Home and away: If only one could say what that means in a nomadic age


Ruth Behar’s beautiful and insightful essay on the search for ‘home’ must resonate with everyone who has a settled life. Especially so, if you’re so lucky as to be in the very place you were born. But it resonates exceedingly powerfully with those of us who have repeatedly moved – away from anywhere you can remember – the place you were raised, where you first lived as an adult.

Ms Behar is a Cuban-born, New York-bred, well-travelled cultural anthropologist and despite having lived the last 30 years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she describes herself as “a person of many diasporas’, unable to admit she is “from Michigan” because I come from somewhere else, I don’t have a firm allegiance to any single place. I am passing through, grateful for a place to rest my wings.”

Last year, she wrote a book is titled Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys’. And in her Aeon essay, she examines the varying reasons we regard a place as home in a “nomadic world”. Even in an age of massive displacement, the idea of ‘home’ lives.

It is full of contradictions. As Ms Behar writes, “Home is that place which is unspeakable in the way that Isadora Duncan once remarked that if she could say what it means she wouldn’t have to dance it.”

Home is a concrete location on a map.

Home is a set of memories that can’t be confined to any map.

Home is the street where you took your first steps.

Home is genealogy, who begat whom, and how you came to be.

Home is the historical record of those who came before you.

Home is the land your ancestors fought for and lost.

Home is the land your ancestors conquered by force.

Home is your kin, those whom you hold dear.

Home is the nest you create with the stranger who becomes your life partner.

Home is the cornfield, the olive trees, the herd of sheep from which you were fed.

Home is the hearth, the home fire, the kitchen that gathers family and friends.

Home is a refrigerator stocked with your favourite flavour of ice cream.

Home is the way your grandmother said your name like a blessing.

And a home is where you put your grandmother when she is sick and useless.

Home is the lullaby your mother sang you to sleep.

Home is the lullaby you wish your mother had sung you to sleep.

Home is a shared language where even your slightest gestures are understood.

Home is where you can lounge in pyjamas all day if you feel like it.

Home is shelter: the house, the apartment, the flat, the shack, the tent, where you can find rest and refuge from the natural elements, from heat, rain, cold, snow, tempests.

Home is your beloved, to whom you bring flowers, gifts, and chocolates.

Home is where you were bored and dreamed of new horizons.

Home is your home page on your website, or your home screen on your cell phone.

Home is a filthy stove, an unmopped floor, dusty bookcases, cobwebs in the corners, accusing you of untidiness and laziness.

Home is that place you vacate in order to go on vacation and forget about your untidiness and laziness.

Home is that place where treasures are stored and thieves lie in wait to steal what they can.

Home is a piece of real estate, to buy and sell.

Home is a mortgage you spend your life working to pay off and resent like hell.

Home is that place between four walls where you were mistreated, abused, raped, hated for no reason, by those who were supposed to protect you and care for you.

Home is that doll’s house from which a wife wants to escape but lacks the means or courage to do so.

Home is that place where you can be a woman alone and no one feels sorry for you.

Home is that place where you were tortured by a government that fears its citizens.

Home is that place where you went to bed hungry.

Home is that place where you weren’t allowed to pray to your gods openly.

Home is that place where you aren’t afraid to wear a hijab or a kippahin the street.

Home is that place of endless war and strife where you never felt safe.

Home is that place from which you were expelled, told to leave or lose your life.

Home is that place where your ancestors found their final resting place.

Home is that place where your ancestors were brutally dehumanised and left to die without a grave.

Home is that place which took you in like an orphan when you had no place to go.

Home is that place to which you want to keep returning.

Home is that place to which you never again want to return.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac