Travel Insights

This is what it’s like to not have a place called “home”

I recently connected with Yasmin Helal, travel writing at Living Among the Locals. In this post, she explains what it’s like to be so nomadic that you lose sight of what’s “home”.

I have been a traveller long before I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of myself clutching my sister’s warm hands as we both walked to preschool, with Kurdistan’s icy mountains in the background.

That was before I could make a distinction between different cultures. It was a time when I didn’t care about being at home. I would have never guessed that I’d spend the rest of my life yearning for being at home.

At some point in 1988, when the winter got colder and the war got bloodier, we fled in the darkness of the night, after which we crossed the borders by foot to Iran. Despite the high mortality rate among children and my parents’ war injuries, we made it alive.

Permanent limbo

Yasmin Helal discovering her identity

I did feel at home in the few years that followed in Cairo. Those years were probably the closest I will ever feel at home. I’m told that even if I returned, I won’t feel the same.

Cairo is a living, breathing being that is constantly changing. It changes so much and so often that it sometimes feels like a stranger even to those who never left it.

More importantly, the city waits for no one. If you leave, you leave. The 7000-year-old city won’t cry after you. Thus, my Egyptianness entered a state of limbo, probably a permanent one

Now that I’m 32 years old, the thought of not having a home doesn’t frequently occur to me, but it does strike when I’m down. When listening to Diddy’s song “I’m Coming Home” brings pain. When I purchase a copy of the Insight Guides to Egypt from the bookstore. When I get into an argument with an Egyptian and he says, “Who do you think you are? You think you’re better than us?”

This constant feeling of being the “other” can get exhausting. It can even shape who you are.

My accent is not quite Egyptian; neither does it belong to anywhere else. Even though I have a face that resembles visages of the ancient Egyptian statues, I don’t look Egyptian because of the way I dress and the way I act. When I first get introduced to people, the combination of how I speak, dress, and behave keeps them guessing about my origins.

Confused, most of my new acquaintances ask me the same question that I have repeatedly failed to answer, “Where are you really from?”.

Living like the locals?

Yasmin Helal dressed in sari

When I started travelling extensively back in 2014, I wondered at every destination about how those locals felt at home. In an attempt to grab hold of a fading mirage, I found myself in Mirissa, Sri Lanka with nothing but a faint memory of my past.

For two years, I tried to live like the locals, desperately in search of a sense of belonging. I ate street food and celebrated the local festivals. I lived with my local boyfriend’s family and attended family functions with them. I started practising my Sinhalese scripts and memorised a few words.

Soon enough, though, reality struck; this was not home and I didn’t belong here. Despite all of my efforts, I didn’t quite live like the locals.

Sometimes I got bored of rice and curry and went for pizza or sushi. I hardly noticed it when my local family had no running water or no electricity because my room was conveniently connected to the power generator and the water tank. 

And, even with the help of my growing library of Sri Lanka-related books, I certainly understood the place much less than they did.

Certainly, I needed more than that to feel at home.

A stranger in a strange land

Yasmin Helal discussing travel identity

While it helped that my boyfriend and his family didn’t perceive me as the suddhi, the white girl, I was always different. Sri Lanka is an isolated island with no neighbours except for India from the North, where the local ethnicities are almost indistinguishable from each other.

The fact that their only interaction with the outside world was with the colonisers who came from faraway Europe, and who in many ways harmed the locals, reinforced the idea that outsiders, like me, are extremely different, in appearance as well as in essence.

The Sinhalese language has numerous words for “you” depending on whether you’re talking to an elder or a monk, etc., but there is no special “you” for strangers, who don’t exist anywhere in the complex Sinhalese cosmological realms.

The local vocabulary that describes “others” is very limited, with all outsiders belonging to the category of suddhi or suddha, white girl or white boy.

My boyfriend understood all these things, but he couldn’t understand this feeling I had of not having a home. Coming from a place where being at home is all he ever knew, he felt that there was no reason to search for home. For him, it was a simple formula, the only one he knew.

With my first trip to Egypt in decades just a few weeks away, I wonder if my Insight Guides copy will steer me towards the right direction. Looking back, I don’t regret a single second of my time in Mirissa. It helped me face what I was too blind to see in cities like Dubai and Riyadh, where I lived for decades. The feeling of being at home might come to you but you can never find it.

You can continue following Yasmin’s journey on Instagram. For more travel insights, learn more about how travel can impact the mind and body.

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