Reconnecting with a Home You Thought You Knew
I’ve become comfortable with admitting my naiveté. Not the kind that comes with being a teenager or in your early twenties. I find the type that comes with being a diaspora kid who just moved to their native country much more difficult to recognize, and especially complicated to move past. Though, not irresoluble.
It’s usually coupled with an arrogance held up by host countries that are simultaneously rejected and seen as paragons. It comes with a sliver of ignorance too; a feigned understanding of a diasporic homeland, that—if lucky, by virtue of finances, time, and freedom—you visited for a week or two every year.
Years pass, and your connection to your heritage is persuasive, so you move there. In 2017, I moved to Tunisia from Virginia. Not to the countryside village where my mother is from and retired in, but the capital, Tunis, where—equipped with degrees from western universities—I assumed I’d quickly find work.
I did; and I moved to a charming apartment in the posh neighborhood of Sidi Bou Said. Then another one in the more traditional port city of La Goulette. In the mornings, I open my windows to a view of Mediterranean Sea. If I’m up early enough, I catch the fisherman set sail to their feluccas.
For lunch, I usually make a shakshouka with fresh tomatoes, peppers, and eggs from the market around the corner. On weekends, a friend who has an expert handle over his Japanese chef knife, makes us sashimi with local sea bream or branzino. If I’m not at mine, my weekends are spent travelling around Tunisia. In the five years since I’ve moved, I’ve travelled to its every corner. I’m particularly fond of how my hair comes to what I describe as its natural state as I move further into the dryer southern weather, void of frizz that made it unmanageable in the humid climates where I’ve spent most of my life, both in La Goulette and Virginia.
The first time I took notice of that, was the first time I’d felt a connection to an actual piece of land. It wasn’t only my hair that thrived on Tunisian soil and sand. My skin benefitted too. So did my digestive system that struggled with the consumption of unnaturally overgrown chicken and and genetically modified crops in America. I found spiritual ease. Though not religious, I connected with the call to prayers I’d hear five times a day.
I suppose, for members of any diaspora reading this, that I should also mention how great it feels have the sense of belonging you desperately longed for. It is wonderful to be a part of the majority, to live in a place where everyone looks like you. Homogony has its perks.
Except, you eventually realize how different you are from your people. I imagine this feeling is exasperated and expedited if you don’t speak your native tongue. I speak Arabic fluently, so it took me some time to grasp how fundamentally dissimilar I was to most of my neighbors, and the Tunisian-born-and-bred friends I’d made.
It starts with a joke or reference you don’t understand, because it requires context-awareness that you can’t have because you grew up abroad. Then, you take consciousness of your heady brashness that made you think you had an immediate offering to a place you don’t fully understand.
After strings of mental gymnastics, heated conversations with friends and relatives, anxieties and an imposter syndrome that come with access to a higher social class afforded to you by virtue of a western identity (especially if you’ve grown up poor, or middle class,) I came to terms with the fact roles were reversed, and my homeland is who came with offerings.
It offers some sense of belonging at the cost of confessing your naiveté. After all, my connection with my homeland didn’t come with a deep understanding of what it was like for my peers to get an education and find themselves without prospect of employment, nor what life was like under a dictatorship, or the experience of witnessing a revolution that flip-turned the course of an entire region. So, to learn that I didn’t have much to offer in exchange for a sense of familiarity, is a good trade by any measure—even unbalanced in my favor. I gained the understanding that a full sense of belonging is either unachievable, or is only found within the diaspora, the sort of suspended reality between home and host where we exist. Personally, I’ve put an end to the quest. It didn’t take long into my move to Tunis for it to fall off my list of priorities.
Instead, my time is spent maneuvering life in Tunis. Which, for the prize of Mediterranean Sea views, freshly caught branzino, and hair that doesn’t frizz, is incredibly pleasant and almost always comes with complications. Whilst I can summon a burger to my doorstep in Virginia with a few taps on my phone screen, the process of ordering a meal to La Goulette entails numerous phone calls. Shopping isn’t straightforward in Tunisia, I often have to rely on sending out a query on a Facebook group for a specific kind of light bulb I’m looking for instead of making quick google search, and most annoying of all is the jumping through hoops to get an ID because bureaucracy is a sham.
Here, life automation is practically impossible, which, depending on the kind of person, can be deemed a life too tedious; or you’d come to enjoy the slowed pace of steering its every step. I belong to the latter category. It’d be borderline Machiavellian of me to make you believe I’d always been this way, though.