“Here, I am not at home. But I know that this is the place where I like to be away from home more than anywhere else.”
These are the words of Marlen Haushofer, from her novel The Attic. This could be a concise answer to the task at hand.
Let this be my initiation. And let my answer be even more concise, an even shorter equation. This equation is:
“Life is abroad”.
This equation has several variables. Let’s try to solve it.
How and why is our life – abroad?
And what must the “here” of which Marlen speaks be like, to prevent us from leaving, to warrant that we stay? What are the attributes of our “here” – chosen consciously, maturely – if we do not concede out of bias, or apathy, or by letting someone or something decide for us, or out of sacrifice, whether it be out of conviction or forced? What must this “here” of our abroad be like to be chosen freely – not to be the product of blackmail or force? For blackmail, as we all know, can come in many forms and countless varieties, both explicit and implicit.
This “here” must be established, protected and nurtured on the basis of imagination and responsibility, which deserve a far different status than before. Let us try to see and understand why and how.
1. Habitat and rootlessness
Anyone who ever came into this world is fearless. This side is not for cowards.
When you are here, you keep thinking you have to leave – and you never do.
When you are not here, you keep thinking you have to return – and you never do.
Nowhere to go. No one to go with. Nothing to go to. Have not.
When you are here, you keep thinking that if you want the best for yourself and your children, your friends, those dearest to you, you must leave this place as soon as possible – and you never do.
When you are not here, you keep thinking that you don’t belong where you are now, and where you are less confused and worried than where you came from, or where you think you belong – and you never go back.
First of all, everything depends on the given or chosen environment – on where and when and how someone lives. We must know exactly what we are talking about, when we talk about our home, and our absence from home. Because someone lives in socialism, and someone else in capitalism. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in the theatre, and someone else in the movie theatre. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in Germany of 1520, someone in Germany of 1941, and someone in Germany of 2011. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in Mexico City amongst its thirty million inhabitants, someone else on a desert island with Friday. It is not the same thing. Someone lives online, someone where the air is clean, on meadows near mountain lakes. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in a mine, someone else in an igloo. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in good health, and someone else in sickness. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in a tank, someone else in a bed. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in an orphanage, someone else in a kindergarten until noon, and then goes home with mom or dad. It is not the same thing. Someone lives on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean, and someone else in the subway. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in a ghetto, and someone else on the French Riviera. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in a state, and someone else in a tribe. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in a space station, in a weightless state, and someone else digs the hard soil every day with bare hands, in heat or frost. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in love, someone in hate. It is not the same thing. Someone lives within oneself, someone beyond oneself. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in crisis, someone else in bliss. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in a hotel, someone else under a bridge. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in faith, someone else in superstition, someone in doubt, and someone else in none of the above. It is not the same thing. Someone lives on the stock market, someone else on a handful of rice a day. It is not the same thing. Someone lives in a political party, and someone else never voted in an election. It is not the same thing. And so it goes, indefinitely. And yet, all of them are abroad. It is not the same, but it is similar: never at home – everywhere and always abroad.
Where do you live? – ask thy neighbor, ask yourself, before you open a discussion on home and being away, homeland and abroad, closeness and alienation, going away and coming back. And keep in mind: one man – one universe. All these billions of worlds only partially, or even barely, overlap, pervade each other, communicate, interact – only partially and barely. The degree of confluence is low, without critical capacity. The best we can do, it appears, is this diffusion into smaller or wider networks, without an obvious center of gravity or direction. Thus, it is most important to determine first what each of us lives in. Only when we know and understand this, only then can the question of the inevitable insufficiency, unfulfillment, imperfectness and instability of the habitat come – and only then can we examine the ambivalence of home and aboard, of belonging and alienation, of homeland and homelessness.
2. Life is abroad
Life is wonderful, sparkled with joy. But these sparks come ablaze and flicker ephemerally for a few moments, against a dark and bottomless background – for life is often cruel, resembling a desert, or a jungle, or a war field. Much too often, we feel lonely in our convictions, lost in chaos, astray, uncertain and unsafe, without anything to lean on, without comfort, without unequivocal and guaranteed sanctuary.
