The Contradictory Meanings of “Home”: Being an Exiled Scholar during the Pandemic in a Host-Homeland
Betül Yarar - Ankara - Bremen
Prof. Dr. Betül Yarar works as a senior researcher for the Intercultural Education at the University of Bremen. She is a social scientist specialized in sociology, cultural studies, and gender studies. Her recent publications are mainly on the issues related to gender and body politics, politics of culture/popular culture and neoliberal and neconservative politics in Turkey. Recently she has been involved in exile studies and forced intellectual migration. Presently she is conducting a research project on “Informal Opportunities and Restrictions in German Universities Reflected in Experiences of Exiled Scholars" funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, Germany.
Before the pandemic, my life was already divided into two (if not more) cultural-geographical spaces and times: the lost-homeland and the host-homeland. This “dual ontology of my existence” as a diasporic subject was making me to look in two directions (Ashcroft et al 425): towards the location, Turkey, where I was born and have built my historical and cultural identity, and towards the society of relocation, Germany. This moment of temporal and special rupture or disjuncture in one’s existence might be considered as something which Hannah Arendt would call a crisis. Here a crisis, which might occur as a result of not only dislocation/replacement/forced migration, but also war, pandemic, ecological disastrous, economic collapse and so on, can reveal not only a feeling of loss but also an opportunity for political judgement (Norberg. 2011), since the rupture in time might lead the one in crisis to reflect back on the past, present and future from a new perspective as it destabilizes the perception of normality, conformity and common sense. Furthermore a crisis, which emerges as a result of dislocation or replacement, shapes, what Homi Bhabha would call, a „diasporic space”, a space which is underlined by “hybridity” and “multiplicity ”. In this sense, in addition to the general characteristic of a crisis that Arendt underlines in respect to its capacity for political judgement, in the case of immigration, one can talk about also about its capacity to bring a new type of agency or a diasporic subject with a high level of interconnectedness with various identities and locations (Bhabha, 1994).
Before the pandemic, my life was already divided into two (if not more) cultural-geographical spaces and times: the lost-homeland and the host-homeland ; It has been about four years, since I fled from Turkey with my son, who was only 10 years old at the time. Many scholars including myself, had signed a peace petition, which was calling the state and the government to stop civil violence at the region which is populated densely by Kurdish citizens of Turkey and is called Kurdistan by the Kurdish Guerilla Movement (PKK). Following this situation, we, , aware of the importance of the peace process, had faced tremendous political pressure and unlawful treatments imposed by the political authorities in Turkey. So, my exile has started even earlier than I physically left Turkey as an inner exile. Since then I have been living in a rupture and in the process of continuous negotiation with cultures of everywhere we passed through or lived in, first in France and then in Germany. The first stop after our departure from Turkey to an unknown future was France where we lived for six months with the support of politically engaged great scholars, and then we moved to Germany in 2017 on the basis of a scholarship provided by the PSI (1) (Philipp Schwartz Initiative) to the scholars under risk. In Germany, my son and I, have involved been in the difficult process of building up a new life and a familiar space and creating a sense of belonging.
“You cannot live always with the feeling of temporality or in a temporal space. It is not like being in a holiday. You cannot survive like this, because you have to have a normal life at some point. You got to make a move and start somewhere. For instance, you have to register your child at a school. Life requires you to flow in time and pushes you to make a move. From this moment on, you start not only searching for but also building a home. You cannot stop life unless you are in a deep depression because of what you have lost” (A friend who has also fled from Turkey to Germany three years ago)
As a diasporic subject in Homi Bhabha's terms, I was engaging in an ongoing but very slow cultural process of exchanging and negotiating cultural differences that we found continuously everywhere we went. I experienced the pandemic at the end of our first three and a half years in the host homeland, Germany, and when we were still struggling for building a sustainable life, a home away from home. In these first three years, I experienced and deeply sensed the existing historical baggage of Turkish diaspora living in Germany. As Bhabha states, diasporic subjects perpetually reconstruct diasporic cultural differences -instead of reflecting pregiven ethnic or cultural traits- and authorize cultural hybridity that emerge in moments of historical transformation (Bhabha, 1994: 2). However, depending on the experiences of inclusion/exclusion, or what Tsagarousianou (2004, 52) would call “the social regulation of belonging”, immigration might aid immigrants, refugees or exiles to construct or to regulate complexity, multiplicity and heterogeneity of their diasporic space through imagined fixed identities based on the “we” vs. “them” (diasporans vs. natives) distinctions, paradoxically leading back to the bipolar oppositions us/them, black/white, insider/outsider. This defensive reaction of immigrants against the exclusive dominant culture is another side of the political judgement that Hannah Arendt addresses in connection with the crisis of an exile or immigrant.
