Tale of the Modern Refugee

woman sitting on bench

Image courtesy of Roberto Trombetta, Flickr

Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the latest issue of Tikkun magazine. To read all the other wonderful articles, purchase the issue here.

In the spring of 2018, I met a Syrian refugee serving in a canal-side bar in Amsterdam. I would not have known she was of Syrian origin. My companion, a Dutch Sephardi Jew, about whose ancestors I was writing a book, told me that she worked with Syrian and Yazidi refugees to help them integrate into Dutch society. She knew the young woman was from Syria as she recognized the accent. 

My friend asked the waitress more specifically when she came back with our drinks, and her reply was affirmative. She came to Amsterdam in 2016, with the influx of refugees displaced by Islamic State (IS) fighters causing havoc in the Middle East. 

But the hazel-eyed woman, in her early 20s, added that her “refugee” status did not interest her. She was studying in a Dutch university and would not want to be seen as anything but Dutch, which should happen soon, once she had sufficiently got rid of the Arabic twang from her speech.

“How do you feel being in Amsterdam?” My friend asked her. 

“I feel almost Dutch, and free at last from the memory of war”, she said, exuding self-confidence and determination. I couldn’t help thinking that for her, feeling Dutch was synonymous to laying claim to her new freedom. My friend was pleasantly surprised at the speed at which the young Syrian had found her place as a successful immigrant. Her role as a Dutch teacher to help refugees from the latest Middle Eastern war assimilate into their new life in this northwestern European city seemed redundant. 

My companion should not have been so taken aback; after all, 400 years ago, her ancestors—Iberian Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism—had arrived in Amsterdam as religious refugees and claimed Dutch identity. Their odyssey—in search of freedom of expression, economic success, and self-determination in seventeenth-century Europe—is redolent of the many tales of war and displacement in the modern world, from former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan to Syria to Iraq to Libya to sub-Saharan Africa. The following essay will try to shed light on a recurring reality of migration: the history of displacement can sometimes be the history of reaching new horizons. But it can also turn the other way—when irreversible tragedies happen. So what can be done to prevent shameful occurrences such as the slavery, the holocaust, anti-immigrant race riots, and so on from repeating? We’re passing through a moment in history when communal identity is gaining momentum again. Talk of identity politics is frequently in the news and immigrants destroying cultural continuity is on the minds of many people. Has the modern world lost its identity? Which invites a counter-argument: is “identity” static, or does it change from age to age, generation to generation, as dissolution of old power systems and empires gives birth to new enfranchisements and new definitions of selfhood? 

The New Christians who came to Amsterdam sought freedom in the Protestant republic, appropriated and enhanced the early modern European thought, contributing significantly to usher in the Enlightenment. For the Sephardim of Iberia, the cultural and philosophical movement of Western Europe was synonymous to progress, and mastering that was their passport to belonging. This required adoption of the etiquette and decorum of their host society, becoming as Dutch as possible, emulating the manners and costume of their adopted nation. Soon, they’ll be painted by Rembrandt and the world shall not see a difference between the immigrant Jew and a well-dressed Dutch burgher. 

In the societal language this will be described as a successful story of assimilation—something that’s expected by the host nation of the immigrants who are given refuge. In the pre-globalization age this happened frequently, when migrant communities were desperate to rise above the prison of their origins. That was the only route to escape from the memory of persecution, poverty, and despair. By doing so, by their imitation of Western values, the émigrés also lost their original culture, their songs and liturgy, the laughter and cries of the land of their birth. 

But, in a globalized world, with the information of multiple immigrations, journeys, and displacements of co-religionists readily available in real time, the new arrivals are not obliged to imitate the Western way of life as obediently as they were in the past. Or to put it this way, social media offers the modern refugee an immediate “agony aunt” to confide in, to discuss their woes, share their ordeal with fellow migrants from the same geographical or other less technologically advanced locations. In this unity in dispersion, the refugees are less likely to abandon their former way of life, less likely to crave for the favours of the West’s moral superiority. In fact, in many cases, they cling to and even invent a more traditional way, by piecing together the diasporic experience and memories of their ancestral home. This trend usually gets stronger among the second or third generation immigrants, reluctant unlike the first arrivals, to base their identity on the approval of their culture by the Western society in which they live. The host nation’s tolerance is put to the test; it starts to feel unnerved by the temerity of the emigrant’s progeny. The neo-Islam or neo-Judaism of the Muslim and Jewish diasporas do not fit in with the older versions that their more cautious ancestors pursued. Historically, immigrants kept the public following of the Western way of life and the private worship of their faith separate. 

