Nostalgia is not a refuge

I feel foreign again in this America, teetering on a political moment fraught with the ugliest overtones I have ever witnessed. I think of how to live in American anew.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Minnesota, USA

In the course of my entire childhood, no one could say my name correctly. I was an oddball from the first roll call. Except I wasn’t, because my refugee family had become naturalized citizens before I ever saw a schoolroom. At age five I could not grasp what that meant, but I knew it meant something that teachers and classmates all pronounced my name with a strange elongation of the second syllable. I was too shy as a child to correct them, but I still chafe if anyone says my name like that.

Years later living in Jordan, I discovered Arabs also said my name wrong. That claim is partly ridiculous, as Fatima is a common, native Arabic name. Migrants of earlier centuries carried the name across Asia, the Mediterranean, the Sahara, the Atlantic. As the name traveled different languages elided it with more familiar sounds, and so Fatimas in Kabul, Cairo and Kuala Lumpur all say their name differently. Given my name and dark features, most Jordanians affably adopted me as a quasi-Arab with a charming indifference to my congenital identity crisis.

Emigrating to a place like Jordan is not like emigrating to a country in the Western hemisphere. There is no death by paperwork, no expensive visa application, no fingerprinting or bewildering, arbitrary rejection. A brilliant Palestinian Jordanian friend who helped me find my bearings in Amman had no patience for any complaints about Jordan’s sclerotic bureaucracy. For a young Arab male, the hassle of legally obtaining a visa to a Schengen country or the US was a belabored, tedious exercise. His rightful rebuke chastened me. This exchange came just as dead refugees began washing up on Europe’s southern shores, and I could not tell him that Europeans had largely reconciled themselves to this grotesque spectacle so as to avoid relaxing their movement regime.

I also did not tell him this was much like the American resignation to preventable gun deaths, and that gun control had proven impossible in a country where murdering kindergartners with semiautomatic weapons does not move lawmakers to abandon their craven posturing and restrict gun access. A very American concern: wondering when your next neighborhood bloodbath is coming. And America today is palpably different than when I left it a decade ago. My mother, who still trembles at the sound of helicopters because it reminds her of Soviet troops flying into Kabul in 1979, now worries about being out alone at night. She asks me if we should consider leaving the US, the only place my parents have called home since they fled Afghanistan 34 years ago.

Because I am Afghan too, at 23 I go to Kabul, largely borne of a desire to explore an inherited nostalgia for a homeland. But shared language and cultural affinity are not the fulcrum of identity and nostalgia is not a refuge. Afghanistan is not a gentle place, and my work involved the agonizing study of harrowing abuses Afghans witnessed over four decades of war. The grim deprivation and rote injustices men and women face are perversely warped into tropes about Afghan hardiness and resilience. My years working there are a sad, confusing mess.

However, I do not return to the US. Instead I go to London. The model migrant metropolis, London suggests easy anonymity. Its cultural panoply is a marvel, and my circle of friends is beautifully diverse. But my blunt American edges never really fit. A British friend once said he agreed with Richard Dawkins’ view that atheists are more intelligent than the religious. Another day my headscarf enrages a well-dressed man my father’s age, who shouts at me on a busy street that I don’t need to dress like that in his country, and that I should go back to Saudi Arabia.

After five years, it was not occasional hostility, the starchy mannerisms, or the appalling climate that alienated me from London. It was not even the impotent rage of dealing with the Home Office, which once held my American passport for so many months of “security screening” that I could not see a beloved uncle before he died. I tell the immigration official in Amman that I left London because I wanted to study Arabic. I do not say I had to leave because the air of the city poisoned me with love and memory. Borders are no place to declare grief.

I feel foreign again in this America, teetering on a political moment fraught with the ugliest overtones I have ever witnessed. I worry for my female friends and relatives who still veil, for my father’s safety when he goes to mosque, about the armed racists, bigots and anti-Semites who once only lurked on the periphery of civil discourse. In America in 2016, a football player has to school a Supreme Court Justice about fairness and protest. 1

We forget about the hundreds of thousands of undocumented children smuggled to the US and deported right back to violent places. We barely blink when refugees fleeing cruel and certain death are demonized as termites gnawing the sturdy foundations of our pristine democracy.

So I think of all this, the intimate, unreadable human impulse to move, the terrors that compel us to, the unequivocal privilege to do so freely, to leave and return again. I think of how to live in American anew. And when I reflect on America’s chronic, structural inequalities (in housing, health, education, infrastructure and justice), I sense something more than the instinct of a political scientist. If belonging does not reside in the weft of our ancestry, language or postcodes, perhaps it lives in a wish to preserve and foster the places we inherit by choice or force. Perhaps this is enough.


  1. For details of the story see Adam Liptak, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg regrets Speaking Out on Colin Kaepernick,” New York Times, October 14, 2016, (accessed November 8, 2016).
Fatima Ayub

Fatima Ayub

Fatima Ayub is a political researcher and writer. She currently divides her time between the United States and the Middle East. She is an associate policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and has formerly worked at the Open Society Foundations, the International Center for Transitional Justice and Human Rights Watch. She focuses on policy issues in US, Europe, Middle East and South Asia, and has a standing interest in crisis, conflict, rights and justice.