Na’ima B. Robert explores her past, present and unforseeable future through the cities she has lived in.
I sometimes wonder whether I will ever find my home.
Home, a place of solace and belonging, a place to put down roots.
My life, and the lives of so many of my generation, has been marked by being what the French philosopher Frantz Fanon described as ‘deracine’, literally, ‘uprooted’. Uprooted physically and mentally, culturally and spiritually.
What is it that keeps us rooted? Is it strong family, or language, or religious faith, or land to claim as our own? Is it knowing our history, understanding when the elders speak, or being able to negotiate an alien culture with our identity and integrity intact?
We are all negotiating our identities, every day.
I wonder whether this is the bequest of my ancestors for when I trace my family line, on both my father’s and my mother’s sides, into the mountains of KwaZulu and the glens and lochs of the Scottish Highlands, I find a pattern of exile and displacement, of movement and change, that I see replicated in my own life, even today.
My people are not a settled people.
True, the reasons for migration have been many: voluntary as in the case of the religious missionaries on the trail of heathen souls to save; involuntary as in the forbidden love of black and white, ready to risk the permanence of home for the chance to forge a new life – together.
Economic, as in the case of a mother leaving her own brown children to look after other white children in the city, so that her brown children can eat and go to school; political, as in the case of the intellectual guided by his principles, following his dream to the horn of Africa.
Pragmatic, as in the case of the hotheaded young girl determined to gain a university education in foreign lands; religious, as in the case of the Muslims leaving family, friends and the security of familiarity, in search of Arabic, Qur’an and a deeper meaning.
Varied as the reasons may be, their effect has been the same: a family that is scattered to the four winds, spread across hemispheres and time zones, and an identity that is forever shifting, trying to find its balance, trying to understand itself.
Every city has informed who I am today, as a Muslim, as a woman, as a thinker, as a doer. Cities have a way of leaving their mark on you, of working their way into your bloodstream. Some cities do this regardless of whether you let them in or not; they work their way under your skin, little by little, until you realise that part of who you are is bound forever to that city.
These are cities where I have discovered different parts of myself; cities that have taught me a myriad of different lessons; cities that hold a piece of my heart, sometimes years after I have abandoned them for new horizons.
But this abandonment, although initiated in the spirit of adventure and foolish bravery, is bittersweet. I chose to leave each one, carefree, thinking with the certainty of youth that I could find myself in another place, never thinking that I would mourn the loss of each city, as each time I return, I am reminded that they continue without me, growing, changing, shedding their skins and reinventing themselves – without me.
Such is the nature of modern cities – and such is the nature of life.
I sometimes wonder whether I will ever find home, whether I will ever be able to find comfort and solace and a deep and lasting sense of belonging.
But maybe that is for the next life.
Meanwhile, we keep searching, searching; nomads, wayfarers, growing up, into and out of every city we call ‘home’, however temporarily.
Na’ima B. Robert is wandering, wayfaring mother of four. In her ‘spare time’ she writes books, runs SISTERS, a magazine for Muslim women and dreams of being an academic. This article was first published in the Cities, Ports and Pirates edition of Scarf, a cross-arts journal from the Somali diaspora published by Kudu Arts.