Confessions of a Serial Migrant

Picture credit: Lea Böhm

Home is a feeling

I think of myself as a serial migrant, with a whirlpool of maps under my carbon footprint. I collect homes in my memory, adding each new place to an album of sights, smells, textures, and climates. Each place blurring the idea of home even more. For my parents, “home” was an ancestral town they left behind in India after the partition. For my children, “home” is a button on their Apple devices that they press to access their digital lives. My parents’ generation talked about the idea of home with an infectious nostalgia – my children think of it as a transitory concept, a technical detail. They are at home with technology. They Facetime friends across continents, bonding over video games as if they were in the same room. Physicality is a minor detail for them. Unlike my parents who would cherish the odd letter that would get through the stringent borders of the nation state, my children don’t find distances a matter of inconvenience. As long as they have a good WIFI connection. I am somewhere in between. I am neither at home in the past like my parents, nor in the future like my children. I am suspended somewhere in the middle, trying to figure out what home means to someone whose identity has slowly eroded with each subsequent move. In this age of mass displacement, there are many people like me who feel at home in a country in which they are temporary residents, but like a stranger in the land of their birth. It makes me wonder why we think of home as a static concept. Home, if anything, is a metaphor for familiarity, comfort and acceptance. Home is a mug of hot chocolate on a cold snowy day, a steadying hand when you feel unsure, the scent of your mother’s headscarf, a big warm hug, even if it is from a stranger.

Home is a cloud

Where do you house your memories? These days my past, present and future reside together in a cloud that looms above me, invisible but omnipresent. It stores my pictures, my documents, my bills, everything that documents my existence. Everything that tells me that I have lived. Every now and then, a memory pops up from the cloud and onto the many screens that surround me, to remind me that I have lived. Without it, perhaps I would not exist. My virtual existence remains more stable than my nomadic physical self, wandering the globe in search of a home. A home to which I belong, rather than one which belongs to me. I long for acceptance. At a time where home is transient, the cloud remains the most welcoming, always ready to house more of me. Never judging, never critiquing, giving me a false sense of security of protection, of comfort. All those things I associate with home. Is home then a cloud?

Home is a piece of paper

Is home the country on your passport, or the space inside your heart? During the pandemic, many of us who had taken the freedom to travel for granted began to question the idea of home. One European colleague who had deep ties with NYC having lived and taught there for decades found that he could no longer enter the US unless he was a national. One American colleague found that she could no longer access her property in France without citizenship as borders were closed to everyone except citizens. For the first time ever at immigration, the officer told me it was better to travel on my Pakistani passport than the British one, as people from Britain were restricted from travelling during Europe’s raging siege under the virus. The idea of home was suddenly reduced to a piece of paper. Is home more than just your citizenship? Or is home what your passport says it is? But what about those who, like my students in the Gulf, are born in countries which don’t grant them citizenship? Or those migrants who are deported after decades on a foreign soil just because they don’t have the right papers. All those children who grow up without any connections to the lands of their ancestors and can’t even speak the language or identify with their cultural heritage, yet are denied citizenship in the country where they learn to speak and think – where is home for them? Home is what the home office decides it is.

Home is a memory

The sky is the same everywhere. The same cosmic blue decorated with puffs of white clouds, generous and giving, full of shade on some days. Harsh and blinding, without cloud cover, on other days. Sometimes, I think that places don’t change, people do. In the city of my birth, Karachi, I grew up in a rambling old bungalow with an ancient mango tree that provided shade on to a vast courtyard in the harshest of summer days. The house even had a little brick well. It was idyllic and rustic in the midst of the urban chaos of Karachi. My mother cherished it. But I grew up watching “Fraser” and “Friends”, longing for a home where I could be like the characters on television. Long before I knew about cultural imperialism and about internalising whiteness, I imagined myself walking through cosmopolitan streets, no one stopping me to tell me girls don’t do this or behave like that. I was tasting freedom through the television screen. But later, as a young immigrant bride, when I did move to the UK, I realised that freedom is never free. The streets of London were also about survival, albeit of a different kind. Sexism was replaced by racism and in the UK, I struggled to come to terms with the new identity bestowed upon me. I was on display. The idea of freedom – just an illusion. However, I soon found that as someone who was not visibly Muslim or South Asian, I was free to pick and choose parts of myself on display. Yet there was a nagging sense that this was not natural. If power was handed down to you, was it really yours to begin with? I began to question the patronising politics of identity and belonging. I hesitated to call London home. If home accepted you conditionally, if loyalties were split along the lines of “good” Muslim and “bad” Muslim, oppressed woman of colour or liberated secular one, then were you really allowed to feel at home? My idea of home transformed into something even more complex when we moved back to Pakistan. I could no longer be restrained by four walls and my body ached to walk free on the streets, an act often unsafe for women in the city of Karachi. Home was no longer the romanticised nostalgia I had indulged in of the shaded gardens and afternoon siestas. Instead, it was a place where women had limited access to public spaces, the infrastructure strained and groaning under a burgeoning urban population. But was it the city that had changed, or was it me who was no longer the same person? I found myself questioning, is home then a “planted” memory?  

