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What does it mean to be at home?

In one’s own perception as well as that of others, being a Muslim in Germany sometimes seems remote and more a question of ideas and concepts. The fact that Muslims are part of a space or place, change it and make it their home, is still overlooked today. This question is linked to current debates about identities and belonging. In the following article, we explore the question of what belonging can mean in today’s world.

A few years ago, I moved to a new city for study purposes, a few hours’ drive from my birthplace and my parents’ house. Spring is a beautiful time here. The sky is painted in pure blue. The drab and grey facades of the buildings, which offer only a glimpse of the sky, are gilded by the overflowing sun. The lush green of the footpaths sprouts everywhere from the slits, corners and edges. Even the everyday sounds, the whir of the cars and the roar of the trams sound almost friendly. Today everything is familiar to me; things have their place and order and are known after years of interaction.

In contrast, a kind of pallor hangs over my birthplace. Friends left and the town changed. When I walk through the streets, I see memories hanging, sometimes faint, sometimes stronger, but often still just like old ghosts. Although everything is still familiar, it lacks intensity, lacks the feeling of closeness. It’s more like an old acquaintance that you keep for nostalgic reasons.

The feeling of being at home is so fundamental to our lives that we hardly think about it – unless we are forced to. For many, it is tied to a fixed place, sometimes to several places, but at the same time it means more than just one place. “Being at home” evokes more images, memories and expectations than almost any other idea. Anthropologists have described our desire for a home as a basic human need for localisation. For them, our basic need goes far beyond the fact that people settle in particular places. It also includes the essential aspects of belonging, protection and community. Almost all of us develop a longing for security at some point. But whoever says home also says security. And whoever says security speaks of closeness and unchanging permanence. But in a world where everything changes at every moment, how can we ever satisfy this deep longing? This is where the paradox of our human condition reveals itself: on the one hand, our desire for permanence in the world and, on the other, the inevitable change of time, the constant movement and flow of everything temporary.

Most of us today move several times in a lifetime; some to other countries or even to other continents; sometimes only for a certain time, sometimes permanently. Changes of residence have become normal. This development is supported by companies that demand increasing mobility from their employees. While this trend affects more and more people, we tend to trivialise these changes of location and what they mean for us. They have become so normal to our views of life that we have learned to overlook the fact of how difficult these new steps are for many of us; that it takes most people months, if not years, to really arrive in a new place, fill it with life and develop a new daily routine.

In the last three decades, socio-economic and cultural developments have contributed to the emergence of the so-called expat generation, a generation of well-educated and internationally flexible people. These are often young professionals who have studied abroad for a few semesters and whose careers have already taken them to London or Shanghai. They often work for global companies, international organisations or in the media and IT sector, where it is particularly easy to maintain a dedicated lifestyle. In general, they are quick to adapt within an increasingly globalised monoculture. They are the contemporary nomads who always seem to be somewhere else, moving from project to project with a frequent flyer card in their hand luggage while living in hotels or with acquaintances. The latest American series hype through the Netflix subscription, booking on Airbnb or reading the New Yorker is part of the cultural capital standard of the new elites. At the same time, people live in the hip neighbourhoods of big cities, and not without lamenting gentrification. The feeling of being at home here is no longer tied to the place you come from but to an imaginary place you want to go to.

Many assume that these cultural phenomena are a vehicle for a new, global and cultural avant-garde that is equally at home all over the world. At the heart of this milieu is an enormous will for emancipation, a deep longing for the most radical cultural break possible with one’s own origins, since the world of one’s parents and grandparents, with its traditions and localisations, is perceived as restrictive and extremely troublesome for the idea of one’s own self-realisation. Nevertheless, the moment must come when the stimulus of change is exhausted, the moment when one is thrown back on one’s own reality. Anyone who has tried this kind of lifestyle knows that it is based on the looseness of human ties and the belief, or rather the illusion, that real life is waiting for one in another, distant place, while the here and now is only a life of transition.

This is in line with the beliefs of modern societies, which assert that people should be able to leave conditions that are subjectively no longer bearable for them. After all, according to the liberal view, one is obliged to look after oneself; not to let one’s own development possibilities be restricted; not to tolerate passivity and instead to become active in order to change something for oneself. Accordingly, leaving a relationship, a neighbourhood or a work environment has become easier today than ever before.