The feeling of not fitting in is almost always there, apparent or hidden, the feeling of inadaptability, of alienation, of being slightly out of sync, of pain, obstacles, lack of understanding, lack of total certainty and safety, feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness, the unspecified feeling of being blackmailed.
In a word, it is the feeling of fear. Sometimes, there is also an imminent threat, to life or to health or to family or to friends or to basic dignity, by forces that are not natural, but rather conscious, selective, human.
Thus, it is truest to say that in life, we feel not quite at home. Life is abroad.
Moreover, life cannot be anything but abroad when the environment is a vortex, inarticulate, weak, incomplete, while the man himself is well-grounded, articulate and reliable to others and to oneself.
3. Three stories, four Muslims and weightlessness
But the problem I am expected to find an answer for is anchored on a level lower than that of the equation life is abroad. At first glance, the problem is anchored at the level of identity, and the incomparable differences that arise from it. However, I am convinced that this is not the case, because all identities are false, except for one: the one that is guaranteed by responsibility.
Identity is abroad, responsibility is homeland. Only responsibility is real. Everything else is but mystification and manipulation. Everything else is empty threats masking the fundamental, structural, imminent threats, such as: poverty, exploitation, class differences, deteriorating legitimacy and sovereignty of the institutions of a system, unrecoverable destruction of natural resources, etc.
Our worthy states are doing their best to ostensibly protect our threatened bodies and our threatened souls, that is, identities. And they do nothing to protect and improve the only thing that matters: our existential and social functionality, usefulness and purpose, the meaningful sustainability of our lives. Which, hence, remain trapped and reproduce as a permanent abroad.
I will tell, quickly, three stories, randomly chosen, current, supporting this insight I am not able to emphasize enough, but let me first address the issue I have been expected to from the very beginning.
We are witness to the most influential European presidents and prime ministers (Sarkozy, Merkel, Cameron, Berlusconi, for example), as well as many European parliaments and legislative bodies (Swedish, Swiss, Hungarian, for example) burying the idea and the myth of multiculturalism with their words, decision and scandalous actions. However, this is, as we have already witnessed and will witness more in the future – a scandal without a scandal. Because the real scandal has been going on for a long time on a deeper level of reality, on the level of morality and freedom. We will return to this issue – now it is time for the three scandalous stories I have announced. These parallel stories are about ambivalence of home and aboard, belonging and alienation, homeland and homelessness.
The topic of the stories is “At home abroad”, and one of them is even on the topic of successful integration. The stories are concurrent, unraveling before our very eyes, now, separated only by the geographical distance of 5000 km, the cosmic distance of one light-year, and the mental distance that is unbridgeable.
The first one
Muslim cosmonauts have unique problems when in weightlessness. Several years ago, Muslim cosmonauts complained that during flight and orbiting, they are not able to determine the direction of Mecca, since the physical guidelines for religious practices are virtually inapplicable. For example, kneeling is impossible without gravitation. Furthermore, when we are on the ground, we usually know where the sky is, and when we are deep in space, sometimes it is hard to determine where earth is. This is why The Islamic National Fatwa Council has published The Muslim Obligations in the International Space Station: Manual. The Manual was published after the third Muslim was launched into space – from the grandiose launch ramp of the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor from Malaysia, as a member of a Russian crew, but the first to be in space during the Ramadan holiday, when, in addition to regular religious activities, believers have to abstain from food, drink and sex during the day. The Manual, among other things, gives the following advice: “During ritual prayer, if you are not able to stand up, you are allowed to bow your back. If you are not able to stand, you are allowed to sit down. If you are not able to sit, you should lie down”. A well-known cartographer, Kamal Abdali, an authority figure on the issues of theology and strategic policy of Islam, claims that a believer should concentrate on prayer, not on geography or astronomy. The fact that there is no gravitation does not mean that the prayers to Allah will not reach their destination. Besides, isn’t our penetration of space in itself, a form of magnificent prayer to the almighty? For the fourth Muslim cosmonaut in space, things were made simpler during the mission, thanks to the instructions from the Manual, as well as other instructions, like the ones given by the esteemed Kamal Abdali. The mission lasted a record twelve months, seven days and eleven hours. Weightless state is abroad, space is homeland. The flight into space and the ardor of prayer turn out to be the highest dimension of humanity, regardless of where they are carried out, regardless of the immediate social-technological environment, regardless of their physical-biological circumstances.
