Travel and migration have been a fundamental aspects of Arab literature and constructions of Arab identity. Political and religious conflicts – from antiquity to the contemporary moment -, as well as other cultural and economic issues and contexts, have led to the significant migration of Arab people both within the Arab world and beyond its borders. Moreover, the conception of travel is deeply anchored in Islamic doctrine, particularly in the Hijra of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Hijra of the Prophet (PBUH) reinforces the legitimacy of travel as righteous in Islamic doctrine in the face of persecution and cements it as part of the broader Muslim identity. The sacrifice of one’s home and kin for the sake of Islam will not go unrewarded, according to the Quran. Moreover, migration for God’s will is encouraged in the Quran. In Surat An-Nisa, it reads:
“And whoever emigrates for the cause of God will find on the earth many [alternative] locations and abundance. And whoever leaves his home as an emigrant to God and His Messenger and then death overtakes him – his reward has already become incumbent upon God. And God is ever Forgiving and Merciful”.
The Prophet’s (PBUH) flight from Mecca to Medina marked the first year of the Islamic calendar and became a major source for Arab identity construction for Arab Muslims. Moreover, the medieval travels of Ibn Butta – a famous 14th century Muslim traveler – further bolsters the relationship between travel and identity formation. Ibn Butta traveled across the world for almost 29 years, exploring the equivalent of 44 modern countries. He dictated the story of his travels to a scholar into his famous book the Rihla, or Journey. I was inspired by Ibn Butta’s journey, and how his travels unlocked new, unfamiliar lands for readers across generations. As such, I was very interested in understand the ways in which travel has functioned to shape conceptions of both Arab identity and the ideas of home and belonging. This topic is of particular contemporary importance as the modern conflicts in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq have forced Arabs to migrate to new lands in response to the violence they face at home, thus affecting their perceptions of both their Arab identity and of home.
To that end, I wanted to write a short poem that captures the nuances of how travel can affect or shape one’s understand of identity, home, and belonging. I hope you enjoy it.
A Nomad’s Home
I try to remember home, but alas I find it difficult.
I struggle to find the memories of my childhood,
Nostalgia lost to the backdrop of constant movement and unfortunate pain.
I ask myself often, as I travel through the rich land that God has created,
Who am I?
How can I understand myself without any conception of where I come from?
I am a tree whose roots have been removed, lost in the deep, blooming forest.
Alas, is the life of a Nomad?
But perhaps this is my fate, to never be tethered to a single place?
Free to roam this messy yet beautiful world of ours, uninhibited by roots.
Where shall I go? Who shall I meet? The possibilities are as boundless as the very cosmos.
I can bargain with the merchants of Cairo,
I can revel in awe of the Taj Mahal in India,
I can find God’s presence in the holiest of cities – the birthplace of my faith,
I can explore new lands, new peoples, new cultures, and new worlds.
Maybe I am not cursed, maybe, just maybe, this is a blessed gift.
A Nomad’s home is beyond any one space, home is defined by where our hearts lie.
Home, for myself then, must be everywhere.
To be at home in all lands and all ages,
Perhaps, I do have a home after all…