Longing for No Return: Damascus – Malmo Via Beirut

“For me, there is no homeland. The only homeland is memory and memory is first and foremost in the body.” – Elia Suleiman

Handala, bitterness in Arabic, is the name of 10 years old boy; sad, ugly, barefooted and displaced from Palestine. He is the signature of Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali, possibly the most popular in the Arab World; Naji was assassinated in London in 1987. At first, Handala “was a Palestinian child, but his consciousness developed to have a national and then a global and human horizon” writes Al Ali. In Syria and at the camps of our refuge, we were taught that Handala will never turn his face unless Palestine is liberated, and that we are all Handalas until we return.


I was born and raised at Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in the south of Damascus. As the son of a Palestinian refugee who was dispossessed from Palestine in 1948 at the age of two; the camp was my Palestine until the age of 15 or so. Damascus then became my idol and Yarmouk turned into “an intensification of exile” but also “a letter eliding Palestine with Syria” as Palestine director Thaer Al Sahli says in his phenomenal visual ethnographic work MiG.

In 2011 all this changed. Syrians revolted. Death prevailed. Assad went crazy.

Terrified by the idea of arbitrary death, of being called collateral damage by the government or categorized among victims constituted “mostly” of innocent civilian in the reports of human rights groups, I have decided to leave Syria towards Beirut in the end of 2012. Why Beirut? Because it is the only place I could go to as a stateless Palestinian from Syria.

Nevertheless, the Handala in me did not feel welcome in Beirut; he took a look or two turning his face towards the vibrant city only to turn his back again with more determination.

Therefore, exactly three years ago in the gloomy morning of 17th February 2013 my airplane landed in Stockholm Arlanda Airport coming from Lebanon. The road towards downtown Stockholm was full of snow on both sides, although, it was only 2 p.m, however the sun already was long gone. Horrified by the darkness of my land-to-be; I muttered quietly in the backseat of the taxi; “what did I do to myself? And why I came here?” I was doing just fine in Lebanon.

Well, to be honest, I was not doing fine at all in Lebanon; I was illegal and undocumented with the risk of deportation at any moment the Lebanese authorities laid their hands on me. As a Palestinian refugee from Syria I was not supposed to stay for longer than a week in the country and here I am; three months in Beirut sans papier!! But I was closer to home. I knew the streets, I had friends, I made memories, I read the newspaper with a cup of mint tea at the same cafe every single morning, in sum I had my rituals with the city. In other words; my belonging to Beirut as human geographer Marco Antonsich puts it: “range (d) from ‘personal, inanimate, private sentiments of place attachment’ (place-belongingness) to a ‘discursive resource which constructs, claims justifies or resists forms of socio-spatial inclusion/exclusion’ (politics of belonging)” (1). Although I was the unwanted Palestinian in the city but I did claim my space just like some half a million Palestinian in Lebanon.

My version of Handala; disabled

But again, I was not doing well in Lebanon. Beirut of all places has the capacity to give you enough to love her but take away enough from you to maintain the distance and the formality. A city that played a key role in the lives of many Arab writers is also the concentration of a lot of pain, injustice, contradictions for Syrians; really desperate Syrians from all cities and backgrounds. Although, I recovered relatively the trauma of war in Beirut, which offers a vibrant cultural scene that nurtured my soul. However, I was always cautious not to lay deep roots in unstable soil. Looking at the misery of other fellow Palestinians, Beirut came to symbolize nothing more than the backyard of a big prison called home; Syria.

It is a lot, a lot of places to remember, a lot of places to reconcile with; from Yarmouk and Damascus to Lebanon and Beirut. Did I ever anticipate such departures? To end up in Sweden and Malmo.

In fact; I have always wanted to get as far as I can from home. This is why I am on this deserted snowy and dark road with an exaggeratedly happy driver and a radio that echoes a language  I don’t understand. They are talking in Swedish, which I will hate at first, then love-hate, and eventually love, to some extent.

Exile is an experience and not any experience. It is formative at all its stages and surprisingly could start at home not only beyond. I will come later to understand that what I have been through will shape my life forever, will force me to rethink all my ideals, my assumptions and my vision. I will give up on many friendships, make new ones, cut connection of family members over political affiliations. Not all the rethinking was fruitful though, I will come later to realize as well that beside the many positive things the revolution of March 2011 and the subsequent exile will bring upon me; some scars will be as permanent as the snow of Sweden; it vanishes to come back again unexpectedly as occasional snow fall in May. My scars in the form of very nasty anxiety will emerge to rearrange my life at home: Syria, in my transit; Lebanon and in my exile: Sweden.


Travel Docu
Swedish Travel Document a.k.a relative freedom

I feel the urge to speak about today more than yesterday, for today is less dramatic on the personal level. As a survival of a raging war; every single breath I take is a slap on the face by guilt. Yes; I constantly wonder why living into 18 months of war I had the fortune of making my days through lethal events with no scar. I pause; reminding myself of the invisible scar Syria has left upon me, that is the constant struggle not to fall into the hole of hopelessness, of eternal sadness and of giving up on life. Indeed, the scars of war diminish one’s aspirations to those of a 5 years old; to buy a toy, to hug her mom, to love and feel loved.

No, it is not the weight of survival under which I struggle to breath; it is rather the burning inquiry of what to do now? How to interpret this experience meaningfully. To put it more eloquently borrowing the thoughts of 19th century philosopher Dilthey as paraphrased by Victor Turner (2) “what happens next (to the experience) is an anxious need to find meaning in what has disconcerted us, whether by pain or pleasure, and converted mere experience into an experience. All this when we try to put past and present together”

Not sure of many things but certain of some I chose to befriend this cold country. I pause again contemplating one sincere thing about my relationship with Sweden. Every time I return to Malmo from a trip abroad I experience this rush of happiness with a sudden urge to smile. This is what Sarah Wright calls the “politics of home” or what Caluya (2011: 203) as cited in Wright articulate as where “security and intimacy converge” because, Wright elaborates “people negotiate contested and dynamic claims to, and feelings of, belonging at multiple scales, through multiple places, and within multiple domains”


Möllevångstorget maj 2015
Möllevångstorget maj 2015, Phoro Credit:  www.sydsvenskan.se

It is this constant negotiation which brought me a sincere smile I wear every single time I come back to Malmo from a trip abroad. Such a sincere smile; the genuine smile of a returnee waited by his or her family in the arrival hall of an airport, the involuntary smile you wear when a grocery shop owner, at Möllevångstorget (3), greets and offers you a free apple. That sort of a smile; natural, unconditional, free, spontaneous which the war has taken away from me for years, it is that smile which Malmo and its people gave back to me and which I don’t wish to give up again.

I befriend exile; for it has been a true companion.




(1) Wright, Sarah. (2015) “More-than-human, emergent belongings: A weak theory approach”, Progress in Human Geography, Vol 39, (online), no.4, pp.391-411. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/39/4/391

(2) The Anthropology of Experience, Edited by Victor Turner and Edward M. Bruner

(3) One of the main squares in Malmo in which Arabic grocery stands owners showcase their grocery everyday


حاكيني وخود الغلة !

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