Then came the pandemic which strained health and care systems, widened socio-economic divides and restricted mobility. The social and economic problems and inequalities, which have already risen to tremendous levels for the last three-four decades in neoliberal societies under the impact of new wars, conflicts, authoritarian regimes and financial crisis, have been further deepened under the impact of the pandemic. The Corona crisis has been one of the biggest challenges and hits to the already damaged systems and has made the equitable and effective distribution of food, job, health and social care even more questionable. Under these worrisome circumstances of pandemic and lockdown, there have been transformations in our understanding of “home” as a boundary. Not only nation states but also the public and the private are constantly shifting. We were stuck within the boundaries of nations and homes. These two different forms of “home” were perceived and represented as not only “safe” spaces, but also as the loci of our lives during the pandemic. The concepts of “home”, meaning a private space where we spend time with other family members, and of “homes” as nations, have absorbed all public activities and identities, while all other international and transnational engagements have ceased temporarily. For those who could afford it, “home” has become a privileged place to stay in, especially if work could be maintained with privileged. Governments have engaged enthusiastically in the job of bringing their own citizens safely back to their home countries and also helping those, who had the chance of staying safe at home by working online from home or staying home with financial aid provided by the government.
Under the impact of the pandemic, my diasporic space, which is based on complex transnational and multicultural ties between the lost and the host homelands, has gone through further immediat. The important transformations which are the focus of this. autobiographical essay. have been intrinsically linked to the ways in which the processes of inclusion/exclusion operate and are subjectively experienced by me under pandemic circumstances effective both in the lost and host home ands. In other words my aim is to reflect on how I experienced the lockdown period in Germany as an exiled scholar. Within this framework, I focus on the contradictory and changing meaning of home as an imagined place in a diasporic space of Germany during the pandemic. For me, Germany, as the host “homeland“, was the “World“ which is to be comprehended as a location of manifold and unremitting displacements and a signifier of migration (Hall, 2003). In other words, the question of this paper is how the pandemic has influenced my own experience and perception of “home” through the shifting boundaries between the public and private, and in between the lost and host homelands.
In the early days of Corona crisis, we all shared the feeling that we had suddenly lost our sense of being at home in a secure place. However, this seemingly egalitarian position against the COVID-19, in respect to the risks of being infected and dying were not equal among all communities and individuals living in the same society. To receive proper treatment or to die were the options that passed through everyone's minds but the actual risks were higher for some groups than others, we knew that. As I have already mentioned above, the concept of “home” has already very ambiguous meanings for an exile and diasporic subject like myself. “Home” as the location of day-to-day lived experience concerns a discourse on spatial locality and sentiments of identity and belongings. As it proceeds from the ordinary and unforeseen daily experiences of family, friends, and some others, it has different layers of meaning for ordinary people than it has in official terms. For instance, one can experience a loss of “home” by relocation that leads her/him to move to a new location where this diasporic self can find a secure socio-political, cultural and intellectual space but as a new host “home”. In diasporic time and space, “home” and “abroad” are assimilated into creating something unavoidably transgressing geographical and cultural limits. In this sense, For a diasporic person, “home” can never be fixed in a place but is continuously constructed and reconstructed as the diasporic self undergoes through various complex experiences and feeling of inclusion and exclusion in both the location of where you are from and where you are in. This fundamental ambivalence embedded in the diasporic self leads diasporic subjects to form their own space and create their own homes transnationally, relationally and contingently in their own manners and ways (Anca-Teodora Şerban-Oprescu, 2013). This statement, which has often come to my mind while living in Germany as an exile, is very much reflects this ambiguity.
That magical saying 'there's no place like home' is also doubly cryptic. "There's no place like home" means home is the best, the ideal, everything that elsewhere is not. Places elsewhere can never bring the same happiness as home. Alternately inflected, the phrase turns into its opposite. 'There's no place like home' also means that no place, anywhere, is like home. Nowhere is there a place like home. Home is a never-never land of dreams and desire. Home is utopia, a no place, a nowhere, an imaginary space longed for, always already lost in the very formation of the idea of home” (Friedman. 2004, 192)
But now, this utterly ambivalent meaning of home has been even further blurred as we have been locked down in our homes,whatever that means, with politicians and the like continually glorifying an abstract notion of home. Despite its already glorified meaning in patriarchal cultures, emphasized now by the media and the government, home has never been a heaven for women . But during the pandemic, many women found themselves trapped into continuous domestic labour and care, living with other members of their families all day long. In some cases, especially with husbands locked in 24 hours a day the pandemic meant also an increase in violence (2). During the lockdown, health and social care systems that provide life-saving support to certain vulnerable groups like women, LGBTI+, immigrants, refugees and homeless people have been disrupted because health service providers were overburdened and focused on handling COVID-19 cases. While for those who had to perform highly risky feminized jobs like nursing, home represented a place like heaven, not easy to reach.
