…How many years shall we sleep as guests on the sea?
…Nothing of our ancestors remains in us, but we want
the country of our morning coffee
we want the fragrance of primitive plants
we want a special school
we want a special cemetery
—Mahmud Darwish, “Guests on the Sea”
Place is important. I do not need to hold forth here on how our sense of “home” shapes us—far more talented and insightful people have already done that—and you can search them out anywhere. Suffice it to say our first home, or even our sense of home can be carried with us, coiled tight in our DNA wherever we go. But the memory, albeit readily conjured whenever we want it is but a poor substitute for the real thing.
For the refugee home is a transient place, the place in which one never really arrives at but dreams of. Home is more often a place one can never return to. In fact, home is as much a place as a state of mind. “Home” denote a level of comfort. Perhaps even more than comfort, belonging.
But where does the refugee belong?
I step out of my office for a few minutes to phone Muhammad because he has not been on Facebook, the place where we can easily and most readily keep in touch with one another in between my trips to Sicily. I have left messages that have gone unanswered, left silly pictures on his profile that say “Mi manchi!” (I miss you) that have not been commented upon. The heat is scorching on the east coast of the United States—there is barely relief in air-conditioning. I cannot imagine what Muhammad, currently without a permanent place to stay might be suffering during the Sicilian summer.
I dial his number and the familiar overseas ringing of the phone, so different from our in the United States sets my teeth on edge. The phone rings and rings.
Finally, he picks up.
“Micky!” he yells, and I can ‘hear” the voice in his smile. I am sad , though, when I realize how distant this amazing though vulnerable person is from my well-meaning and protective reach.
My friend Muhammad has moved . Again. Because the life of a refugee is often an itinerant one , not by choice but by sheer necessity. He has left the island and traveled to Italy in search of work. Anything.
He is in the Apulia region, where, soon, they will harvest pomodori, if all the conditions are right. During the backbreaking work of harvest, Muhammad will be one man among many. These men will be of various ages, and have various permissions to stay in the country or to work. Many of them will accept the work of picking tomatoes because they will simply be without any other viable options for employment. All employment is conditional, seasonal, of course, intense and , it goes without saying does not pay much.
Muhammad cannot stay in one place any longer. “I must keep moving, do you understand me, Mickey?” he asks me several times. I realize I am nodding instead of answering his question, which, really, requires no answer. Nevertheless, I say , “Yes, Muhammad, I understand.”
I have never known such rootlessness, homelessness, the utter despair and longing for want of a place to live or a place where you would hope for the least of what another human being can offer another: to tolerate your very existence. Muhammad is a brilliant man. He understands his status as a refugee and the many in Italy who oppose his right to live anywhere there. But he knows he cannot go anywhere else. Surely, he can never return to his home in Sudan where his mother waits, day after day for word from him. He tells me he does not talk to her very often because he does not like to lie to her and would not be able to tell her of how difficult his day to day existence is.
I ask him where he will live. What he will eat. He does not answer me. I ask him , foolishly, if he is okay. He laughs, “Mickey, really, I am fine, Mickey, but I worry about you!”
Isn’t that always the way? The one who suffers comforts the ones who worry.
But I can’t stop worrying. But I think of how he so desires work ,any kind of work, how that is all he has ever wanted since arriving in Italy, to be able to take care of himself.
And now, he has some work. Thank God for the harvest and the Italian love of tomatoes.
So for now, pomodori.