Today, they feel they no longer need to do that. In fact, this trend to defy the parroting of Western behaviour and dress code had already begun in the previous century and matured in the second half of the 20th century with the civil rights movement. Taking advantage of the wave of the Western liberal progressive consciousness, the emigrants started to show an undaunted streak that had previously been suppressed by their attempt to appear as “good citizens.” To fit in, one had to be Western educated. Here began a three-way tug of war—emancipated immigrants versus western progressive liberals versus self-proclaimed protectors of European culture. 

The question is, in today’s world, must we monitor the rise of cultural chauvinism for racist self-righteousness? In light of the rise in recent years of virulent anti-Semitism, hate talk, and Islamophobia, it’s important to know how to introduce new cultures that immigrate to traditional societies through globalization and mass migration. Not everyone will be like the Syrian waitress, who’s following the old example of breaking free from the prison of her origins and fully integrating into the more economically potent and stable European society. She is trying to pass herself off as Dutch, in order to belong. But, we also have those—and they constitute the majority of the émigrés in our time—who share what they believe to be their ancestral cultures with fellow immigrants scattered in various host nations. Both the assimilated immigrants and those who try to preserve their traditional cultures are seeking safety and security in their adopted home. But there are some angry voices, in particular among the second or third generation children of migrants who say this is payback time for the former colonials. That the West has long been thieving, usurping wealth, enslaving people, and creating a labor catchment area out of non-capitalist societies, calling them un-progressive, backward, unenlightened. Therefore, it’s time for those societies, since they have been displaced and dispersed by colonialism, to turn the tables on the West. This voice of anger became more audible following the 9/11 attacks and the reprisals that followed. 

As the descendants of migrants are trying to fit in so not to suffer the wrath of Islamophobia in the West, they have secretly forged a stronger alliance with their ancestral heritage that their parents and grandparents had forsaken to assimilate. The strength today comes from the unity of the historically oppressed through the thread of the social media. The new generation of Muslims proudly wear the headscarf; families with children flock to the mosque in white robes, skull caps, and burqa for Friday prayers. Only two or three decades ago, Islamic clothes were frowned upon by urban Muslims in the Middle East and by Muslim immigrants in the West. 

While the protectors of the European and essentially Christian culture are waging an anti-immigration war with some saying migrants must leave or assimilate, a pressing topic of the age has been cultural appropriation—propagated by the historically oppressed as well as Western progressive liberals. The first group, consisting of the émigrés, is calling to reclaim their heritage from adulteration or “appropriation” by Westerners, while the progressives are supporting this cultural repossession campaign from the standpoint of historical guilt.

Interestingly, among the warriors for the protection of Western values, we have an impressive number of unlikely soldiers coming from the descendants of migrants. There are writers, polemicists, and artists who tend to think progress means Westernization. Not just visibly in terms of what one wears—in that sense the modern world including the vociferously anti-Western societies in the Islamic world are un-debatably Westernized when it comes to the public profile of men in their suit jackets, ties, and shiny brogues—but also in their outlook and values, which the “Westernized” equate with freedom of speech and sexual liberation. They say stop blaming the West for colonialism, the immigrants must respect the culture of the place they’ve chosen to settle in. 

The Western cultural protectionists have openly voiced their opposition to women in black burqa walking down the high street, end of Passover service wafting out of the neighbourhood synagogue, Friday prayer call from the end-of-the road mosque. The predominant thought on their minds is that these people are here to pollute the mainstream culture, which is basically rooted in Western Christianity. We hear them retort: why on earth is the woman in burqa here when she could have just stayed in her home country and appeared in her walking tent? The stark reality, which the mouthpiece for Western superiority is oblivious of, is that for the man in a white robe, black coat, or skull cap in New York or London, the woman in a wig, hijab, or long skirt in Paris or Brussels, this is their home. They are the diasporic nations created by globalization and Europe’s colonial past. 

I’ve heard comments such as the above from many of my “progressive” friends and, to my great surprise, I, a first-generation immigrant myself in London who successfully imitated the Western culture, joined in the chorus of disapproval at the unassimilated sore thumb in our cultural continuity. The visible differences of the diasporic defiant are accompanied by elements of an “other” culture—esoteric, bold, and sometimes provocative. The cultural chauvinist and even the progressive liberal in the West are disconcerted by the call to prayer, demand for halal food in state schools, and introduction of non-Christian religions to students. I must admit when my youngest child came home from his London primary school with a library book called Mosque School that talks about a little boy in a Muslim Sunday school, I was at a loss for words. It was a difficult test: it challenged my own inherent intolerance for something I didn’t understand and therefore didn’t approve of—a legacy of the cultural superiority that had been instilled in the immigrant generation that strove to be Western to be invisible.

The migrants of today are proud of their origins, or what they believe to be their ancestral culture. There has been a steady process of re-identifying with and reclaiming of one’s perceived heritage. 

