in the german language there are two words that very well suit my spirit and have been used to describe me by others: wanderlust and fernweh. the first is the lust, the want, the desire to wander, to travel, to journey, to explore. the latter is the sense of missing and longing towards the far-away. this far away is neither a person nor a specific location, however, it describes more the sense of distance, of something new, of adventure maybe, and of exploration. it is the journey rather than a certain goal that builds the underlying value and sentiment. now, me, i seem to have been born with these sentiments. yet regardless of their consistent presence, i have not come around to ask myself and be asked by others why i seem to fail to feel at home in my home country and why i seem constantly restless to journey to ever far away lands. more so, my increasing habit of fulfilling my desire to not just far-away places, but to what are largely considered ‘dangerous’ places, like iraq and pakistan, have left wonder and worry in many of my closely related friends and family.
the reflection on these matters that i am to present here now is to be understood as a construct of many years of wondering and thinking. a process, which i believe, will never be fully resolved. but in my current journey, in pakistan, i have come to a new sense of clarity that, for the first time, i feel like sharing.
about my home country, austria.
it is no secret to most that i have a troubled relationship with my ‘motherland’. i myself trace this primarily repulsive sentiment back to the story of my childhood, where my being different -primarily in language (dialect)- has been equated to a sense of not-belonging to the community around me. until today, when i hear the question ‘you are not from here, are you?’, i hear them say ‘you do not belong here, do you?’. children back in my days where most expressive about it when they told me to go back to where i came from; which to me did not make any sense, given i was born in the region and even my parents, despite being of a different region, where still ‘austrian’ by passport, paper and birth. and hence commenced my life-long wonder with the categories ‘us’ and ‘them’; given i was made a ‘them’ in a context that by birth-certificate and definition of nation-state should have been an ‘us’. it is in this difference that i observed my surrounding more from an outsiders perspective while trying to be an insider for many years.
now, when traveling to far away lands, i am actually different. and here i feel alright with being different. in fact, it has been the being different in other parts of the world that has made me more confident with being different also at ‘home’. and still i could not help but have the question cross my mind that whether i feel more comfortable being abroad that being at ‘home’ because i am in fact more austrian when being abroad than when being in austria. it is abroad that i realize my germanic values of precision and order; it is abroad that being austrian matters. this question has plagued me for obvious reasons – what an irony and self-illusion would it be if the essence of my desire to travel would be the need to feel like ‘an austrian’! it was now in pakistan that i finally found an answer to this question. i do not travel abroad to seek identity; yes, i find it in parts regardless, but it is not what excites my heart and soul. instead, at the bottom of my desire lies a simple fact:
traveling is constant learning.
when traveling afar, my eyes are wide open. everything is new and exciting. and under this rain of new impressions, as my eyes are open like those of an innocent child seeing the world for the first time, my heart and mind open as well. at this moment one would rightfully point out that there is also places that i have not seen in austria, germany, orswitzerland; but to me ‘new’ alone is not the essence i seek. all those areas are still the same culture. things are in order. beauty is obvious. structure is appreciated. discipline is lived. the difference that actually exist between those areas to me are too small as though they would touch more than just my eyes. it is only in the chaos of the thai streets, in the morning prayers of istanbul, in the long beards and adidas clothes of arabic men, or in the individually colorful trucks of pakistan that i find my spirit moved. it is in the discomfort of a cold shower, in the sudden dissapearance of light in another electricity shortage, and in the bumpy roads and trash-littered streets that i find appreciation for life and the luxury of the first world.
but more than that, there is so much that happens when traveling afar that no journey could ever be captured in a photograph. or maybe it is just this the art of photography, when one manages to put even a distant viewer into a certain moment of clarity; touching more than just the eyes, but instead the heart and mind and all the senses. what i learned from traveling, after all, is this: when you just travel with your eyes, you don’t travel yet. go somewhere, snap a picture (a pretty picture, at that! who would want to show the relatives at home a dirty beach, a broken house, or a starving kid; unless of course it is in the expression of ‘how poor those people are’; capturing both a sense of broken heart and continuing inaction) and leave. many a traveler and philosopher has said ‘the road is the goal’ and it is a sentiment i can only echo. it is why i also desire living in those far away places – and yes, to me, this is still ‘traveling’. it is the living there that gives me time to extend my journey, my discovery of something new. it is the living there that allows me more insight into the struggles and realities, into the subtle humors on the streets, into the daily matters of getting water, electricity or a government permit. it is there, where, despite not moving somewhere new constantly, one still receives a constant input to reflect about life, oneself and ones position in this world.
of stories, hearts, and smiles…
even more than what i see and do, however, it is the stories of the people around me -some of which i can only guess from the short moment in which i lay my eyes on a stranger and observe their walk, their faces, their actions. there are so many stories still breathing alive in the middle and far east. and behind each face one can only start to guess the many ties of ancestry and family and tradition. in the west, i feel, these stories are written -preserved forever in the terms of right and wrong- and education, the act of learning, has to be artificially created. here, in contrast, the stories still live, in all their complexities and re-tellings; they live in the people who tell them, they live in the memories of those who hear them, and they live as a presence between every rock and tree and stone in this area. and as i move and feel and smell and touch and listen to all that is around me, this is when my heart is truly touched. and with my heart, so is my mind; it is engaged, in so many questions and so many answers; trying to understand the way life happens here, trying to comprehend the way people look at life and love and values and everything else there is between heaven and earth. it is here that light is shed on new dark spots of my own horizon. it is here that i learn so much about myself as well. and it is here that i discover the boundries of my own being.
and one of the things i learned about myself in these lands is that i appreciate the strength of these people who are so often looked down upon as ‘the poor’ and ‘the victim’ and ‘the stupid’ (yes, we use the word ‘uneducated’ in the western world, but let someone call it the way the word is intended!). yes they struggle -in fact they struggle with so much that any ‘problem’ in the west can only be smiled upon- but as they struggle, they smile. horror and terror is faced with humor. commemoration and shock, yes, but also with resilience and smiles (see ‘being pakistani ain’t no joke’ by syed ali abbas zaidi), while every incident in the west causes huge outcries and symbols of solidarity on every major social webpage (nothing against showing solidarity and not trying to de-value the shock and horror to those affected, but the fact is that human-made tragedies of terrorism, killings and attacks do not just happen in europe, and it is as much a tragedy if it happens in pakistan, libya, syria, lebanon, russia, iraq, afghanistan and anywhere else in the world – and i have yet to see the same amount of outrage and solidarity to these episodes of tragedy!). it is this strength, particularly compared to my own heritage and what i observe around me ‘at home’, that sparks both admiration and desire in me; desire to understand how they look at the world, maybe even to find the source of their resilience against everything they are facing in their lifetimes. yes, i am truly inspired by those souls that refuse to smile -even if not on their lips sometimes, i still see it in their eyes; by those hearts that are not yet poisoned with greed and want and ‘having’; and by those minds that still remember -remember the stories of a distant past, remember the values of living, and remember that there is more than one way to look at the world – a plurality, by the way, that i, at least, deem worthy of preserving. and so i go out into the world and seek it…