Excerpts from an interesting essay by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: a reporter reflects on arbitrary citizenship and what it means to be “from somewhere.”
“There’s an Elizabeth Hardwick quote that gets tossed around in a lot of travel writing: “When you travel,” Hardwick writes, “your first discovery is that you do not exist.” Having spent the greater part of the past twelve months far from home—physically, emotionally, intellectually—I’d add that a lot of self-knowledge comes through this very erasure, and the ensuing recomposition and discovery of that self in motion. The old chestnut that people are strange when you’re a stranger still holds, of course. The faces and places I discovered were all new to me; I knew nothing of their worlds until I briefly inhabited them, trudging through Singapore’s antiseptic malls, sitting in Kuwait’s jammed and sulfurous traffic, sweating in the Comoros’ pressure-cooker climate, being lulled into a temporary despondence by the Caribbean’s lackadaisical breezes.
The flip side, I’ve found, is that when you exist among strangers alone, you become less foreign to yourself. No one knows who you are. It’s up to you to decide.”
It is difficult to immerse yourself in a place when your presence there is by design impermanent.
The conversation shifted to Geneva. We talked about how hard it was to feel at home there, with its transient expats and their acronymic vocabularies and muddled backgrounds and all-too-frequent unwillingness to engage with the city; the traveling spouses who, after three years, still did not speak a lick of French; the singular preoccupation many seemed to have with shopping at the diplomatic store for American packaged goods rather than going to a normal Swiss supermarket; the expat enclaves clustered in tight radii around the international high schools. And everywhere, the assumption that every three years would bring a new house, a new neighborhood, a new city, a new country.
I don’t blame lifelong expatriates for this attitude. It is difficult to immerse yourself in a place when your presence there is by design impermanent. I’m guilty of it, too; I have only a small handful of local friends in Geneva, mostly playmates from the sandbox. Why it all felt so rootless and fleeting for me in particular, I can’t fully know; surely, the absence of continuity, and the lack of a unifying communal mythology, must have played a part. When I moved to the US in 2004, I noticed classmates remark that “we” were at war. Who, or what, was “we”? I was eighteen and had never heard anyone speak that way.”
“…. We shared a connectedness—but over the placelessness of a place, the naked unreality of an imagined community, a feeling that it is unraveling, of not knowing what to make of what’s left. We constructed for it a meaning out of its meaninglessness. It was the absence of connectedness there that brought us here, together.
Anderson’s theory of nationalism might not apply quite so neatly some thirty years after its publication, but his concept of the secular pilgrim endures, even if plane schedules and tax breaks and emerging markets, not nation-ness and “deep, horizontal camaraderie,” set his migratory patterns. (We are, in that sense, doubly secular: no religion, and no real country, either.) But it is the possibility of a consciousness of connectedness, in spite of it all, that’s more comforting than any homeland—physical, metaphorical, or imagined—could ever be to me.
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is the author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, 2015). She is an opinion editor at Al Jazeera America and a contributing editor to The New Inquiry and Dissent.