This week features a piece by Sara Salem, a PhD scholar based in Cairo.
Throughout my life I have gone through different phases in terms of relating to where I am from or where I belong. Growing up in Zambia with an Egyptian father and Dutch mother meant that a restless feeling of not quite being settled was always part of my life. During my teenage years I remember this expressing itself as a dramatic quest to find out “who I am” and “where I belong”—something that should probably be attributed to the fiction I liked to read or drama shows I liked to watch rather than some universal human need to belong somewhere. I quickly grew out of that and the question didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. When I was 16, I moved to Egypt, when I was 22, I moved to the Netherlands, and for now I live in California. There were times, of course, when I did think about where I felt more comfortable (Egypt), where I had the most numerous memories (Zambia) and where I felt more out of place (the Netherlands). But these were isolated thoughts, not part of some pattern of not-belonging, and so I didn’t pay attention to them or see myself as going through some life-long identity crisis.
It was during my time in the Netherlands when something shifted and I started to think about identity(ies) again. It was a combination of my deepening interest in feminism and postcolonialism, as well as an intense homesickness I felt for Egypt, that made me slowly start thinking about where I belong and where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. The homesickness I was feeling made me interrogate it because of its intensity. Why Egypt and not Zambia? Was I romanticizing Egypt? Was I trying to create some bond with it that was more fictive than real? And I think because of how intensely I felt, I slowly began to be more critical of myself and my position in Egypt. Put simply: I didn’t grow up there. It felt like half of the time, there were so many subtleties and intricate details of everyday life that I just didn’t know because I hadn’t been there. Language, symbols, movies, songs—it seemed like everything was just out of reach.
And could I really call myself Egyptian if I didn’t know these things?
But this, too, passed. The question of belonging comes and goes. In some contexts it gets amplified, in others it becomes unimportant: it is always relational. And of course in many instances being from different places is an amazing experience to have. You see the world differently and in many ways I know that I believe in the things I do because I have had multiple experiences of living in places that are very different from each other. And because of that, the ups and downs of feeling out of place are completely worth it. There is something to be said about not just traveling but actually living in different countries, and seeing details change over time. Political details, social details, personal details. And in the end it becomes so easy and necessary to connect everything: how is what is happening in Zambia and Egypt similar, and how is that related to a British colonial past and a neocolonial present? And more interestingly, how and why is what happened in Egypt different from what happened in Zambia? How is the Netherlands part of this, and how do all of these details tie into a global hierarchy? All of this is not just political or abstract, but also personal. These histories and relations affect anybody living in these contexts.
In these multiple journeys I have found that literature in particular has helped me navigate many of the questions surrounding identity. Edward Said’s autobiography, of course, has been among the most influential in terms of dealing with being “out of place.” Memoirs in general serve as poignant reminders of the ways in which many others often share the questions we face. Whether it was Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage or Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed: A Memoir, stories and experiences of people I can relate to have been very important. More recently Chimamanda Adichie’s work has also been enlightening and comforting, as she broaches topics that are so familiar despite her own contexts being those of Nigeria and the United States. The extensive literature found in postcolonial studies, fact or fiction, has also been vital in trying to understand the different identities I have and the ways in which these are influenced by history, by politics, and by people.
So does this mean that “home” is wherever your loved ones are? I wish it were that simple, but I don’t think it is. Home is complicated because so many things go into creating it. I feel most at home in Egypt, where my family home is, where I’ve spent my most formative years, and where I simply can’t imagine not living. But there are also (many) moments of doubt and many instances of feeling out of place in Egypt. That’s probably something I will feel anywhere, and so it doesn’t bother me too much anymore. In a world where nationalism has come to play such a decisive and important role, often negative, it’s probably best to also see the many benefits of not quite belonging.