I migrated to US along with my immediate family in 1986. Though, at the time being a teenager, I did not realize or predict the repercussions of such an indelible mark on my own history along with its future scars and scabbing, I now whole-heartedly recognize the inevitable consequences.
Migration as a voluntary or involuntary act is very symbolic in its nature for the innate sentiments it invokes: illusory senses of belonging to a geography bearing one's primary and unmatched memories. As much as the memories are tangible and profound, the illusion of “belonging” carries a perpetual nostalgia for the foregone or forsaken objects, relations, loves, and lifestyles.
However, “Belonging” can only exist when there is no mutual transformation; belonging suggests fixation, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual. It is an elusive sense of a frozen state: only possible when one's birthplace stays unchanged and when one remains untransformed. Aside from the illogic of such assumption, even scientifically nothing (energy or matter) maintains its original state. There is no status quo in this animate world; even the dead decay and decompose into dust.
The magical and yet extremely subtle gift that an immigrant is offered through personal journeys is the wisdom of disillusionment; the gift of not floating above water, but having to take an insightful dive into an underworld of exotic appearances and disappearances. A sense of “conscious detachment” makes one aware of all the undiscovered elements in life.
Belonging infers the existence of elements known by experience. There are hardly any surprises in a sense of belonging and of course as an unconscious pre-knowledge, this creates a sense of eternal security, invulnerability, and reassurance. As most of us, Iranians, who have resided outside of our homeland for years, we are familiar with the feeling of the immense nostalgia towards even the pettiest details.
Sometimes, we may miss “noon-e-sangak”, at other times, the ability to listen in on pointless conversations in taxis, or eating chelo-kabab on Friday afternoons. Most of all, we may miss our alleys and homes which will always carry a sense of unavoidable reference place of dearness and consolation.
However, all these missed sentiments, places, and individuals, gradually take on the appearance of phantoms, shadow-like creatures that haunt us incessantly for years and years. Beneath it all, we unconsciously crave the original effortlessness of knowing our place, limitations, and borders. There is no feeling of suspension in mid-air of an obscure residence in the world when one strongly believes that he/she “belongs”. However, how much of this sense of “belonging” is factual can only be tested through its opposite, alienation?
Upon exposure to unknown cultures and geographies, one immediately is burdened with the task of “courageous experimentation” including responsibilities such as learning a new tongue, life style, rituals, social interactions, and the most rudimentary ways of cultural assimilation. Then the disparity between one's identity and the new sets of identified and accepted ways of being rise.
The dilemma to choose one above the other, to dive in or to stay afloat, and to label one as the “nostalgic/alienated” or “assimilated/naturalized” self conjures. If and when one decides which of the extremities have to be resorted to; then one of the two will result: either a maintenance of the old sense of belonging and rejection of all the newly introduced material, or incorporation of all that is new into structuring an unprecedented self-image.
When one is truly “part of” a place, there is no need for an external display of adamant belonging; the profundity of “being from” is indented within, an encompassing certainty overriding the necessity of externalization. One carries his/her homeland inside; a bearing which implies transformation within transformation, a sense of infinite permission for change without the primal fear of “losing” or “lessening”.
There is a truthful and wholesome reward in such rare integration. Only then, the necessity for acquiring labels such as Iranian-something or the other as a nationality vanishes. Defining one's heritage as an immigrant Iranian, French, Finnish, or Arab is a sign of sincerity and confidence, not an allusion to purist attitudes or renouncement and dishonor towards the host country. Acquisition of new labels is analogical to that of wearing layers of clothing before one delves into deep waters; it is summoning more weight and pressure, when one needs to stay as light and unattached as possible.
Having become a second time immigrant, I have had the opportunity to relive some previous challenges. However, I am thankful for the remaining flexibilities in such a task considering my age. As one grows older, inevitably the sense of belonging anchors itself more deeply and the task of assimilation or its understanding becomes more vague and unpleasant. When I see men and women of 50 and up wearing their customary and ethnic clothing, not having much knowledge of the host language, being lost amidst some unknown streets, gazing at unfamiliar buildings, passing by unsympathetic strangers, only then I truly get to appreciate the courage my parents and their generation must have held despite all possible threats of an uncharted territory.
Older immigrants usually have a certain dismayed and insecure look about them, very much like a child who feels lost and has to rely on the kindness of strangers to find his/her way back home. It is indeed grippingly sad and agonizing to observe such apprehension and sometimes panic on the face of individuals who should be free of such emotional burdens and anxieties by their age. Yet, many immigrants in their natural age of retirement need to draw the map of their lives from scratch.
Existentially, the weight of such an undertaking in many cases proves unbearable. At moments of pure mundane reality, it is extremely difficult to remember the golden words of Molana Jalal-e-din Balkhi when he freely proclaimed: “We are from above, traveling above”. The vertical motion of our path is hardly perceptible when the horizontal movements of our fate make it dangerously forgettable. It is much easier to sleepwalk and to hold intentions of one day becoming aware of the tides that lead us to the same old horizon over and over again.
Though, “migration” is undeniably an extremely sensitive phenomenon in every sense of its meaning and implications, sometimes its pragmatic repercussions and labeling are much more pronounced than the emotional and humanistic values (be it negative or positive). There are always lessons of contradictions and ironies to be learned by an immigrant pointing to a fuller meaning of what we call life. However demoralizing the experience of displacement may seem, it seizes at its core an enriching prospect; a chance for clarity of one's perspective on time, space, and the invisible walls they both create. Though, of many homelands, the wise choose none but their humanity.
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