The blessed tree where the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stopped on a journey and met the monk Bahira. Image courtesy Ten Thousand Films.
Expatriates are supposed to fall into one of three categories: missionary, mercenary or misfit. When it comes to my own repeated moves overseas, I would say I’ve mostly been a misfit.
Here’s the paradox: while I feel inwardly out of place in America, I can relax into the identity of being a foreigner in almost any other country. In India, for example, where I was such an obvious firangi that housewives pointed and giggled at me from their verandahs, children followed me around and more than one excited tourist asked to take a photo, I felt more comfortable in my own skin than I ever did at home.
Even in the places where I could pass as a native, like Germany and Norway, I reveled in the liberation I felt as a foreigner. Because while freedom may be America’s brand identity, I always felt more constricted by the pressures to compete and conform to the narrow categories of belonging in American society. Overseas, it seemed I could breathe.
With every visa in my passport that allowed me to live and work in a particular country, I imagined I’d also received a Foreigner Exemption Permit. Such a permit authorized me to speak the language imperfectly or with an accent, made observance of local holidays optional, and finally, lifted the requirement to follow the standard middle-class life template of “settling down” in one place and directing all of one’s energies and resources into the further weighting of that anchor, usually in the form of a home and children.
The Qur’an says humans were created restless, but I seem to find it more difficult than most to stay put. I made a list of the addresses I can remember: there have been at least 20 in the last 20 years. Why have I moved so often? One part of it may be my chronic curiosity: when I get interested in something, I want to explore it as thoroughly as possible. Or to say it more succinctly: I travel in order to get lost.
It’s both a literal exercise (there’s me, goggling at a timetable of Istanbul ferries as the ticket agent keeps repeating, “You must go to Asia!”) and a metaphorical one. Sometimes it’s been a coping mechanism. Just like some people numb themselves with work or intoxicants, I’ve immersed myself in travel or a new place as a way of avoiding pain. My overseas moves, for example, almost inevitably followed a breakup.
I know you understand that. It’s what happened, in a sense, when you left Mecca for Medina. The message of the Qur’an was the new love of your life: in fact, it changed your life and existing relationships so much that you no longer had a place with your family of origin or in your own hometown. You went from being the guy that people were always happy to see, clapping you on the back and telling you to sit down and have tea, to persona non grata. They wanted you to disappear. And so that’s what they tried to do, either by throwing garbage at you and making nasty comments or avoiding you and isolating you and your followers. It’s even uncomfortable to read about: that long, awkward period when everyone’s feeling like it’s time for you to go. You had too much loyalty, not to mention a deeply felt sense of responsibility, to leave just because they were making your life hard. Things had to come to a head.
It’s reported that you said, “O Mecca! If your people did not force me to leave I would have never left you.” I can imagine that the feeling of being exiled makes the sadness and feeling of loss much greater than when it’s your own decision.
At the same time, I feel that leaving home was integral to your mission as a prophet. You were always a bit on the outside in your culture – an orphan in a realm of tribal affiliations, a person of integrity in a society of schemers – but you had to be moved even further from the realm where social conditioning obtains and people have a stake in the status quo, in order to live the truth of your message.
I certainly came to see the US differently by living in other countries. I saw the hypocrisy of our foreign policy, shoring up dictators while proclaiming the virtues of democracy. I saw the corruption of our own politics, called by the more-innocuous sounding “money and influence.” I saw our own third-world economics producing a huge underclass of poor and uneducated people ruled over by a tiny elite in the US itself. But I also saw the guileless goodwill of Americans, their desire to help others and work for the common good – volunteering, without any expectation of money or help from the government to do the right thing. And I saw our boundless national confidence as a resource for tackling difficult problems.
No doubt you perceived some of the same qualities in your own people once separated from them. Their loyalty to the tribe and pride in belonging could be grafted on to a community of believers in the making. Their resourcefulness in trade could be turned to expanding the reach of new ideas. Even their appreciation of poetry could be channeled into a capacity to perceive the inherent beauty and truth of the revelations you were receiving.
Those perceptions were borne out by the fact that later you were able to return and claim Mecca as your own. The city that forced you into exile became the new spiritual home of Islam. That gives me hope, though for what I can’t exactly say. Is it that every time I move out of the US, I move back thinking that this time it will be different, and I’ll finally find my place? (Hasn’t happened so far.) Maybe it’s more that I’ll find belonging in a community of like minds and hearts, independent of any geography.
Just a few weeks ago – on September 11th, in fact – I was initiated into the Mevlevi order. At the end of the ceremony, Dede said, “Welcome home.” And then I was instantly engulfed by the friends, all hugging me and saying the same thing. I had provisioned myself with tissues beforehand, assuming I would cry, but found instead that my cheeks hurt from smiling.
It’s a bittersweet thing, to be a stranger in the world, and to finally find my place in placelessness. But that’s also the new world I want to explore with you.
Standing with you under the shade of the one tree in the desert,
Read Love Letters to Muhammad (1 of 11)
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Read Love Letters to Muhammad (6 of 11)