“For me, there is no homeland. The only homeland is memory and memory is first and foremost in the body.”
Elia Suleiman, Palestinian film director.
Handala (which literally means “bitterness” in Arabic) is the name of a 10-year-old boy: sad, barefooted and always with his face turned away. He is one of millions of children displaced from Palestine, and the signature of Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali, who was assassinated in London in 1987. At first, Handala was like any Palestinian child, writes Naji Al Ali, “but his consciousness developed to have a national and then global and human horizon”. When I was a kid, in the Palestinian camps in Syria we were taught that Handala will not turn and show his face unless Palestine is liberated, and that we will all be Handalas until the day we return.
I was born and raised in Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinian refugees in the south of Damascus. As the son of a refugee who was dispossessed from Palestine in 1948 at the age of two, the camp was my own Palestine until the age of 15-or-so. Damascus then became my idol and Yarmouk turned into “an intensification of exile” but also “a letter eliding Palestine with Syria”, as Palestinian director Thaer Al Sahli says in his phenomenal visual ethnographic work MiG.
In 2011, all of that changed. Syrians began to revolt. Death started to prevail. Assad went crazy.
Terrified by the idea of arbitrary death, of becoming what the government calls “collateral damage” or a victim among “mostly innocent” civilians in the reports of human rights groups, I decided to leave Syria for Beirut at the end of 2012. Why Beirut? Because that was the only place I could go as a stateless Palestinian from Syria.
Why Beirut? Because that was the only place I could go as a stateless Palestinian from Syria.
Still, the Handala in me did not feel welcome in Beirut. He took a look or two with his face turned towards the vibrant city, only to turn his back against it with more determination.
Therefore, it was with anticipation that I three years ago, on the gloomy morning of February 17, 2013, landed at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. The road towards downtown Stockholm was full of snow on both sides and even though it was only 2 pm, the sun was already long gone. Horrified by the darkness of my land-to-be, I started to think in the backseat of the taxi: “What have I done to myself, why did I come here? I was doing just fine in Lebanon.”
Well, thing is I was not doing fine in Lebanon at all. I was illegal and undocumented, with the risk of deportation at any moment should the Lebanese authorities lay their hands on me. As a Palestinian refugee from Syria I was not supposed to stay for longer than a week in the country. Still, in Beirut I was close to home. I knew the streets, I had friends, I made memories. I read the newspaper with a cup of mint tea at the same cafe every single morning. In sum, I had my rituals with the city. I was the unwanted Palestinian, but I did claim my space in Beirut just like the rest of Lebanon’s half a million Palestinians.
I was illegal and undocumented, with the risk of deportation at any moment should the Lebanese authorities lay their hands on me.
But again, I was not doing well in Lebanon. Beirut, who can give you so much love, has also become a place of a lot of pain, injustice and contradictions for Syrians, really desperate Syrians, from all cities and backgrounds. And for other fellow Palestinians, Lebanon has come to symbolise nothing more than the backyard of a big prison.
Actually, looking back now, I always wanted to get as far away from home as I could. Maybe that’s why I ended up on that empty and snowy dark road, with an enthusiastic and happy driver and a radio mumbling a language I did not understand: Swedish.
Exile is an experience, and not just any kind of experience. It is formative at all its stages and, so I have realised, can start also at home, not only beyond. I have also realised that, beside the many positive things brought by the revolution of March 2011 and its subsequent exile, some scars will be just like the snow of Sweden: falling, then vanishing, only to come back again, unexpectedly, as occasional fall from the sky in May.
Exile is an experience, and not just any kind of experience. It is formative at all its stages and, so I have realised, can start also at home, not only beyond.
Now, I feel the urge to speak about today more than yesterday, for today is less dramatic than yesterday. As a survivor of a raging war, every breath I take is like a slap in the face with guilt. I wonder how, living through 18 months of war, I made it without any lethal injuries, without bruises or even a scar. I pause, reminding myself of the invisible scars that Syria has left upon me: the constant struggle to not fall into the hole of hopelessness, eternal sadness, giving up on life.
Today, it is not the weight of survival under which I struggle to breath. It is the burning inquiry of what to do now? How to interpret this experience, of being where I am now, meaningfully. To put it more eloquently, and borrowing from the 19th century philosopher Dilthey, as paraphrased by Victor Turner, “what happens next (to the experience) is an anxious need to find meaning in what has disconcerted us, whether by pain or pleasure, and converted mere experience into an experience. All this when we try to put past and present together”.
Today, it is not the weight of survival under which I struggle to breath. It is the burning inquiry of what to do now?
More than three years have passed since that snowy landing in Stockholm. I am now in the south of Sweden, in the city of Malmö. I am not sure of many things these days, but one thing I feel certain about is my new befriended country. Every time I return to Malmö from a trip abroad, I experience this rush of happiness and a sudden urge to smile. It is a genuine smile: that of a returnee welcomed back by his or her family at the airport, or the one that you return to a grocery shop owner at Möllevångstorget who offers you a free apple. Natural, unconditional, spontaneous and free — the kind that the war took away from me for years. That is the smile that Malmö and its people gave back to me, and I don’t want to give it up again.
I have befriended exile, for it has become a true companion.
The text is an edited version of this blog post by Salim Salamah.