The upheaval in Syria unfolded fast. It left Abd al-Rahman’s entire family dead. He abandoned his home in Damascus, which had become a slaughterhouse, and fled across the north African desert in search of refuge. At barely 20 he was his family’s sole survivor.
His mother was a from the Maghreb, and his father was a “desert Arab” – a descendant of the prophet Muhammad’s companions, who had established the . Abd al-Rahman’s flight as an orphan refugee took place in the year 750, when the Umayyad’s rivals, the , had taken power in Syria and were liquidating all Umayyad influences. He was lucky to escape.
Nelofer Pazira: Heartbroken of Kandahar
Five years later he finally crossed the Mediterranean to a place the Romans had called “Hispania” or “Iberia”. In Spain the young man found his Berber and Syrian kin, and with their support in AD756 he established himself as governor of the frontier state of Córdoba.
A political refugee, Abd al-Rahman founded the great European caliphate of . The Christians of Córdoba embraced every aspect of Arabic style, from philosophy to mosque architecture. The Jewish community thrived, and several of its members reached high political positions within the government.
Through the lands Abd al-Rahman had crossed, he carried his family’s history and that of his country. Once settled, he experienced the inclination that most first-generation refugees recognise – the dream to return home. But he could never return.
So he settled for the second-best option: to recreate a version of his old home in the new one. Abd al-Rahman’s new Andalusian estate was a replica of the one in Syria. He turned to poetry – another Arab practice from pre-Islamic times. He wrote an ode to a palm tree in his garden in Cordoba: .
In 1991 – unaware of exile literature and barely capable of reading and writing in English – I wrote in my diary: “There are people all around me; curious faces talking. They want to hear me speak. I, in my language; they, in theirs! The sound of my prose, alien in their books, speaks of the strangeness of all I see. They listen and nod, without understanding. The dialect of my past negates their articulation of everything present.”
At the time, we were the only Afghan family in the Canadian maritime province of New Brunswick. Host families, classmates and new neighbours in the city of Moncton took a great interest in welcoming us, but it all seemed unreal. People living for generations in stability and relative prosperity could know precious little about what used to be our life – sleeping amid the sound of rockets and Stinger missiles and the fear of death in our Afghan streets. For me, at the time, poetry was not an escape from reality; it was a link between the past and present. The familiar rhythm and sound of my mother’s tongue eased the pain of separation; language became one way of keeping in direct contact with that past and the memories of the world I had left behind.
We had fled Kabul in 1989, aware of the risks in making the journey on foot through the villages and mountains of . Fear of death was at every step, but it was the hope of a life in front of us that kept us walking. When living conditions become unbearable and when dying is what is left of life – as it is for Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Afghans and so many others who are on the move today – then taking the risk to walk, to swim, to get on a boat, even knowing it’s not seaworthy, seems less dangerous. At least there is a chance to survive and reach a place of safety.
As horrifying as the hardship and danger involved in this voyage to a new life may be, from a refugee’s perspective the inner journey of realisation of the loss of one’s home is almost as difficult and painful. The perils of the physical journey are visible, but the inner turmoil of loss is hard to express. A few words – “exile”, “refugee”, “migrant” – are supposed to symbolise a whole range of experiences.
When we gave up our home, left relatives and friends behind and took to the road to reach Pakistan, so many psychological borders had already been crossed. When today I see columns of people leaving homes, towns and cities, I hear the demand that these refugees respect the west’s geographical borders. What this fails to understand is that those borders have already been crossed in the refugee’s mind. By the time the refugee reaches a frontier, national boundaries have already become irrelevant – except in the form of another obstacle to overcome. What is the power of a barbed-wire fence or a concrete wall in the face of all the risks taken to find peace and safety?
For the refugee, the feeling of loss is not just about physical place; it is about the shift in one’s sense of identity. Turning from an individual with a recognised name and address, family ties and community connections, into a category – the “refugee”, the “migrant” – is unsettling. You start to feel a stranger to yourself.
And in order not to lose a grip on one’s identity, the refugee begins to hold on to memories, as painful as they may be, or to tangible things: items of clothing, pictures, from “back home”.
My father carried a suit all the way from Kabul to Moncton, via Pakistan. It hung in his closet in , neatly covered by clear plastic sheets. He didn’t wear it, but he still put it on or often held the suit in front of him just to see himself in the mirror. “I look the same,” he used to say. He could no longer practice medicine – in Afghanistan, he was a proud pediatrician – but each time he looked at his image in that simple suit, it became a marker of his existence, his education, his dignity.
Unlike Abd al-Rahman, my father did go back to his house after the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul. But after six weeks he quietly abandoned the thought of living and working in Afghanistan again. The world he’d returned to was now even more alien to him than the “strange” one he had come to experience in Canada. The brutality of the civil war had defaced Kabul, and the curtain of darkness the had left behind was too much to bear. A man who had tried to remain the same through the years of exile, protecting and preserving what was considered Afghan, was now shocked by the changes in his native home.
When I went back to Kabul after 13 years and found the city of my childhood shattered and destroyed, populated by men with guns and women shrouded in burqas, I felt uneasy; not just because they were troubling things to see, but because of the pain of not being able to understand it. It was then that I realised what displacement meant: an abiding anguish, a feeling of eternal dissolution and non-belonging. Displacement is a horrible experience. Once you have been uprooted, it is difficult to find that place of inclusion or acceptance. The degradation one suffers is often silent. It’s justified on the basis of desperation, and tolerated because of the hope that displacement is temporary. For the hundreds of thousands of last year’s refugees into Europe – most rotting away in centres – hope diminishes faster.
My cousins – three young men in their early 20s – finished high school in Kabul. Lack of hope for their future and increased insecurity, and the return of the Taliban, forced them to flee to Turkey, survive a boat journey into Greece, and walk with the cortege of the displaced across a number of European borders, dependent on the mercy of strangers who gave them water and food. They finally arrived in Germany last autumn. Now in a refugee camp they fill their days with waiting, posting selfies on social media, and memories of their sad lives; they too speak of fear, questions and forebodings. Most refugees today are fully aware of the economic problems facing Europe and America. But what the west used to represent was respect for humanity and justice, value for human life and dignity. The so-called refugee crisis of the past year has changed that, exposing an uglier face. In the loud nationalistic chatter and the almost unspoken rejection of Muslims landing in Europe, the main concern of political leaders has been either the protection of their parties, their own positions, or Europe’s “Christian” identity and its economic interests.
When I went back to Kabul and found the city of my childhood shattered, I realised what displacement meant
My father still has his suit: before he used to lament the loss of his old life, now he is in mourning for all humans who are forced to flee their homes. At home in Ottawa, he watches the news, his own compatriots made refugees again and again over three generations; he sees the plundering of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen – and says he has no words to describe how it feels for him, as a refugee.
He doesn’t take his suit out any more. In the wisdom of his late 70s, the symbolism of that garment has lost its importance, but the significance of his identity as a refugee has become more relevant. “We were lucky to escape when we did,” he tells me. “People were more open-minded, Muslims weren’t terrorists, and we were fortunate to come to Canada.”
His gratitude shames me, a western-educated woman. I wanted to be part of a better world, one that could inspire another al-Andalus – where people of diverse faiths, cultures and histories could live as one community in justice and equality. But I’m struggling these days to fight to protect a recent past that allowed me to do what I do now – because I see it is dissipating fast into dogmatism and prejudice, where the translation of “never again” has been lost to intolerance, fear and insecurity.
• A longer version of this article will appear in the December issue of the Dutch journal Nexus