The second story
She lost her husband two years ago. She belongs to the untouchable caste. A single mother, Christian, working in the fields, today as any other day, with neighbors and relatives. Around noon, when the sun is at its peak, a friend asks her to bring water to the men working on the other side of the field. And that is what she does. She goes to the nearest well, draws water into a pail. In one hand is the pail of water, in the other a clay cup. The first man she approaches takes a drink and thanks her. The second refuses to drink, although he is thirsty, because, he says, the water is dirty. She tries to convince him that he is wrong, that she brought fresh water from the well. He says that the water is dirty because she has touched it, and she is an unbeliever, she does not recognize Mohammad. She offers him to drink once again. Nowhere to go. No one to go with. Nothing to go to. She believes that thirst and water do not depend on her or his God or Prophet, but she remains silent. He asks her whether she is refuting the surahs from the Holy Quran and the power of Allah. She says she has no intention of doing so, that she only wanted to help and quench his thirst. He spills the water and tells her to leave. Tomorrow, that man reports the woman to the district prosecutor for blasphemy. The law on protection against blasphemy has been in power for thirty years, but is very rarely implemented. The punishment for the violation of this law is merciless. The women is arrested and tried. She is found guilty and sentenced to death by stoning. While she is in prison and awaiting execution, her relatives look after her seven children, all daughters. The papers write about her case, and the entire story provokes strong reactions, both in the public and in every family in the country. Several intellectuals and politicians advocate for her release and for abolishing the law on protection against blasphemy. The most influential public figure to lead this initiative is a governor of the central province, the one with the biggest population. Under public pressure, execution is postponed. The initiative to abolish the law gains momentum, and its supporters are increasingly more vocal. Support also comes from abroad, from many sides. The Governor tours the country and holds speeches, he is relentless. One day, when leaving for a rally, his head of security walks over to him on the parking lot, and shoots him 32 times in front of all the people standing around. Nobody even thinks of trying to stop him. After the murder, he calmly surrenders to the police. The next day, a group of around fifty people, mostly women, gathers at the scene of the murder, carrying flowers and candles. But around fifty thousand people have gathered in front of the building where the assassin is held, they hail him – he is their hero, their saint, the martyr. The murderer leans through the window and waves. He is smiling. The funeral of the governor passes without any incidents, but with strict security measures and the presence of all domestic media, both electronic and printed, as well as a great number of foreign journalists. The debate on the law on protection against blasphemy becomes the key political issue in the country. Opinions are diametrically opposed. The date of execution for the mother of seven children is approaching. When the assassin is moved from one prison to another, thousands of people shower him with rose petals. The road on which the vehicle is slowly moving is covered with flowers. The execution date is almost here. No one is mentioning another delay. The law is abroad, untouchable is homeland.
The third story, the shortest one
International media are reporting, citing the so-called well informed but unnamed sources, that the former president of the world’s biggest superpower – George W. Bush, got scared last month, and at the last moment canceled his trip to Switzerland, to the exclusive summit of the global economic and political elite in Davos, because there was a real risk that he would be arrested for charges of war crimes. Responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan was mentioned, as well as for the torture of prisoners in the military base Guantanamo on Cuba, and in numerous other prisons on secret locations around the world. If Bush Jr. had gone to Switzerland, and if he had been arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced in accordance with the law, that sentence could never be stoning. Swiss laws are not like that. Besides, there are many conditions, preconditions and pre-preconditions, which, in case of Bush Jr., cannot be fulfilled. Thus, there is no implementation of any law, that is something we cannot even think about. The law is abroad, untouchable is homeland.