A fascinating byproduct of Western cultural supremacist view is the empowerment of the migrants who came to its shore as refugees, fortune seekers, remnants of the formerly colonized and enslaved. It reached its peak in the 1960s, in the post-colonial soul-searching in the Western academic and artistic social milieu. The culture of looking but not seeing crept in as the “exotic” communities were tolerated for a while amid the post-war euphoria, but not accepted into the Western culture. 

If colonialism hadn’t happened, perhaps the world, as it would have naturally progressed in science and technology, would have seen a voluntary, amicable sharing of knowledge and skills between like-minded scholars, explorers, traders, and fortune seekers, without the battle of whose culture is superior and who is accused of cultural theft or appropriation. Human interaction—on a mercantile, artistic, or spiritual level—need not have gone through forced population movement and mass resettlement of non-Europeans in European countries that had been using vast sections of Africa and Asia as a labour catchment zone.   

The descendants of the colonies coming to settle in the West is Europe’s own doing, say those who believe it’s time for the West to take responsibility for the historical harms caused by colonialism. The argument used in response is: decades have passed since the end of colonialism, the end of slavery, where’s the sense of self-awareness of the formerly colonized and enslaved? Hasn’t the time come to move on? 

Moving on is surely happening, but not on the terms as the historically-privileged Europeans understand. The generations that emerged from the enslaved and disenfranchised, the Holocaust, and the many other post-colonial genocides following the fragmentation of their homelands are choosing to exert their power and influence and set their own destiny. The terms and conditions for writing down their names in modern history are set by them. Against this trend, the concept of cultural barricade could be understood. What individual and group identities mean to the migrants must be decided by them only.

Where does it come from, this uninhibited display of cultural defiance, without fear of ostracism or sanction by the West’s moral superiority? Without caring about the parameters of the Western civilization, and forsaking the emigrants’ age-old urge to belong to the host societies by internalizing their cultural standards?

I, from that point of view, am a weakling, a typical product of the colonies who had been programmed to think like, act like, eat like, and dress like the perfectly assimilated immigrant. And when I don’t automatically guess, for example, the name of the composer of a piece of European classical music, I hide in the outsider’s usual sense of ignominy that I have a long way to go before I can properly belong. It never occurs to me, as it doesn’t to millions of others who are desperate to belong to their former colonial societies, that most Europeans would not know a thing about the other, non-European civilizations unless they are academics in particular fields of studies. If I played a piece of an Indian Raga to a regular European listener, would he or she feel any kind of shame for not knowing the name of the composer? 

But I would not even ask these questions. I am well-trained in Western tradition; even in my rural school as a child I could name chronologically the entire British Royal family. My grandmother had the portraits of three generations of the Royals that had spanned her life on her bedroom wall. I have appropriated the English language until it pushed aside my perfectly complex mother tongue in which I wrote my first novel. In fact, I would not like to engage in this debate. I am comfortable in my new life, my new clothes, my mother tongue vanishing into a distant memory of nursery rhymes sung by my grandmother. I thrive in the life I created for myself.  

Perhaps this makes me a coward, or to add some dignity, I’ve adapted well. But this can no longer be accepted as the natural aspiration of the outsider. When the brutality of colonialism, the crimes of slavery, the violence of the holocaust are held against the unimaginable losses of integrity and history of the victims, the new cultural defiance of the outsider can be explained. It is in fact cultural self-determination that runs through the vein of today’s new immigrants searching for identity. 

Less than half a century ago, Muslim women would not wear a full-face veil or the burqa in the streets of New York, Molenbeek, London, Paris, or Montreal. The empowerment of the people who historically lived in awe of the rise of the Western naval and technological power and in fear of being called backward, anti-progress, and anti-civilization even as they moved toward assimilation and Westernization, became possible after monumental changes shook the world in the 20th century. The two World Wars and the resultant fall of the European empire, put into question whether what the West thought civilization stood for should be a benchmark for progress for the rest of the world.

I hear a clamour of voices around me with a specific grievance: the West must delve into the tragic events in history—slavery, segregation, colonization, targeted killings, and so on, which forced the modern refugee to take a steadfast approach to cultural determination and establish a clear definition for their brutalized selfhood. Their parents and grandparents gave up their cultural continuity and mother tongue in order to belong, but their children and the children’s children still find they have a long way to go before full integration and acceptance. 

They are so frequently despised for their religions and habits that they often react to the West flaunting its superiority by celebrating their differences, in clothes in particular. Clothing with religious symbols attached—the hijab, the burqa, the niqab, the kippa, turban, black coat, long white robe, and so on—has been the de facto definer of the process of self-making of historically ridiculed people. The trend has been more prevalent in Europe than in America. The intense response by a priggish Europe steeped in Christian history to the Islamic or Jewish religious emblems explains the migrants’ suspicion of the West: you cannot just take my hummus and laugh at my headscarf.


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