In earlier days of the pandemic, being unsure about how the authoritarian populist ruling party (AKP) in Turkey would handle a situation filled with uncertainties and risks, I was highly worried for my family and friends in Turkey, while my family was worrying about me and my son as they could not imagine us not 'at home' but abroad and all alone. What makes people feel safe and at home is not only living in a system which you trust but also with people you can rely on. There were some people I have strong attachments to in Germany, but not many. Under the impact of all these reciprocal worries about living at home without wholly trusting the system or the surroundings, we decided to have online video and phone calls every single day to support each other psychologically.
Before the pandemic emerged, I was already feeling homesick being away from Turkey for more than three years since my passport was banned by the Turkish authorities. Although I knew that “home” is a mythical place of desire in my diasporic imagination as much as it has some physical reality linked to the homeland that actually corresponds to imaginary boundaries of a nation state, I was physically and psychologically experiencing pain. Although I was aware of this mythical aspect of “home”, “homeland” and “homesickness”3, and although I knew what I missed is not the same with the homeland I left behind years ago, I still could not avoid this bodily feeling of being “sick”. Friedman (2004) states, home is a sense which is accumulated through the lived and bodily experience of the locality: “Its sounds and smells, its heat and dust, balmy summer evenings, or the excitement of the first snowfall, shivering winter evenings, sombre grey skies in the middle of the day…all this, as mediated by the historically specific everyday of social relations" Home is a place of relationships, bonding and a pool of personal collective memories that assume personal history and identity formulating a longing when dispersed. Despite its physicality, it refers to a place which does not exist. In Spivakian terms, it is a place that ‘we cannot want’.
In the first phase of the pandemic, despite the relatively strong capacity of the German state, which I could sense since I came here, I was quite unsure if this capacity could be inclusive enough when it came to categories such as the elderly, homeless, refugees, ,LGBTI. Although I did not fit into any of these categories smoothly, I had direct connections with all of them and this increased my feeling of insecurity for a longer time than for native Germans feeling safe in their homes. I knew that limiting migrants’ and women’s in-person contact with social networks (e.g. women’s rights groups, teachers, health workers, faith leaders) could reduce their sense of security My first reaction, being in a host homeland as an exile and because of the increase in the overall feeling of uncertainty, , was to apply rigid standards of isolation and hygiene rules at “home” for my son and myself. As a single mother this meant a tremendous increase in my already existing domestic chores and responsibilities. For instance, I shopped only once a week, bought more than I would normally in order to not go for shopping too often. When my son and I returned home from shopping or another outdoor activity, we undressed completely and then not only washed our hands but also had a bath before going into our living room. I divided our clothes into those for outdoors and those worn indoors. As opposed to clothes worn indoors, those worn outside had to be washed three times a week. After shopping, packaging of all products had to be washed also, and their wrappings had to be placed immediately into the bin now removed to the balcony, before being thrown out. This l consumed significant amounts of time and energy in the first two months of the lockdown. All women I know as family members or Facebook friends from Turkey were in the same mind-set as they too distrusted the system they lived in. Facebook and WhatsApp groups were the main means for exchanging ideas and tactics among women about how to fight against the COVID-19. Through this transnational and virtual flow of information, women as well as their “homes” turned into active battle fields against the coronavirus. As usual no one has noticed or admitted their huge efforts in this battle.
For those who had to work from home, the situation was even worse. In the middle of a meeting, someone could come up to you without being seen by the computer camera and ask about their socks. As my son and I were now living at home full time, needing to bring in all social activities, our home was getting dirty very quickly. I had to play multiple full-time roles as a cook, as a teacher, as an entertainer to keep my son healthy and safe- as well as working and teaching online., When his school went virtual, my son totally lost his connection with the German context and his friends. In these intensive lockdown days, along with the feeling of “homesickness”, I began to have a new feeling of “sick of home”.
