most powerful entity in history -- the peoples of this empire are barricading themselves in, aided in this by the rhetoric of fear and helplessness: fear of the nameless, foreign flood of humanity; helplessness at the escalating violence enacted to staunch that flood. But if refugees are a challenge as well as a reproach to our humanity, if refugees are a lament raised, a cry spoken, if refugees are the bastards of the idea of empire, then how can one blame this highly disenfranchised, displaced humanity for all the ills of Europe?

* The writer is a Palestinian researcher at the Institute for Migration Studies in Sweden. He has published 15 books and scores of articles on Middle Eastern issues. His latest book, Fundamentalism: A Critical Approach , will be published in August.

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