By Izzeddin Araj
Everything seemed magical, Léman Lake, the trees drying up after a rainy morning, and the mountain skyline: mesmerizing. We had just finished the last class of a long semester and had decided to celebrate. All seemed delightful and beautiful before my friend decided to do what every sociologist, according to Pierre Bourdieu, ought to do: ruin the party.
“Geneva is so clean, but where does the waste go?” he asked. None of us knew the exact answer to this unanticipated question, but we all understood very well the logic behind it. We all felt that this movie-esque scene, much like life itself here, is problematically perfect. Having grown up in a place that is marred with entrenched inequality in every aspect of our everyday lives and having learned little, yet enough about how the world works, we realized that things cannot be that good unless they are equally bad somewhere else.
A few weeks later, I was preparing myself to return to Palestine. My spoilsport friend had already returned to Indonesia. When I sent him a message to check on him, he had one more day left under quarantine. He, however, didn’t seem excited about getting out. “Indonesia’s Covid surge is catastrophic, brother. People are dying everywhere,” he said. I didn’t want to put more pressure on him, but I found myself complaining that “having stayed in Switzerland during the last year of the pandemic, we might have forgotten that it is still catastrophic in most parts of the world.” “Yes exactly”, he agreed, “I was thinking about this as l now occupy a liminal space. I am still in between. Here and there. It is as if I was in Disneyland for a year and now got over its fence and saw the rest of the world, full of suffering.”
Just a week later, I was crossing the Jordan river to enter the West Bank. Excited, yet scared, I felt as if I finally understood what my friend meant. Ironically enough, I was holding Sarah Ahmad’s Promise of Happiness when one Israeli soldier asked me: “why would anyone leave Switzerland?” The Disneyland metaphor seemed even more valid. I, nonetheless, didn’t have much time to ponder on that, as the soldier’s questions were too personal, that they created that revelatory effect, illuminating what is beyond the Disneyland fences, and that I was about to re-enter the world as colonized. The Swiss document that had allowed me to enter many countries for the first time in my life, was quite useless. I now have very conditional access to a little part of my own country.
For me, coming back from a “Disneyland” is always bound to a feeling of guilt, I told my friend later. It is an incomplete return that always lies between here and there. We return vaccinated to people who are not; with clear plans to people who struggle every day with uncertainty; and as relatively stable individuals, to a place where “the only stable thing is death,” as one woman I interviewed told me.
Yet, this is not the most salient difference. More striking still, is that we have a return flight out of this place; to somewhere safer, and more stable, while most people there will keep going through daily tragic journeys of no return. “That is what defines our life here in the West as well,” another friend would rightly suggest later. We always are potential returnees. That is why we must prove this every time we apply for an official document or grant. The liminal space, to which my friend pointed earlier, seems much wider now. It is not just a few days of quarantine in Indonesia or a few hours on the border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank. It becomes, somehow, our life itself.
A few days before I left Palestine, another woman I interviewed told me, inspired seemingly by Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek, “no one is fully free. It is just that the string you are tied to is longer than other people’s.”1 Fair enough, I said to myself, remembering this when I arrived in Geneva airport. Later that day, I passed by the same part of the lake where we all sat before I left for Palestine. It was as beautiful as usual, but more problematic this time, with a pinch of disenchantment.
- Both interviews have been conducted for a collaborative research project I work on with Rivana Cerullo.
Izzeddin Araj is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Sociology (ANSO) at the Graduate Institute. His work focuses on reproduction politics and statistical violence in Palestine/ Israel.