Being a modern-day Bedouin makes it hard to call anywhere home

Jennifer Connolly in a scene from Shelter, 2014, DIFF, directed by her husband Paul Bettany and co-starring Anthony Mackie. PLOT: Hannah and Tahir fall in love while homeless on the streets of New York. Shelter explores how they got there.
CREDIT: Courtesy Bifrost Pictures

Navigating between two cities can be disorientating – and reminds you of those with nowhere to call home

We are in New York for the holidays and as happens every year, I have that split-screen experience that comes from feeling like “home” is simultaneously two places. After 25 years of living in New York, I’ll never fully erase the scent of the subway from my psyche but it’s no longer the smell of home.  Now “home” means Abu Dhabi’s airy tang of salt and dates, mixed with the scent of the basil bushes that line the sidewalks outside my apartment building.

My children (and probably quite a few adults) will roll their eyes, but it’s the time of year when I indulge in my love of Neil Diamond and his song about being torn between his new home in LA and his old home in NYC: “LA’s fine, the sun shines most of the time,” he sings, and then goes on to say that “LA’s fine but it ain’t home, New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more”.

Adding to my sense of displacement is the fact that in late December, New York used to be a snowy winterland, like the year when a blizzard shut down the entire city. People went cross-country skiing down Sixth Avenue and the city was as hushed as a vast cathedral. But it hasn’t snowed over the holidays for years – maybe even for as long as we’ve lived in Abu Dhabi. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or climate change but now the city in December is just cold and dark – the antithesis of Abu Dhabi’s sparkling December days.

It’s hard to resist the pull of family, however, and so off we go, moving through time and space to join those we love in a kind of nomadism that a friend of mine calls the life of a “modern Bedouin”. Those of us who migrate by choice, aided by the ability to purchase plane tickets, take time off from work and by passports that enable mobility, might take a moment as we turn towards a new year to consider those who aren’t so lucky: the 65,000 homeless people in New York City, for instance, or the stunning number of the world’s forcibly displaced people, which the UN estimates to be upwards of 60 million.


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As I navigate between my two homes/not-homes, I wonder about those who no longer even have the solace of one place to call their own, who are deprived of what in Spanish is called “querencia”. The word has multiple meanings, one of which denotes the place where we feel safe and that gives us strength. It is also, curiously, the word that describes the spot in the arena where the bull makes its stand against the bullfighter.

I suppose those two definitions are linked: when we feel safe, we have the courage to take a stand and to confront the world. For most of us, that sense of strength and safety comes as much from the people around us as it does for the place. If we are without one or the other, the world becomes a more difficult place to navigate.

Thinking about those millions of displaced people, however, reminds me that my nomadism is a luxury. This year, instead of feeling pulled between two places, I will choose to draw strength from both cities and from the amazing people I know and love on both sides of the globe. Maybe I’ll even banish Neil Diamond from my December playlist: he might not have felt at home in LA’s sunshine but I love Abu Dhabi’s heat, even the dripping humidity of high summer. And maybe, as befits a modern Bedouin, I will think about what I can do, in whatever small ways I can, to help those who don’t have a place to call their own.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

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