You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? … You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist.
Andrew Largeman in’ Garden State’
They say you never step in the same river twice. It’s a comment on how even things that stay the same are in a constant state of flux, and on how the familiar can rapidly become foreign. There is perhaps no situation where this finds such a profound expression as that of the immigrant, for the concept of ‘home’ is a fixed one, which is nonetheless subject to constant sweeping revisions.
On a recent trip back to the UK to visit friends and family, it struck me how quickly England has stopped feeling like ‘home’ for me. It is a curiously bewitching experience to be somewhere one knows inside out visually, and yet emotionally seems galaxies away. Walking through the streets of the town I had been living in until 3 months ago, I was reminded of a line from David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, where a traveller descending from the Trans-Siberian Express into Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia) likened it to ‘descending from a dark box into a carnival of aliens’. Having done the same journey myself, I can confirm that arriving back into quiet, dependable Hertfordshire after 10 weeks in Israel’s socio-political iron foundry was only mildly less disorientating.
Gradually, after peering at the situation with my mind’s eye for some time, the contours of explanation began to emerge from the bewilderment. Simply put, I have chosen Israel to be my home, and I chose to no longer call the UK my home. And choice, surely, is what truly defines and characterises somewhere as one’s home – they have decided to reside there, to put their belongings there, to start, continue, or shelter their family in that place. Therefore, as soon as the mental step of selecting another location to call home is taken, the temporary spell over an elected dwelling is broken; what was once ‘home’ is now just another building, albeit one with an invisible ink veneer of memories that are only perceptible when placed under the light of one’s recollections. And so it is that I wandered around my old home surrounded by shadows and half-remembered conversations, mingling unseen with reunions and catch-ups.
It so happened that my week in the UK coincided with the Israeli government’s decision to begin arresting and deporting South Sudanese asylum seekers. Two things were not lost on me as I tried to stay updated with the situation: firstly, that the fundamental element of feeling at home, which is that you have chosen to live there, is a luxury; and secondly, that being able to revisit former homes which, as in my case, can be so casually shrugged off like an unnecessary jacket, is also a luxury. I then wondered how many people currently residing in Israel long-term can truly think of it as home. The country’s asylum seekers and refugees have come here because they have been pushed, not pulled. Furthermore, when one is reviled, demonised, dehumanised, vilified, patronised, homogenised, punched, kicked, sworn at, spat on, stabbed, hated, blamed and degraded, as African immigrants in Israel have been, then any previous choice in arriving here becomes negated by no longer choosing to stay.
Except, of course, that the vast majority are stuck, save for those who are unwillingly, for the most part, deported. In that situation, they are being despatched to a destination which someone else has nominally elected as their ‘home’, regardless of their views on the matter. In addition, when one considers the searing trials these people have been through in order to try and find somewhere better to call ‘home’, from torture, rape and hate crime to starvation and dehydration, it is inescapable that for many, the concept of ‘home’ and all the safety and self-determination that entails has been so utterly defiled that it is difficult to conceive of them ever approaching it again. And as they walk through the streets of wherever they are living, be it Tel Aviv or Juba, they are also surrounded by figures from their former lives; yet rather than the pastel-coloured nostalgia of friends of homes past that walk alongside them, it is more the figure of Banquo, battered and grotesque. Except that the blood is, collectively, on our hands, and not theirs.