These are the three stories, quickly told. The stories are true. At the first glance, all three are about far-reaching consequences on incomparable identities. But do not be fooled. However terrible they appear, these threats are false. They are but masks – awful, certainly, but masks still the same. What do these masks hide from us? It does not hurt to repeat, and add: only responsibility is real. Everything else is only mystification and manipulation. Everything else is empty threats, masking the fundamental, structural, imminent threats, such as: implicit imposition of immoral values, poverty, economic exploitation, class differences, social and legal inequality, constant wars, hunger and sickness, crumbling of legitimacy and sovereignty of the institutions of the system, unrecoverable destruction of natural resources, unproductive and contradictory laws and judiciary, latent, or even explicit single-mindedness of religious ardor, etc.
The unique comment of these three instructive stories, as I have already implied, is: empty threats hide a fundamental internal danger – the reason why we perceive our lives as abroad.
4. The only legitimate identity
During its history, as well as in modern times, the Balkans paid the highest price in order to prove that what we call identity does not exist. The identity of persons – people, or groups, or nations – is not a fact, but a function of the prevailing order – social, economic, political or symbolic. We here – the “here” Marlen Haushofer refers to – learned this lesson in the most painful way. If we learned it at all.
This lesson is easy to prove. For example, in the former USSR, and in the former SFRY, and in the former socialist Romania, and in the former socialist Bulgaria, and in the former socialist Albania, and in the former socialist German Democratic Republic, and in the former etc. – ninety percent of the population declared themselves as atheists. Only twenty years later, ninety percent of the population in all those countries declare themselves as believers. The same people who were ready to lay their lives and take someone else’s to defend an identity they swore was the holiest and most precious and valuable – are ready to lay their lives and take someone else’s to defend a totally opposite identity only a few years later – an identity which is completely opposite, completely irreconcilable with the one upheld until recently – a new identity they swear is the holiest and the most precious and valuable. How is this possible? What happened?
Nothing special. The socio-symbolic order has changed. The old order has been tossed into the dustbin of history, and the new one has inherited it. And the new order needs a new identity for its reproduction. In the past, the order needed atheists, and it had atheists. Today, the order needs believers, and it has believers. A functionally justified identity automatically established itself and penetrated all the people and all the relations that exist within the order. And once again, identity is accepted as an undeniable, material, objective fact. But identity is not a fact, it is a fabricated and imposed fiction. Only the consequences of this fictional construction are real. Identity is abroad, responsibility is homeland. A man can choose between two realities: either responsibility as the only legitimate identity, or the consequences of identity, as they are, as we have seen from the three true stories, randomly chosen.
5. Separated and together
In one world the individual is alienated from the community, in another he or she assimilates into it. In one world the culture of belief control rules, and in another the culture of control of the consequences of belief. One world implements procedures of control and division of power, in another world, power is unlimited and without any control. One world is post-secular, another is still pre-secular. In one world, the carelessness of continuous enjoyment and obligatory continuous spending are aggressively imposed on people, in another people are aggressively held in poverty and in constant worry for the holy, through the awe of taboos. In one world demographic explosion is underway, in another a demographic implosion.
But those seemingly incompatible worlds have a number of things in common. What they have in common is this totally incomprehensible ambition – pathological, I would say – to expand globally, to exist unconditionally and to last permanently.
Another thing they have in common is the substitution of real needs by a perpetual avalanche of induced desires. What they also have in common is the nefarious public manipulation of various aspects of privacy: religious beliefs, parents, children and family, sexual orientation and practice, love relationships and communities, blood and blood ties, health and sickness, conception and death (for example, the issue of the creation of human being and the issue of euthanasia), native language and homeland, cultural preferences and ways of life (so-called life styles), what we read and what we search on the internet, who we communicate with, what and how much we watch on TV, what and how much we shop, the balance on our bank account, etc. They share a shameless mystification and substitution of fictional and natural, individual and collective, rational and irrational, etc. They also share the illusion of the state and relations without responsibility, because responsibility is postponed, relativized, granted amnesty and abolished in every possible way. And, in addition to chronic lack of responsibility, they share a chronic lack of imagination.
