Posted on October 8, 2011 - by mira
I get attached to places.
Some find it difficult to understand. I myself have tried time and again to make sense of it.
See, I don’t view places as material things: buildings, roads, sidewalks. It’s not the weather, either – although good weather helps. And it’s not just the people. If I had to put it in simple terms, I’d say it’s all of those combined, and beyond them.
I see places, in and of themselves, as living spaces that breathe and vibrate with life.
Take Beirut for example, where I grew up and lived most of my life. Beirut has an inexplicable hold on me that goes beyond childhood memories and family ties. She’s a breathing, living city that cares like a doting mother and loves like a caring father.
When I’m in Beirut, I bask in her soul and her vitality. And like a parent, she takes me back in every time I return after a long absence. Like a parent, she admonishes me for being away from her, only to then embrace me. She knows she lives in me, and I in her, no matter where I am. She knows that this wanderlust that’s in me is not something I can help or can ignore. And she lets me go, knowing full-well that I will never leave her.
Wanderlust is a condition that leaves us restless, always longing, and with the frustration of constantly having to say goodbye. As fellow travelers know, we have to keep moving. A place that grows too familiar dulls our senses. The world keeps tugging at us; other places and adventures lure us to them. But unlike what it may seem, it’s not only restlessness and moving. That’s just on the surface of it.
How can I be both ridden with wanderlust and so attached to a place, you might ask? Well, travelers do put down roots, and deep roots at that. We want to be in one place and know it profoundly and be everywhere else at the same time. Does this make sense?
Overcoming our personal prejudices is essential to travel. By travel I mean moving to live in another country, not just visiting it as a tourist. Living in it and learning about it. Many feelings arise from this notion. Fear of the Other and the Other’s feared hostility or aversion toward us. Adaptability. Giving up a set routine – maybe for another. Giving up the comforts of the place we’ve been so used to living in. Any kind of “getting used to” will be replaced by another, different “getting used to.” It’s a matter of “getting used to” anywhere we go. Habit, adapting. When we overcome that first step, the depth of experience and learning cannot be measured. But you have to open yourself up to it first.
And quite unexpectedly, sometimes places captivate us in new and unanticipated ways.
I hadn’t planned on living in Yemen for 8 years – and never would have expected to. Initially, I thought to myself that I’d be there one year, tops. And sure enough, nine months into my Yemen stay, the honeymoon ended and my rebellion, which had been kept at bay until then, soon kicked in. I was tired of the brown landscape. Tired of seeing women covered in black and men with daggers. I have to cover my hair? Dress conservatively and always be self-conscious? Be harassed every _single_ time I went out and constantly be reminded that I was Eve, full of temptation and sin?
It went against everything I was brought up with and everything I believed in. Yemen challenged me to the core. It was the opposite of everything I knew.
But once I overcame that – the frustrations and anger and tremendous pressure to “be like” instead of “be yourself” – something happened. Every time I tried to leave it, Yemen pulled me back. And I was familiar with that feeling; Beirut had never let me go even as she let me go. Yemen wouldn’t let me go either.
It challenged me to grow beyond myself, beyond the bounds of what I felt I could grow into.
Similarly to Beirut, Sanaa and its old city trapped me. I found myself developing an inexplicable relationship with it. Just to walk in the old city became akin to a spiritual experience. I could now feel its soul, just like I do in Beirut. Just being in the city became enjoyable.
When I close my eyes, I can see every detail in Beirut, every color and sound. The grumpy taxi driver and the silver hand to ward off the “evil eye” hanging from his rear-view mirror; the bulbul’s song that competes with urban noises; the Mediterranean inviting us to explore other lands.
When I close my eyes, I can see vivid flashbacks of Sanaa, its vibrantly colored bougainvillea that always thrived in other people’s gardens and not mine; its laid-back rhythm and the taxi driver’s qat bag on the hand brake; the surrounding brown mountains reminiscent of the green ones sheltering Beirut to the east.
In all honesty, I tried to get away from Beirut’s excesses, only to find that I missed and appreciated them all the more in Sanaa’s scarcities. I’d rush back home for reassurance and a reaffirmation of who I was. And after getting my fill of cheesecakes and saturation of the senses in Beirut, I found that I missed the simpler life of Sanaa, where people lived seemingly more contentedly with less. And so it went, as both places laid claim on me.
I’ve been fortunate to have been able to experience both worlds, so close geographically and yet worlds apart. Above all, they’ve both taught me the value of freedom, from taking it for granted, sometimes, in Lebanon to missing it so much, often, in Yemen. Nothing is more beautiful, more challenging and more rewarding than Freedom. Freedom and nothing else.
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. This is a series on my life in Yemen, to be updated on Friday (unless I’m on the road and internet-less). Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them.
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