Friday, February 16, 2007

Where is Home?

Symbols of Home

This symbol is called in Kazakh, a shangyraq. It represents the top of a yurt, the round tent used by Central Asian nomads, and it is known throughout Central Asia as the symbol for home, and by extension, family, tribe and the nation.

I carry my own symbols for home: the photo albums, of course, that accompany me with every move; my childhood baseball card collection, stored in a shoebox in the closet of my old bedroom in my parents home in Fresno. That house is home only because my parents are there; but I did not live there long, and the baseball cards are more evocative of "home" than the house itself, since the card collection was started earlier, during my childhood years in Davis, when I used to take my allowance to the Lucky store and buy a pack of ten baseball cards with a stick of pink gum (as important as the cards), a Hershey bar and a comic book.

Other symbols of home are a ragged t-shirt that I've had for twenty years - it's so worn now that it's almost transparent; a sheaf of favorite newspaper cartoons that I clipped and saved back in the bad years, when I was down and out; a Dave Barry book that he signed, "To my idol, Wael." That's another story. And many more little shangyraqs that are special in their own ways. I suppose I am nostalgic in this way, perhaps because I've moved so much and seen so much.

What is Home?

Why is it so important to us to be home, or to find a home, or to go back home? What is home, anyway?

We grow up and move away from our childhood home and from that point on many of us are homesick for something that we may or may not have had. We wander from place to place, looking for the place that feels right.

Some say home is the place you run to you when you're in trouble or confused. Though sadly, for some, it's the place they run from. That's the tragedy of being a refugee.

Home for many is the place of their childhood, often a place that doesn't exist anymore, a place that you cannot return to for comfort. Like the song says,

I went back to Ohio
but my city was gone
There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
A, O, way to go Ohio.

The Wanderer's Home?

So where is home for the wanderer, the wonderer, the one who does not belong? Where is home for me?

The USA?

This is the proud land of my birth. Sure, I speak the language and I know the colloqualisms, I'm educated in the culture, and I love a good California burrito. There was a time, long ago, when I was a true American believer. I memorized the preamble to the Constitution, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

But Robert Frost famously said that Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The USA does take me in, but reluctantly. They shuttle me aside at the airport to be questioned and searched, go through my laptop and PDA... the usual FWM (flying while Muslim) treatment. The last time I returned to California, they held me for hours. It was just me and a transvestite with pockmarked arms and suspicious brick-shaped objects in his bag. Then they let the transvestite go and it was just me.

hey take me in like you'd take in a bad relative, a freeloading cousin who needs a place to crash. They do not see me as a native son.

Some argue that this treatment is justified by the need for security. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that I am an American-born citizen with no ties to anything criminal, the perception by some people that this treatment is necessary does not mean that I have to like it. It certainly does not make me feel at home, which is the point of this essay.

Well I went back to Ohio
but my family was gone
I stood on the back porch
There was nobody home
I was stunned and amazed:
My childhood memories
slowly swirled past
like the wind through the trees.
A, O, way to go Ohio.
What about Egypt?

I've never lived there. Even my own parents, having lived abroad for decades, are regarded as foreigners when they visit. Perhaps their accents have changed, or maybe it's the subtle differences in clothing, mannerisms and attitudes that they have developed. I remember once when my mother and I went to visit, back when I was in high school, and the taxi driver asked my mother where she was from, and when she said Egypt he did not believe her, even when she insisted. As for me, I would be a total foreigner.

And Egypt's abysmal human rights record is not inviting either.


It's beautiful here, at least here in this Elysian valley of the crater. I am at peace here. People smile at us and greet Salma by name, even people I don't recognize. As I write this the birds are singing outside and our two cats are sleeping comfortably a few feet away. Rosa has pancakes on the stove, and Salma is smiling and giggling.

Nevertheless, I miss being around Muslims, I miss my parents and my old friends, and I long to contribute something meaningful. Even once I get residency here I will not be Panamanian, and my role in this society will always be limited. I am essentially a guest, well treated and made comfortable.

Where They Understand You

Someone said that home is not where you live but where they understand you. Wow... So where is that place for me? Maybe the Market Street office of my former psychotherapist, Dr. Milhem? I'm pretty sure she understood me?

Really, where is this mythical, unlikely place where they understand someone who has been through hell and mud, who has never belonged, who dreams of something greater for the ummah and humanity but
who tiptoes so as not to wake himself?

Still, my friend Samayya said to me recently that all her friends are going through this "no one understands me" phase, which brought me up short to the realization of what a cliché it is, what a throwback to teenage angst and confusion about self-identity. And who understands anyone, anyway? We each live in our own universe, with our own galaxies of weirdnesses, regrets and unspoken thoughts expanding and contracting in our heads.

Speaking of which...

My Own Head

Some say that your head is your home. I remember reading long ago about a nomadic tribe in Africa who believe this very thing. They are constantly on the move, with no geographical home, but each member paints his skull with its own unique design that represents his own centeredness and identity. He repeats this design throughout his life, to represent a home that always moves with him.

