“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust
Despite being born and raised in London, I’ve never felt like this city is home. For a long time, I was convinced that I would leave the UK to find somewhere I could call home, where I could belong. I considered Iraq, if circumstances in the future ever permitted and it was finally safe. Maybe Jordan, where my grandfather now lives because Iraq is too dangerous. Perhaps even Dubai, which seemed to be the ideal combination of east and west, the quintessential cultural transfusion that may have the capacity to accommodate an Arab born and bred in the west. This identity crisis had been brewing in my head and fuelling existential perplexities for years, and I didn’t once believe it would solve itself until the day when I would finally leave London for good.
Over the Christmas break, I left London (briefly). When people talk about vacationing, the impending excitement tends to centre around the exotic food, the relaxation (as if one must physically relocate in order to relax and tune into the Divine, but that’s a whole other conversation to be had) the sun, the parties, and just generally letting loose. The purpose of my “holiday” was to visit family, so none of the things I just listed were applicable, which I was grateful for. Maybe this holiday would turn out to be the perfect opportunity to find home, envisioning myself spending the rest of my short days there. Dad in Dubai. Granddad and cousins in Jordan. Standard affair.
Wandering across Dubai, I witnessed the pits of luxury, glamour, and unbounded opulence, unashamedly exhibited across one of the world’s most lavish (and arrogant) cities. Everyday, we’d drive past a 50-metre billboard on the highway that read: “whoever said winning isn’t everything doesn’t know Dubai”, in reference to Dubai recently winning the right to host the World Expo in 2020. Every time I saw it, my head would say, “whoever thinks winning is everything doesn’t know God”. I felt guilty for simply being there, knowing that the buildings people were admiring and posing around were built by impoverished migrant workers contracted as slaves, paid pennies, and treated like dirt to stack bricks and glass for twelve hours a day in the scorching desert sun so that Dubai could receive the trivial ‘honour’ of housing the world’s tallest building. The “Saudis in Audis” vibe permeated everywhere. As an Arab…wait, let me rephrase that; as a human, I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed. This could never be home.
Jordan couldn’t have been more different. Centuries-old houses, mountains, and downtown vegetable market antics inspired a sense of nostalgia. I immediately felt a connection and, however faint that connection was, it struck a chord. Everyone spoke arabic. Poetically. The call to prayer could be heard in every street five times-a-day, without fail. My sisters and I spent mornings huddled around my grandfather, immersing ourselves in his lyrical storytelling. His experiences as a political activist in Iraq, a businessman in Germany, a prisoner in Iran, and now an immigrant in Jordan ignited an almost blinding, if not militant, nationalism within me. As always, however, it wasn’t all joyous. Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps scattered across the country in ailing, lifeless fields reminded me of the dark side of mankind. These families once knew of home. Now they were banished. Homeless. What started out as a nostalgic, heart-warming journey, had now led me to the pits of disillusionment.
Political exile. Seven-star hotel resorts. Refugee camps. Luxury villas. Destitute migrant workers. Bedouins. I witnessed so many paradoxes. So many inequities. My eyes, and heart, wept at the sight of some of the atrocities of mankind. Ironically, as I was preparing to make my way back to London, the concept of ‘going home’ felt more alien than ever.
As I tearfully waved goodbye to my dear grandfather, my two orphaned cousins, and their mother, I knew my life had changed. Over the course of a mere few weeks, I had become increasingly aware that my conscience had been harbouring ambitions about my role in this transient human existence that I could no longer ignore. The school-university-work-die construct doesn’t appeal to the awakened spirit; it doesn’t offer anything that a mind driven by the existential Question will, even remotely, settle for. A meagre 9-to-5 that only serves to (just about) pay the bills, neutralise the intellect, and desensitise the soul is too painful for the living.
The taxi sped away from my family; from what, for a little while, genuinely felt like home. It hurt to see my grandfather cry, to hear my little cousins weep, to watch my widowed aunt wave goodbye. But it was precisely at that moment, teary-eyed at 6am having had no sleep, that I realised that ‘home’ isn’t a destination. It’s a state of mind. Home is to be at one with Him. He is the Home that can never be stolen. The Light that never fades. The Mercy that never withholds. He is Home.
“Have they, then, never journeyed about the earth, letting their hearts gain wisdom, and causing their ears to hear? Yet, verily, it is not their eyes that have become blind – but blind have become the hearts that are in their breasts” – 22:46