6. Integration is possible
It is necessary to be revolutionary.
It is necessary to be unbiased, but not to be indifferent.
It is necessary to be compassionate, it is necessary to participate and not only observe, it is necessary to take a part of the burden.
It is necessary to be wise. Like in that true story of cosmonauts and weightlessness. It is necessary, thus, to understand. And to want. And to do.
I will give two examples, particularly inspirational to me.
Mileva Einstein stops her typing for a second:
– But Albert darling, these are exactly the same exam questions you gave your students last year.
– Correct – Albert replies – But I have changed the answers.
This is a very good example of how to be revolutionary, isn’t it? Its only flaw is that it is hard to follow. In any case, our questions are the same, and we have been spinning in circles for too long, without being able to see a way out. When we are here, we keep thinking we must leave – and we never do. When we are not here, we keep thinking we must come back – and we never do.
Let’s follow Einstein’s example. Change the answers. Change the paradigm. Let the historic place of the rule of law era be replaced by the rule of responsibility era.
The second famous example shows how to be compassionate, how one can not only observe, but also participate, in order to understand. Thus, to be truly wise.
Yasnaya Polyana, 1837
Grandma burned herself on the stove, and the nine year old Leo caringly asks her:
– Grandma, darling, does it hurt?
– Does it hurt? – she replies through her teeth – Try it yourself, and you will see.
Leo bows his head, steps away from his loved grandma. In three steps he is by the stove. The dark stove, made of cast iron, burns red in the middle and melts the air above.
The boy takes a ladle, draws the boiling soup from the pot and spills it on his hand.
7. Similarity and freedom
Here is the formula for an attempt at integration based on imagination: similarity, not identity. The guarantee of each and every difference and uniqueness and incomparableness, paradoxically – cannot be in identity, but in similarity. Only different things, people, culture, phenomena, events, concepts – can be similar. Only identical cannot be similar. Only identical cannot be different. We should strive to similarity, not to identity.
And, at that, similarity is in the exclusive domain and competence of imagination. Discovering similarity creates a new imaginarium. Discovering similarity creates closeness. Self-deception of belonging to imposed identities creates disintegration, creates lack of understanding, creates implacability, creates conflict. Discovering similarity creates understanding, creates integration.
Anyone who ever came into this world is fearless. This side is not for cowards. Life is wondrous, but it is also cruel. This is why in life, we feel not quite at home. Life is abroad. But that is why we have two undefeatable allies, two undefeatable weapons, or two magnificent tools which never fail us: imagination and responsibility. Imagination and responsibility are the guarantees of our fearlessness. Imagination and responsibility are the two sides of the same invaluable coin – and the name of this invaluable coin is freedom.
A person without imagination is not free, he remains enslaved by the given. A person who is not responsible, is not free. Because only a free man can be a responsible man. If we don’t have freedom – we cannot be responsible. And the most important: if we act irresponsibly, we cancel our own freedom. This is why our readiness and availability to face responsibility is the guarantee and the measure of our freedom. Being responsible is the key difference between being a vassal and a citizen. Persevering responsibility creates closeness. Persevering responsibility creates integration.
To be free: to be able to imagine unity based on responsibility. And to be able to answer to this idea by understanding oneself and others and the world – in every choice, every decision, every action, in every word and concept, in every attitude towards the world, towards others and towards oneself. This is not hard – on the contrary, it is exciting and beneficial, because it makes the feeling of freedom real. Nothing can be compared to this feeling.
Only those living in freedom can say: nowhere abroad – everywhere and always at home.
There is no alternative. We must be free. What a wonderful and frightening paradox.
The essay was written by invitation and on a set topic: At home abroad – an attempt on integration, for the Berlin magazine Spritz (Sprache im Technischen Zeitalter); translated to German and published in No 198, in June 2011, under the title: Das Leben ist Ausland.
Translated by Bojana Obradovic