Schrijfster Rasha Khayat uit Hamburg woont en werkt op uitnodiging van Leeuwarden City of Literature een ruime maand in de stad. Vandaag deel 3 uit haar dagboek als writer in residence.

Friesian Trees

I think about roots. In interview situations or on stage in Germany I am frequently asked about my Arabic roots, my Arabic heritage and what or where I consider my “home”. It’s a complicated, oftentimes loaded question because sooner or later it opens up the topic of who is and who isn’t entitled to a German identity. I admit, I answer these questions mostly on the basis of how I feel in that very moment, and also depending on who is asking. Sometimes I just name the German city I was born in as the place I’m from, sometimes the city of Hamburg, where I’ve been living for almost 20 years. Sometimes, when I can feel good intentions, openness and genuine interest in engaging in a conversation, I go into more depth, I explain about the complications of having grown up with two parents from different cultures, languages, religious beliefs, of having grown up and lived in in two so completely different countries – Germany and Saudi Arabia. I say things like: “I consider my close friends my home”, or “for me, books, writing and reading gives me a sense of home”. I try to explain the difficulty of growing up with a foreign parent in a country so hostile towards immigrants as Germany and how this has shaped the way I see the world. The honest truth is – at 45, I still have absolutely no idea what it means – this concept of “home”. One of my favorite writers, the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz said: “Home is where all your attempts to escape cease.“ I can relate to that I think. That home isn’t necessarily a place but more like a state of mind, a semi-permanent calmness. And maybe that’s what it is, especially for people who have led lives in that strange in-between-ness.

Here in Friesland, I have come to meet many people who have never left the place they were born in. “There is a statistic that says, 80% of the people in Friesland will stay withing a 5 kilometer radius their whole lives”, someone tells me. I find this fascinating. To not feel the urge to leave the constraints of one’s birthplace, of the people you’ve known since you were born, where you have memories with every corner, street and lamp-post. To be perfectly content, happy even with exactly what has always been around you.

I have absolutely no idea what this must feel like. Because for me, at the age of 15 or 16 I knew, as soon as I will have finished High School, I will be off and away, preferably at a comfortably far distance from where my parents’ house used to be. And so I was, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way, even now. And maybe the viewpoint from which I am looking at this fascinating friesian fact is crooked in itself. Because of course, most of my very close friends all have left their birthplaces and settled somewhere else, sometimes far away – from a Bavarian province to Berlin for example, or a midsize western town with no particular shape or shade to the city of Hamburg, or from St. Petersburg in Russia to Stuttgart. Also, most of them do have roots elsewhere – Russia, Iran, Syria, Argentina … Birds of a feather flock together, after all.

So I think about roots. Maybe the reason I oftentimes feel restless, the reason my close friends feel restless in Germany is, because we really carry at least parts of our roots only inside of us. Because at least parts of the people and places we love and grew up with, were never to be found in the same place at the same time.

And these people I meet here in Friesland, they seem more like strong, tall trees, deeply and thoroughly rooted inside the earth that made them, nurtured by it, and attached to it in a way I haven’t seen very often, if ever in people or places. There is no restlessness here. There is a quiet, sincere sense of calmness. And maybe that comes from the serene landscape as well.

As we’re having lunch, I look over to someone I have become good friends with during my time here. Who also happens to be one of those 80% of unshakable Friesians who never left beyond a certain radius. I think “I will never have what they have.” And a very old, very childish feeling makes itself known inside of me – jealousy. Jealousy of those who have that quiet, confident calmness of a person who never knew displacement, non-belonging, in-between-ness. Who give off the confidence of someone whole, no profound cracks in their base, who exude that they’ve only ever known one place because that place always was and is safe for them.

I remember how I have always resented that energy in people I went to school with, or our German neighbors, or later even some collegues. I remember how being opposite that energy, that calm and quiet confidence of just being right in place made me feel even more alien, as if my personal history was my fault or some sort of birth defect that made me more fragile to my environment.

At the same time, I often seek exactly that energy, maybe in the hope it might eventually rub off on me at least a little.

I find it strange that these old thoughts and emotions come up now, and here, after I haven’t really looked at them in at least ten years. And maybe it’s exactly because in the past decade or so I have chosen mostly people more like me. People who wander, who change, who know what it means to have to adapt, what kind of deep grief it brings and how hard it is to get rid of. And being here now, in this quietly calm, confident place with people who are so deeply, unshakably rooted here, like trees, reminds me that I am exactly not that – deeply and unshakably rooted in the right place place. I feel more like a palm tree in the middle of an apple tree grove.

Yet, it’s good to also feel that I can see this now so clearly, and understand that these very old, very childish feelings are only the result of something completely random beyond my – or anyone’s control: our origin story. The stories of our parents and ancestors. Our own personal destiny. In my everyday life, I have gotten used to seeing it as the normal thing, wanting to leave, being restless, feeling out of place. Maybe it’s a good thing to be reminded here in Friesland that it is in fact not at all normal and that there seems to be such a thing like home for some people that makes them feel good, whole and safe.

For my first novel a few years ago I chose a quote by the late, great Edward Said as epigraph: With all the dissonances in my life, I have learned to actually prefer to be not quite right and out of place.

It’s a sentence I try to live by, still, every day. To prefer to feel not quite right and out of place. Maybe I can learn it here, among the friesian trees. Learn to love being a palm tree in the middle of an apple tree grove.