Leaving Yemen

Old City. Sana'a, December 2012.

The world ended on December 27th. Or so it seemed. My visa sponsor at Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies sat me down and told me that I had to leave the country by the end of the weekend. Defeated, I began packing my belongings, and walked around Sana’a with the knowledge that I may never see it again. I arrived in Berlin on New Year’s Day.

I do not have the words to describe what it was like to leave Yemen. I have spent years writing analytically, but during my exile in Berlin, I have been forced to understand that some things cannot be outlined. There is a cavity inside of me that makes me wonder if I should simply lie on the ground, and wait until death whisks me away.

My sorrow remains one of deprived senses: the taste of seasoned falafel, the smell of Yemeni tea, the sound of busy markets, and the sight of mountain vistas. It fills me with such despair to think about the feeling of serenity that I only get at sunset in the Middle East, and in South Asia. My surroundings darken, the call to prayer begins waltzing through the air, and neighbourhood activity quietens as I embrace my sense of emptiness and allow the world to pour itself into me.

When I need to confront the side of me that misses Yemen, I close my eyes. I slam my hands against my chest, and snake my fingers around my neck. I crane myself towards the sky and press down on my windpipe until my heart begs for mercy. Then I open my eyes, breathe, and tell myself, “that is what they will never understand.”

Maybe I’ll never totally understand it either. When I first arrived, I could easily list the sensory delights of the country in retrospect, except for the deep longing for tenderness and physical affection that could not be satiated. The only people who were touching me on a regular basis were military-police officers, and I got so tired of it that I nearly got shot one night when I ignored a command to submit to a search. Despite all that, when I sat alone, I found myself recalling every sense from Yemen except for touch.

That’s just how immigration works. The rosy-eyed ideas that we carry about the motherland are basically irrational. It is especially irrational for me to have them, since I was a second-generation Pakistani immigrant who was born in Canada, and has no ancestral ties to Yemen. It’s irrational because it’s emotional, though, and you’re dealing with abstractions.

There is a difference between being born in a place, and being “from” that place. The word “from” implies that you felt a sense of community and nurturing in that place, which means that it seems like home to you. Part of the reason I identify so readily with countries like Yemen is because I’ve never really felt at home anywhere.

Qu'ran Class. Old City Sana'a, January.
Qu’ran class. Old City Sana’a, January.

The fact is that labels like “Canadian” aren’t birthmarks. They’re privileges allocated to you by social consensus, based on a checklist of acceptable behaviour. Your life begins centering itself around meeting those demands, because otherwise, your privilege can be lost very quickly.

There is a model of national identity that you have to fit into. I have lost the energy to explain to Westerners that it is insulting for them to say things like “Stop it, you’re Canadian,” as though my sense of being excluded is meaningless. The ways that these factors play into it are invisible to them, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I gave up on calling myself Canadian because there is only so much you can grovel to an almighty standard before it becomes tiring.

That doesn’t mean the need for community disappeared. There are many immigrants in my position who simply go on to project that sense of companionship onto something else. I see many doing it with Islam, especially in an era of hostility towards Muslim immigrants.

When I arrived in Germany, and felt freshly alienated, I found myself projecting those needs onto my memories of Yemen. Soon after my expulsion, my  sense of fulfillment in the country started to become a romanticized illusion. I am not ashamed. We all need our abstractions, especially when we’re lonely in a country where we don’t even speak the language.

I was doing the same thing as many immigrants in Berlin, particularly in the Turkish-heavy neighborhoods of Neukolln and Kreuzberg where I first landed. It’s quite predictable when you are forced to leave a country because of reasons outside of your control. It doesn’t matter if you left because your visa sponsor said you had five days to leave, or as a result of something more complicated like economic migration. I’m not ashamed of the fact that I was doing it. However, it is unhealthy to hold onto an idea of a place that doesn’t line up with reality.

I still miss Yemen terribly. The distance between us is indescribably difficult. I would return in a second if I could. Thankfully though, the period I have been in Berlin has helped me miss Yemen for what it is: a beautiful country that I love, but also filled with difficulties and challenges that are the source of much hardship. I adore it, but it is neither completely good, nor is it completely bad.

I’m grateful for my perspective, since it is easier to pinpoint what I miss about the country when I think about it clearly, and broadly, what makes me happy. I have felt my best in Berlin when I’m either discussing, or involved with, politics. The sense of exclusion I have always had starts to disappear.

One of the main reasons I miss Yemen is because even though I was not explicitly involved in local politics, it gave me a constant stream of activity to digest and navigate. The Middle East is a terrible place to miss for many reasons, such as the food and weather, but I find myself yearning most for the political atmosphere. Especially since politics in the West seems trapped in conservatism, while in the developing world, there is still a chance for left-wing alternatives. Just look at what happened in Latin America, since the end of the Cold War, as an example.

However, political engagement can’t solve everything. It makes me feel involved, for sure. However, politics cannot itself fulfill me sexually. That may sound unusual, but the dream of immigrant integration has always carried a very strong libidinal element. We avoid specifying it as such. But it’s undeniably there, as discomfiting as the idea may be.

Segregation Beach. Cape Town, 1982.
Segregated beach. Cape Town, 1982.

Intimacy is an essential aspect of integration. It’s a characteristic of both multicultural relations, and of course, migrant social relations. And immigrants reproduce. In both instances, the capacity is loaded with economic signifiers. This has been particularly true for me, as a middle-class Pakistani immigrant, following the sexual revolution in the West, and Pakistan’s conflicting return to traditional social mores.

You can imagine,  how, in a North American context, I felt alienated. Living between the cultures, as a child of a South Asian family, was especially challenging. Feeling as engaged as I did in Yemen simply made it easier to bond with people over shared priorities. Love isn’t just physical. It’s about community and culture, as well. Indeed, one can speak of romantic chemistry socially, not just physically.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve had a habit of embarking on long, and emotional, rants about politics. It was easy to do that when I was in secondary school. The Bush Administration provided us with plenty of ammunition. I did it so often that I had come to expect my rants ending with listeners taking a pause and saying, “… really?” while barely paying attention.

When I was a sophomore at Rutgers University, I got up the courage to ask a woman I knew if she wanted to hang out with me. Much to my delight, she said yes.  While we were watching Degrassi: The Next Generation, I started talking politics, and how I felt that high school bullying seemed like it was encouraged by adults. She agreed with me. I found this incredibly surprising, for reasons that I find hard to put into words.

In retrospect, what was so significant about it was that an American I was attracted to agreed with me. Not just sexually, obviously, but politically. The combination of things this raised, at that age, was of course complex, and invigorating. I consider it an essential reference point in my adolescence. I continue to refer back to it, in all kinds of ways.

Hence, Yemen. While feeling a profound sense of loss about being thrown out the country, I did not feel present enough to notice the world around me. Looking back on January, I notice that I sent dozens of e-mails to my old American woman friend about my emotional state, and sense of disgust. It was like muscle memory, and she read all of them.

Every now and then, she would respond with a letter imploring me to hold on. There was still so much work for me to do, and it would be too much to bear if I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by my situation. It wasn’t just her. Several of my closest friends told me the exact same thing: I had to survive this.

I have now been safely in Berlin for 45 days. It gets easier every day, but only because I feel like I have a stake in the world around me, and people care for me enough to have a stake in my well-being. Valentine’s Day is this Friday. It’s as good a time as any to remember how much having a sense of community really matters.

I may have left a place that I found myself at home. But I gained a sense of belonging, abroad, that I never had before. That’s its own metaphor for acceptance, I wager.


Photographs courtesy of the author and United Nations Photo. Published under a Creative Commons License.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.