Home is a person

Was home then made up of people and not of places? Is home then the company we keep and not a physical space that we inhabit? I remember sitting with friends once, exchanging anecdotes and laughing over a shared meal, thinking that perhaps home is made up of the people in our lives. Each person who comes into our life makes a little home inside us for a while. They stay with us, their words influence us, grow within us. Sometimes, they leave a bad taste in our mouths, and that memory is difficult to rinse out. Sometimes, they scar us and like homes that collapse or flood and damage our belongings, these people, too, leave stains of trauma on our minds and bodies. They make us wary of future relationships, of trusting new homes to make within other people. But, eventually, every experience makes us grow and expands our idea of comfort. Home, perhaps, is the sense of being at ease, of feeling at home – with someone.

Home is a language

You know that fuzzy sensation, as if you’ve been embraced, when you hear someone speak in your language? That sudden feeling that you are in a place where everybody knows your name? The other day, I was in a Zoom meeting when the person I was talking to excused herself for a few minutes. Forgetting to mute herself she started talking to her daughter in Urdu. The sound of the language was so sweet, it felt as if I had taken a bite of gulab jamun and my mouth was flooded with sweetness. I felt such a surge of joy, as if I had come home after a long hard day. Again, I was struck by the idea that a few words of my mother tongue in a foreign country could make me feel so at home. Yet in Pakistan, surrounded by the language, I had never felt that way. There was something about distance that made a language that was not the dominant one make you feel bathed in familiarity. Perhaps, language is home. A home that is transportable. A home that you can take with you, find in others through shared songs, poetry and dialogue. On the campus where I teach, I sometimes see Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese and Bangladeshi students huddled together, bonding over Bollywood films or Coke Studio soundtracks, all borders and boundaries of ethnicity and religion forgotten. Or Arab students from different parts of the Middle East gathered together. The very idea of nation states eradicated, as they bond over an Arabic pop song, bathing in the familiarity of a language that makes them feel at home in each other’s company. Home, then, is a song you know the lyrics to.

Home as a question

“And where is home?” This is a question I dread being asked, not just because I genuinely don’t know anymore, but because often the real question behind it is, “Why are you here?” After living abroad for more than two decades, I feel the very idea of belonging is paradoxical. What does it mean when you feel at home in a place that is not your home? For a serial migrant like me, a woman who has spent more time outside the land of her birth than inside it, the concept of home has changed drastically with each subsequent migration. Each place I have lived in and called home, whether it is a location or a structure, has altered me in some way. It has taken a part of me as well attached a part of itself on to me. It has made me question my beliefs and my loyalties. But like Sindbad, migrants too dream of adventure, only to yearn for familiarity. Work took me to the Gulf and here I found the coming together of the societal freedom of the West with the cultural heritage of the East, and it felt like a homecoming. Yet the temporariness of my stay here and the fact that this was a country where you could stay only as long as you were useful, made me reluctant to call it home. There was always a question at the back of mind. Where will I go next? Home then is a journey – with no particular destination.  

Home is a taste

Sometimes I think home resides within the foods of our childhood. Both home and food are like blankets of comfort. They make us feel safe, content, fulfilled. Salted caramel ice cream takes me back to summer afternoons in Washington. The melting taste of Lindt chocolates in my mouth transports me to my home in London. Falafel wraps can make me recall each and every tingling detail of our flat in Beirut above a falafel shop.  The fragrance of basmati rice infused with cardamom and red chilli pepper instantly transports me back to Karachi, no matter which part of the world I’m eating it in. Whenever I bite into the succulent biryani chicken, spice tingling the roof of my mouth, I feel at home. It can be in London’s Tooting, Dubai’s deira or New York’s Jackson Heights, desi food always makes me feel welcome. Maybe that’s why whenever we travel after a while we long for the taste of home, making long trips to South Asian neighbourhoods for desi foods. Is home, then, just a flavour?