I went back to Ohio
but my pretty countryside
had been paved down the middle
by a government that had no pride.
The farms of Ohio
had been replaced by shopping malls
and Muzak filled the air
from Seneca to Cuyahoga falls.
A, O, way to go Ohio.

What About the Muslim Ummah?

Ah, now we're beginning to touch on something true and meaningful. I realize that my non-Muslim readers may not be familiar with this terminology. The word Ummah comes from the same Arabic root as the word for mother, and it refers to the global community of Muslims, which is like a mother that nourishes and cares for us all. This is not a sinister thing in any way, rather it is a community of people who share a faith in God and a belief in spiritual living, and who are committed to helping one another and caring for one another. A Muslim belongs to this Ummah regardless of his or her citizenship or race. For a Muslim this Ummah itself is home.

This is an ideal of course, a vision of brotherhood and sisterhood that often does not live up to reality. It's true that the Ummah today is fragmented, disunited and ruled by a variety of dictators. Some Muslims might totally disagree on political or social issues, and even in their approach to Islam. In spite of all that, though, when I meet another Muslim, no matter where he or she is from, there is an instant transfer of recognition and respect.

Though there may not be a geographical place where they "understand" me, the Ummah is the closest thing to a community that understands me, that welcomes me, and that will always take me in.


I believe this is really the key.

It just occured to me that this town where I live now, El Valle de Anton, is very much like the Davis of my youth. Davis back then was an idyllic small town, full of arching oak trees, people on bicycles, and green parks that were all within cycling distance. It was a sweet place and time. That Davis is gone, surrendered to suburban sprawl and California real estate values, but here I am, having come thousands of miles to find a place just like it in which to raise my child(ren). So perhaps, in a strange way, I have come home after all.

Isn't this what it really comes down to in the end: you make a place for your family, and it's home because your family is there. Remember what I was saying about how you grow up and move away from home, and then you become homesick for a place that may not even have existed? I think this is in fact a rite of passage, leading to the time when you have children and create your own new home, one that lives not in your past or your imagination but in your wife or husband's embrace, and in the smile your baby gives you in the morning.

My daughter Salma does not dream of Davis, or Fresno, or any other small town of the past that has been paved into a shopping mall. For Salma, home is right here. This is the place of her birth and her childhood, and more importantly this is where her loving parents reside.

If Laura, Salma and I were to pack up tomorrow and move to India or China, it would still be home, because we would still be a family. Sure, I'd still think about Davis, Fresno, San Francisco and El Valle, and I'd still carry my nostalgic charms, my shangyraqs, but at the end of the day, coming home, it would be about seeing my family's faces, and their smiles when I walk in the door.

Between my family, and my Ummah, I think I have more of a home than most.

The Hereafter

I'd be remiss if I did not point out that from an Islamic, spiritual perspective, there is no true home in this world. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, "I am in this world like a rider who stopped briefly to rest under the shade of a tree, then went on and left it behind." He was a deeply humble man who ate only simple foods and wore patched garments, though he was born into nobility and later in life had the wealth of an empire available to him.

Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), one of the closest companions of the Prophet, once narrated this event:

"I went to the Prophet and saw that he was lying on a mat made of the leaves of the date-palm, and there was no bedding between him and the mat, and the texture of the mat had left deep marks on his body, and under his head was placed a leather pillow stuffed with the bark of the date-tree. On seeing it, I said, "My Master! Pray to Allah to grant prosperity to your followers. He has bestowed riches upon the people of Rome and Persia even though they are not believers."

The Prophet replied, 'O son of Khattab! Do you not prefer that they take the joys of this world and we of the Hereafter?" (reported in Bukhari and Muslim)

This doesn't mean that nothing in this life has value, but that it can't be found in the things we generally prize. Value cannot be found in material. Our houses, cars, computers and TVs, savings accounts and stocks, designer clothing and cell phones, and all the material things that we aspire to and hold dear, are dust in the wind.

What is valuable is what lasts: our behavior and actions. Whether we're hateful or compassionate, selfish or generous, devoted to God or devoted to ourselves. These things go with us into the grave and stand by us on Judgement Day.

Any home that we try to build in this life must be built on what is real and lasting.


Zach said...

Great post Wael.

When you write that you long to contribute to something meaningful I would argue that already are. You have a beautiful daughter and wife... I think I know what you mean though. What kinds of things are you thinking about contributing to?

I hope you're not thinking of moving! We're looking forward to spending time with you guys when we get to El Valle starting in August if all goes well.



Wael said...

Hi Zach,

No, we're not thinking of moving, not at all.

As for doing something meaningful... the world is full of poverty and suffering, and I want to contribute to alleviating that suffering in some way, even if only in a small way. My area of expertise is the internet, but I'd like to do something more hands on. I just don't know what, yet.

Laura Hale said...

I found myself at home with you Wael long, long ago.

The primary definition of home in the dictionary is shelter, but we all recognize this definition as lacking the complexity with which we know and have experienced being "home"--I understand your post to consider this point.

I believe that "home" is an emotional state rather than a place; the people, images, smells and objects of our lives acting as triggers to elicit the emotion of home.