This demand overlooks not only the disadvantaged members within a society, but also the fractures that result. Those who are not privileged enough to escape are reassured with the promise that one day he or she too will have access to this relief. On the other hand, some global expats also feel the loss, the blank space on the inner map, the sense that something is missing. Because sometimes it doesn’t matter how exciting, thrilling and great things are around you, sometimes you just want to feel some stability and maybe be part of something – you want to have a home.

In the recent past, if you were born into certain social classes, you often remained tied to them for life. This sense of belonging has long been subject to a great process of fragmentation. It is tempting to lament these developments nostalgically, but at the same time it must be noted that for many people they represent something extremely positive. Some can only now find a home at all. Especially those who conflicted with the norms of their environment of origin and therefore had experiences of exclusion and stigmatisation. In our time, they can find people elsewhere who have gone through similar experiences, or simply people who accept and love them as they are. Perhaps this is the most beautiful aspect of the global change our idea of home is undergoing. It is possible to find communities where one is respected and feels a sense of belonging.

In any case, it seems a mistake to try to turn the world we come from into a place without fundamental complications. It is not infrequently, after all, one of the most difficult places to live in, loaded with the most conflict. The numerous idealisations we have all internalised – be it nostalgic family stories or transfigurations from films and novels – often make us forget that the feeling of foreignness can often begin first and foremost at home.

In his 1927 book Being and Time, Heidegger also reflected on the question of being at home. Heidegger is particularly negative about the unquestioned acceptance and adoption of the familiar and the known, the unreflective acceptance of the world contexts into which we were born. For him, this is tantamount to a “decay of everyday life.” According to this, one fails to recognise one’s own self, says Heidegger, if one blindly follows what is common. Only if one breaks through the horizon of the given and the everyday does one have the possibility of escaping the uncanniness of one’s own life. However great the traces of our origins may be, the possibility of leaving them is always possible. Behind this leaving is often the need to realign ourselves, to expand our view of the world and ourselves, and thus to broaden the spectrum of our own horizon of experience. A nostalgic discourse can stand in the way of this necessary expansion of our human experience.

Of course, we will never be able to completely shake off this place where our own history began. The traces of the world we grew up in continue to affect our lives, even when we live or want to live in completely different circumstances and even when we think we are done with our past.

“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner, and that this is true is demonstrated by almost every autobiographical narrative that deals with its own origins. For many of us, this origin as being at home will resonate with sentimental memories of our childhood, even if that world is long gone. Our longing for home is based on these experiences and feelings of childhood that has already disappeared, that is, of an irrevocably lost world that looked different from today, where people spoke differently and smelled differently. Here the ambivalent character of being at home reveals itself. For one ultimately longs for an unreal place, a place borne of gentle nostalgia, unfulfilled longings and far-flung fantasies.

Does that mean we don’t need a home? Yes, we do. If we want to belong, we need to be able to identify with certain groups and certain aspects of the country we live in. The need to attach ourselves to a place and to the people and to let them become a part of us is part of the deeper layers of our humanity. It seems indispensable for most of us if we want to live a reasonably content life. It corresponds with acceptance and the feeling of being where we are meant to be and where we can grow as individuals and communities. Probably it is not so important where one puts down one’s roots. What matters is that you put them down. So being at home means making your home wherever life takes you, because sometimes it takes you to unknown shores and landscapes.

In the end, however, the perfectly fulfilled and happy home is an idealised concept that will not exist in this earthly life, as it is little more than a mirror of the eternal home. Our search for an ideal home is the search for an unattainable happiness here on earth, which in truth belongs to the hereafter. Our home here is our home only temporarily. One day we will have to leave. To make that day less painful, religious authorities like Al-Ghazali or Augustine spoke of our temporary life as a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages have a final destination, but their journeys are about opening up to human experiences, foreign territories and the unfathomable mysteries of the world from all possible angles. When our life becomes a pilgrimage, it becomes a means for expanding our inner and outer geography. We then learn that we are all, in a sense, very far from home; from the place from which we came and to which we will return, and of which our present home is only a reflection.

Orphans of Uganda
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