The refugee's struggle for identityHomeless with three homes
Nader – the author's alter ego – loses his home as a small child. His parents are driven from Palestine in 1948, Israel's foundation year, when Nader is just five years old. He spends the following years of his childhood and early youth in Beirut and Kuwait; he begins learning German and eventually moves to Germany: in the early 1960s, he relocates to Heidelberg, where he concludes his studies with a PhD.
The book only gives passing consideration to these early experiences in a strange country, the process of familiarisation with German culture, student political debate (including the Palestine-Israel conflict) in the highly politicised 1960s in particular. Nader is already well established at the start of the book; he describes himself as integrated, even assimilated, he's married to a Swiss woman and working his way up the professional ladder.
In these early years in particular, Nader also has to grapple with the prejudices of his own heritage community. For example, his Arab friends question whether a marriage between a Palestinian and a woman from Tessin can last. The cultural and religious differences in a mixed marriage are too great, they say.
But although Nader and Elisa do marry and never regret the decision, he senses his own internal division and the pain of being alienated from his culture of origin.
This dual perspective – of being regarded as integrated and "socialised as a European" on the one hand, while remaining internally foreign on the other and always having to question German culture – reflects Nader's (and thus largely the author's) own daily experience.
We experience Nader as an alert observer of the world in which he lives, as someone who draws attention to and criticises the everyday racism, anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism and the drift into parallel societies, but who also ruthlessly calls out state failures and shortcomings in the Arab world.
Having lived for such a long time in Germany, he is very attuned to the nation's mood and perceives the growing overt racism, which was more covert in the 1970s and 80s, as increasingly threatening.
Since the turn of the millennium, he has noticed a swing to the right that showed its true colours in the refugee crisis of 2015.
But his observations are not restricted to Germany, he finds racism all over the world: "a decidedly ugly and inhuman phenomenon (…) in almost all parts of the globe".
The author also supports this claim with many examples from different cultures, as well as through history.
Nader's internal division appears to further heighten his sensitivity to any form of cultural-political aberration.
But he's not just looking at others in this regard, he also observes aberrations and "pathologies" in himself.
For example, he admits to having developed a genuine "addiction" to Trump during the latter's presidency, and an exaggerated interest in any report or scrap of information on Trump's Israel policy. He developed a positively "masochistic" attitude towards Trump's escapades and statements, understandable in view of the former president's pro-Israeli stance, but which Nader himself sees as an overreaction.
No mention of Palestine
The Palestine-Israel conflict is the author's main interest in his work on the Middle East and primarily as chairman of the Palestine Forum in Bonn. He expresses great concern that Israel continues to oppress the Palestinian population – which comprises 20 percent of the entire nation.
He also cannot understand why in Israeli schoolbooks, for example, the word Palestine does not appear. In his home city of Jaffa, he searched in vain for some sort of commemorative plaque "with a single mention of the Palestinians, or a description of the situation before the outbreak of the 1948 war"; it is as though "the Palestinians never existed, (…) as though the state of Israel had permanently existed for 4,000 years".
Here too, however, Nader sees things from both sides and concedes "that in terms of the crisis management of this perennial conflict, Palestinian and Arab leaders have also failed across the board". But despite the "ongoing tragedy" and the perpetually difficult search for a solution, Nader remains, as he himself describes it, a "professional optimist", holding fast to his vision of a future shared state.
He knows that in searching for his home, he can't choose between Palestine, Germany or Switzerland and that, just as he did as a young man, he's still often required to perform an "identity balancing act". In the strictest sense, however, he is "homeless", he says: having several identities is an advantage.
This is also a reference to the Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf, who never wanted to opt for one of his homelands (although both countries encouraged him to do so) and preferred "to adopt several homes or feel freely at home there out of conviction, integration and will".
Aref Hajjaj presents us with a book that is both ripe with personal experience and at the same time, a balanced, critically scrutinised compilation of the two-way prejudices between West and East.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Historian and political scientist Aref Hajjaj was born in Jaffa, Israel, and now lives in Bonn, Germany.
Aref Hajjaj, Heimatlos mit drei Heimaten, published in German by Kiener, 2021.