As I stood in front of the large photo of displaced Kurds, I realised that exactly two years ago I was doing much the same thing.
Typical me. Here I am again, standing in some exhibition about displacement. Two years previously, on World Refugee Day, it was a UNHCR thing that we randomly snuck into in a ramshackle ex-prison-cum-museum in Northern Iraq while I was there on holiday. This time I was in a trendy, exposed-brickwork, dusty Shoreditch basement, wondering if the women wandering round in Roma dresses and Cameron/Osborne masks were some kind of installation or just the sort of people who live in hip East London.
What a way to spend a Sunday afternoon! Staring at hauntingly beautiful images and feeling sadness at everything that installations like these signified, I suddenly wondered if my choice of leisure activities had anything to do with the fact that all I ever doodle are sad faces. Go figure.
Herdi Ahmed, Broken Mother, projection of etching 2013
Victoria Burgher, Raft, bone china, 2015
As I imbibed images of people in limbo, pondered artistic representations of liminal spaces, and contemplated different interpretations of ‘home’, I wondered if I resonated with it all simply because I work in a sector which has refined the migration lens through which I see the world. Or did that resonance come from somewhere else, somewhere deeper?
I realised that I was feeling sad and angry, but not just through empathy for the suffering of others. I was, in fact, feeling sad and angry for myself. Sad and angry because all this talk of home and settledness, and the lack thereof, makes my chest tighten and drags me down into weighty overwhelmedness from which I seem unable to extricate myself.
Tired of having to move on when a tenancy expires or a housemate’s situation changes. Tired of being subject to short term rental contracts. Tired of packing up my stuff again. Tired of not being able to hang pictures where I want to for fear of losing my deposit. Tired and angry because there don’t seem to be many other options in stupidly expensive London. It just seems so unfair and the only way I seem able to deal with it is to direct all my anger at myself.
Stupid me for not having been savvy at an earlier stage in life. Stupid me for not working in the private sector. Stupid me for not just settling for the first boy who came along – it may not have been the amazing thing that I still seem to be holding out for but at least if there were two of us I wouldn’t have to do life by myself and we’d have two salaries which would make buying a flat even remotely affordable. Annoyed that I’m not ticking the priority boxes for affordable housing because I’m not ‘needy’ enough. Tired of the fact that I haven’t massively messed up but somehow it feels like I have done. I’ve worked hard, I’ve contributed, I’ve saved, but it’s not enough. Well, it’s enough for what I need but not what I want. Annoyed at the world. Annoyed at other people. Annoyed, more than anything, at myself. What an idiot.
I hear you, my friend. Sometimes there feels no point in telling your story. I wrote an email to the council trying to explain. My story fits the spirit of the thing but I don’t think it ticks the boxes. So what’s the point. So annoyed.
Annoyed, but guilty. Guilty because on the grand scheme of things I am completely fine and that the limbo in which I am languishing is relatively comfortable. For crying out loud, I tell myself, look at these Palestinians stuck in nationless exile for generations. Look at the pictures of displaced Syrians in makeshift shelters. Through my self-directed anger and tears of frustration, I deeply feel for them. I feel for the fact that they have done it all right too but that external powers have scuppered it for them.
Yet again, I find myself trying to reconcile the tensions of living as me in the circumstances in which I find myself. Straddling different worlds: destitution in the day and dinner parties at night. Other people don’t seem to be imploding. Why can’t I cope with it in the way that others do?
Yet again, I find myself trying to reconcile those tensions of a longing for home and permanence now, while also wanting to pursue something that’ll last forever. A desire to live in this earth and feel the ground beneath my feet and have a space to be, while wanting to invest in things that can’t be nicked or destroyed. Desperately wanting to stop worrying about tomorrow. Plus ça change.
You should call yourself an exile, a friend said to her husband later that day as we walked away from a great discussion about displaced artists, picking up on something that a Hungarian poet had said about the feeling of displacement being common to all people, even those who remain in the context in which they were born. Call yourself an exile, she said, figuring it would give him a widely-understood word to describe his ill-at-easeness with the homeland in which he no longer lived. But he refused the label because, when considering his existential angst alongside the very real experiences of today’s actual refugees, he didn’t want to cheapen the term. Nor do I, but it doesn’t stop me feeling like this.
I wonder where I’ll be this time next year for World Refugee Day. Hopefully not here.