Too old to rock’n’roll: Too young to die. The name of Jethro Tull’s album evokes in me a sense of misfit. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong there, either. This feeling of not belonging has been with me since my highschool days. Too “western” to live in Istanbul, too “eastern” to live elsewhere. The funny thing is I did not feel “eastern” when I was living in the US. But now, in Switzerland, I do. Is it the Swiss? Is it because I am more aware? Is it related to the rise of nationalism throughout the world?
I just finished reading Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical comic novel about her childhood in Tehran, followed by (lonely) teenage years in Austria then her return to Iran to live through her twenties. The story begins in 1980, the year after the Islamic Revolution, when she is 10 years old and ends in 1994, when she leaves Tehran for the second time.
It’s 1980. Coming from a forward thinking family, Marji finds it very hard to conform to the new rules of the Islamic Revolution: wear a veil, don’t walk with anybody of the opposite sex, don’t wear lipstick or any other makeup. She even has a few brushes with the Guardians of the Revolution. Even though she portrays these events as if she talks her way out of them, I thought that her family, which has influence, got her out of these. In any case, her life is confined to house parties and hanging a Michael Jackson poster is a big act of rebellion under this pressure. Worried about their daughter’s well-being, her parents send her to Vienna. She goes to school there but is never accepted by her friends and, furthermore, she never feels like she belongs there. She is so lost that she goes through a phase where she deals drugs and then stays on the street for two months and gets bronchitis. In the end, she returns to Tehran, feeling like a failure. She was too “western” to live in Tehran. Unlike many of her friends who went to fight in the war (boys) or who had to live under complete oppression (girls), she was one of the few lucky ones that got out. Yet, when she finally gets a chance to live in Europe, she feels out of place. She does not fit in. Granted she is a teenager and which teenager has an easy time at high school? She is all alone in a city where she does not know the language. No family, no friends. Limited money. I don’t know how she does it but she survives those years and then makes her way back to Tehran.
Survival. Survival when dislocated. Survival is an instinct but thriving is a decision. A conscious decision.
Marji thrives in her years in Tehran. Despite the oppression that surrounds her, she is protected by her upbringing, her family’s connections and even her family’s old heritage. Her grandmother’s wisdom protects her. Her family’s resistance in the form of optimism and persistence protects her. The feeling of being at home, familiarity with her friends protect her. Once she gets out of that cocoon, she loses her sense of self. Her sense of belonging. She is dislocated. Even though she knows the western life style, she has a hard time adjusting because her sense of self is defined by her lifestyle in Tehran.
Do exiles ever talk about their previous life as a bad life? I think not. It’s usually a wonderful life that they leave behind. Especially at the beginning of their new life, their past life is much more wonderful than the new life they try to (re-)build. Back home, they thrived despite all the hardship or, even sometimes, because of all the hardship. They have their own network, own neighborhood and their whole network and support structure keep them afloat in their home country.
If it’s all so wonderful, what pushes them to move away from this lovely network? Circumstances. War. Hope of a safe future. This is what we need to appreciate about the refugees. Most would not be refugees if they had a choice. They were violin players, astronomers, pilots, teachers, doctors. Dislocation meant that they lost everything of value but most importantly their self identity. Some will survive. Will they thrive?