Fragments of an Exile

It was my mother, bearing me in her womb, that fled from Kuwait by route of invading Iraq. And somewhere within her I floated, unaware of this exile in utero or the fact of it not being my first. I would emerge in Oklahoma, spared a life of carrying my father’s refugee papers.

Where are you from?

How I cringed at this question. An affront, I felt, had been dealt to me, and I squirmed and revised until “no where” fell so seamlessly from my lips in response that it must have been obvious that it was rehearsed. I was from whatever land I found myself resting my head.

Inta min wayne?

Beirut. Beirut, you took one look at my American passport and roared refugee. I hadn’t even finished feeding you my lie and already you were preparing your follow up, your unassailable hidden ace; “but where is your family from originally?”

Where do you find yourself now?

Now, in the alleyway bars of Paris beneath the neon and crooning moon, a man who used to live in Ramallah tells me why he will never go back. Fawda. Chaos. He lists his grievances and I want to berate him. But I recognize his reservations in myself. What cowards we are, I think to myself.

Wayne raye7?

East Jerusalem, home, my home, there is so much about this place that is familiar to me. And yet, outside of the Educational Bookshop, a group of students mutter something about “foreigners” as they pass. I yell out, “falasteeni”, signaling that I am one of them. Glancing up then down, a bored-looking teenager asks why I look like “one of them” as he gestures to the American standing next to me.  And I am ashamed and I am defeated, I want to tell him, “then where? Where would you have me belong?”

What will you return to?

Above the busking of a passing jazz musician, I stare at an English translation of a Rashid Hussein poem in Brooklyn. Memory and guilt, guilty of memory and memorizing and living in some past that does not belong to you, or does it?  And if it does, have we betrayed it with our tongues that speak English more fluently than Arabic? There are lines of John Berryman that I recognize more in myself than Darwish, can this be forgiven? Is this a kind of forgetting? We were exiled, we were exiled. But I worry if we sealed our fate, sealed it when we become comfortable in our exile.  What is there to return to, I am asked.

We are already wandering through a swamp of disruption. You’ll forgive us for navigating towards where it last made sense.

-Talal Alyan is a Palestinian-American writer based in Brooklyn. You can follow him on twitter here.


  1. I think of the “papers”! That dirty word only people in exile knows what is it.

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