During the days when Europe was seen as a hot spot of the pandemic, , the first question I asked myself was: "what happens to my son if I get sick and what happens if the health service would prioritize German citizens or, rather Germans ( mostly used in reference to the so called bio-Germans) in the case of emergency?” The strength of this fear as well as my scientific interest pushed me to follow German news more closely to understand how the system would react to these extraordinary pandemic conditions. I remember listening to Angela Merkel making her very first public comments (11th March 2020) on the COVID-19, with the help of an online dictionary and with an indescribably anxious feeling of being in the middle of a huge uncertainty surrounding me and my son. This was one day after returning from an international conference in Berlin and I said to myself “this is it”. After being with so many people,, I considered myself under highest risk, and then began to show early symptoms of the virus like fever and sore throat. All these most probably psychosomatic symptoms affected and increased my worries. But as I followed the news I began to develop a sense of the capacity and limits of the German system which I began to trust. I had never or rarely experienced such a feeling in Turkey at least in the last few years, being labelled as a scholar who is linked to terrorism (terörle iltisakli).
I now felt that I was entering into a new phase connected with psychological consequences of the social distancing and isolation. As new arrivals, both my son and me were in the process of creating a home in the host land. We were still going through a melancholy process of mourning for those we left behind back in Turkey. And we were in the process of building new networks in a host homeland, Germany, where social exclusion, discrimination and lack of diversity were big issues. Living a diasporic life with the support of online tools, we already had considerable experience of living in isolation and using these tools to keep our attachments alive. For our transnational existence in Germany, these technologies were a must. In other words, all the daily lockdown practices and solutions were familiar to us. But now, under the impact of a small virus called COVID-19, not only us, but everyone was left in uncertainty and were forced to use the same tools to continue their social lives. Now everyone has to talk to his friends and relatives through the screens of their computers like we had been doing for the last three-four years. This earlier feeling of equality provided by a small virus has eventually been replaced with a deeper fear of losing the newly built and relatively weak networks and ties in and with the host-homeland. With the disappearance of public spaces like work and school, I began to work from home , conducted my research interviews, read online books, and had online meetings more than ever before. Through these tools I was suddenly overloaded by various public activities within the home, while my son remained at home all the time with no friends and indulging in computer games. The mandatory social distancing had pushed us closer physically and psychologically, but isolated us from our surroundings in the host homeland. The danger of being utterly isolated and losing the relational and other aspects of our diasporic space was at the door. While we were living and working at "home" in safe surroundings , we were missing the “home” outside the home. The notion of homesickness was stronger and more complex than ever.
In the meantime, back in Turkey, the government was expanding its central power through authoritarian measures and practices. I was reading June Jordan, a black women, poet, activist and journalist. In her poem called “Moving towards Home”, which she wrote shortly after the September 16-18, 1982 Phalangist/Israeli massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila camps, Beirut, Lebanon, she wrote
” Because I need to speak about home
I need to speak about living room
where the land is not bullied and beaten into
I need to speak about living room
where the talk will take place in my language
I need to speak about living room
where my children will grow without horror
I need to speak about living room where the men
of my family between the ages of six and sixty-five
marched into a roundup that leads to the grave
I need to talk about living room
where I can sit without grief without wailing aloud
for my loved ones
where I must not ask where is Abu Fadi
because he will be there beside me
I need to talk about living room
because I need to talk about home
I was born a Black woman
I have become a Palestinian
against the relentless laughter of evil
there is less and less living room
and where are my loved ones?
It is time to make our way home.”
Friedman (2004, 202) states: “Home comes into being most powerfully when it is gone, lost, left behind, desired and imagined” as in the case of the forced displacement. Under such circumstances, this desire of home or feeling of homeless shakes and disturbs your pregiven stability and feeling of belongingness. I knew when I left “home” things would never be the same even when I return “home”.
After the lockdown period in 2020, measures have been lifted, and life has eventually returned more or less to its “normality”. My son's school, was briefly opened, and then closed for the summer vacation. Then came the time came for me to go to the airport and say “bye” to him while he was on his way to a lost home land. At the airport, I felt like I was looking at loved ones who live only three hours away. As if I was looking at them from the other side of a river. I was fully aware of the growing difficulties faced by internal-refugee or exiled scholars and writers, to leave their countries and find a safe place somewhere else). All these thoughts and feelings made me think once again about the borders, which nowadays have been a lot more difficult to cross due to the pandemic. I heard about many scholars who are not able to leave Turkey where Erdogan has seized huge powers and weakened any practical possibility of voicing one's opinion, regardless of whether one left or stayed. This is what Heins (2019) calls “non-territorial exile”. All these thoughts that came to my mind at the airport made me think about poet June Jordan’s concept of the “home on the road”, imagined now during the corona crisis or which perhaps has never existed for some of those waiting on the other side of the river deprived of the possibility of leaving . With all this in my mind, my feeling has changed and shifted once again from the so called “homesick(ness)” again to the feeling of “sick of home”. The concept of home has always multiple meanings for internal or external exiles who have to carry their homes in their bodies and voices, which are detached from a specific time and location and have the ability to travel across borders independently from each other.
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