Home is a smell

One of the first things that struck me when I moved to Abu Dhabi was the absence of smells. The streets were so clean, the buildings so sterile, the garbage so neatly tucked away and disposed of. South Asian migrant labourers working away 24 hours, like invisible muscles to keep the city shining. No lingering odour in the air. Just a faint smell of disinfectant that would soon fade away like the echoes of a whisper. In the absence of any natural smells, the scents of people became even more heightened and each time an Emirati person would pass by engulfed in Oud cologne, I would imagine myself personifying them into the image of the city. I imagined Abu Dhabi to be a white robed man in a cloud of Oud, his smile welcoming yet forbidding – much like the clean and sterile city. One you could admire, but were afraid to inhibit. And so, in the absence of smells in the city, the scents of past homes become more pronounced in my mind. In the mornings it is the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Sitting on a small wooden table in a café, the coffee mug became my home. I breathe it in – the welcoming scent of cocoa beans, earthy, smooth, the steam rises from the cup and I think the smell of coffee is the same wherever you go. It wraps your senses in its warmth. You feel wanted. Understood. You wrap your palms around its forgiving exterior. Sometimes it’s porcelain, sometimes it’s styrofoam. Whatever the texture, whatever the temperature, it always hugs you back. It makes you feel at home. Is home then the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the pungent odour of friend onions, the fresh scent of cut grass? Or is home the smell of your mother’s chador, of your father’s cigar, of the scent of wet earth after rain in the courtyard of my Karachi house? But home is also the laundry like scent of fresh white snow in Washington, the smell of slightly charred grass and barbeques in the streets of London, the tantalising trails of kebabs on charcoal, or the harsh smell of rotting garbage on the side streets of Karachi, the unbearable stench of uncleaned gutters, even the smell of blood in Beirut… Inhale, exhale, breathe.

Home is a quest

Home is a journey, a search, a pursuit. But for what? For a memory to be mourned, or a desire to be pursued? In this world of mass displacement when very few of us have the luxury to spend our lives in one place, where can serial migrants like myself house their fragmented selves? Each move, every migration splits us further like a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces, our loyalties divided, our memories scattered. Today I live and work in the Gulf, but the journey to independence, financial and emotional, has been long and hard. I was born in Pakistan, lived in Britain, the US, and the UAE, not by choice but by chance. Each country built me up a little and broke me down a bit. Slightly chipped, a bit chiselled. After migration, motherhood, divorce and self-actualization I find myself thinking, is home the place I learnt to speak? Or is it the place that silenced me? Is it the place I found myself or the place I lost myself? The place that gave me roots or the place that gave me wings? I am a person who feels like a stranger at home, and at home in a place that is strange to me – is home then just a concept that is as transient in this world of serial migrations and technological evolutions, as it is elusive? Home, then, is a search for the self. And for me, home is my writing. A place I don’t need any visas to visit, no tickets, no plane fare, only an imagination. The blank page is where I truly feel at home. Home then is what we write it to be. Home is a story, we tell ourselves.

About the author:

Sabyn Javeri is a yogi and Sufism aficionado, a mother of two, and the author of Hijabistan and Nobody Killed Her (Harper Collins: 2019, 2017). She has written for the South Asian Review, London Magazine, Wasafiri, Oxonian Review, Trespass, Journal of Commonwealth Literature. She won the Oxonian Review short story prize and has been shortlisted for the Tibor Jones prize and Leaf Books amidst others.

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About Sabyn Javeri

Sabyn is a yogi and Sufism aficionado, a mother of two, and the author of Hijabistan and Nobody Killed Her (Harper Collins: 2019, 2017). She has written for the South Asian Review, London Magazine, Wasafiri, Oxonian Review, Trespass, Journal of Commonwealth Literature. She won the Oxonian Review short story prize and has been shortlisted for the Tibor Jones prize and Leaf Books amidst others.

Sabyn is a yogi and Sufism aficionado, a mother of two, and the author of Hijabistan and Nobody Killed Her (Harper Collins: 2019, 2017). She has written for the South Asian Review, London Magazine, Wasafiri, Oxonian Review, Trespass, Journal of Commonwealth Literature. She won the Oxonian Review short story prize and has been shortlisted for the Tibor Jones prize and Leaf Books amidst others.

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