Histoire d’un retour au pays natal

Walking through Paris this morning I came across an Islamic funeral service. Given the number of Muslims in France you might wonder what is the big deal. Nothing, really, except that it made me think about something that has been on my mind for some time: death and exile.

Migrants, in particular the generation that has experienced transnational relocation first-hand, are often asked if or when they are planning to return to their country of origin. This question tends to produce awkward silence, apologetic shrugs, a hesitant “no” or an avalanche of explanations as to why exile is inevitable. In most cases the question is unwelcome, sometimes met with outright hostility. The question of returning home is taboo for several reasons.

First, it is often asked from within a general mindset that rejects migration, strives to make it temporary and refuses migrants any pathway towards becoming full members of their new society. A general suspicion towards those eager to ask this question whenever they see someone looking ostensibly “exotic” is therefore fully warranted.

Yet even when the question is raised among friends, and without xenophobic undertones, things can get awkward real quick. For starters, there are of course those for who left their country under violent and traumatic circumstances, and for whom the impossibility of return is an open wound that is better not stoked. However, for the overwhelming majority of migrants the question of return awakes much less dramatic memories. Rather, it breaks a taboo in that it forces them to think about something that people in general prefer to suppress, namely that we are not really individuals but merely nodes in a complex network of relationships, dependencies and reciprocal exchanges. In other words, once you leave your country “life happens” and life keeps happening. You might marry someone from a different location, your children might be born in your country of residence or identify strongly with it, and a return to the homeland has become as impossible as a return to the past.

I have heard many migrants talk about returning “home” once they retire, and yet, once their grandchildren are born in their country of residence, they remain, forever postponing the intended relocation. What matters is not so much the implementation of the idea but the idea itself, the knowledge that one ‘could’ (even though, for all practical purposes one cannot) go back one day. This idea is deeply ingrained in the identity of any migrant.

“Why does it matter?” you might wonder. “If they are not going back then why not just say so? Is this another one of those fluffy emotional things?”

Well… let’s say that this limbo is a defining feature of the identity of anyone who lives far from things and people they love. Many people think of their childhood and youth with nostalgia, wishing they could return to this time in their lives. Yet for migrants, time and space intersect – while the impossibility of a return to one’s childhood is immediately obvious to anyone (although, truly speaking, human beings will surprise you…), the return to the homeland is in theory possible. Our childhood is gone, yet our homeland continues to exist. This makes the thought experiment appealing and reassuring, and many migrants build a mental sanctuary around this idea. Asking the “question” is a way of stumbling into that sanctuary and ignoring that its entrance is riddled with signs saying “Keep out!”, “Beware of dog”, “Authorized personnel only” and “Do not enter!”.

So how can you know whether or not someone has fully made peace with the idea of not returning home? Some questions that are left in limbo in life can only be resolved in death. The return to the homeland is one of these. Indeed, there is one set of questions that makes migrants much more uncomfortable than the one alluded to above because it breaks the state of limbo, violates the mental sanctuary and touches something foundational. Variations of the question include “Are you planning to die here?” or “So, where do you want to be buried?”. Speak of a dampener during a casual dinner conversation. And yet, with close family this question sometimes comes up, and the response can tear generations and couples apart.

For many migrants, living abroad is perfectly acceptable, yet dying abroad remains taboo. This red line seems to exist for migrants of all ages, whether religious, agnostic or atheist. For some it is just a matter of being buried ‘at home’, others even wish to die in their homeland. For bi-national couples, or the children of immigrants the question of death – arguably an uncomfortable question for anyone – carries the additional weight of separation. “Till death do us part” takes on a stark meaning when you realize that, in death, your closest family (father, mother, spouse, siblings and children) might be scattered over three continents.

This is where the islamic funeral service in Paris comes in. While a lot of their work seems to consist of repatriating bodies to their respective countries of origin, they also organize funerals in France. This is significant because Islam is still so closely associated with migration, and many Muslims in France have expressed a feeling of alienation and not-belonging despite being French citizens. Indeed, getting a passport might make you a citizen, but you only ever stop being a migrant when you are buried in a country. And a country only ever really welcomes you once it offers you the possibility to be buried there according to your customs.