(Image Credit: Na’ama Berkovitz: Reflection)
I usually write from right to left, using my left hand. However, in this instance I am writing from left to right, still using my left hand.
The reason is that I was going to write a letter to my childhood friend. It was not the kind of letter you write long hand, where you tussle with every word, where unbound intimacy spills off the page. Rather, it was a congratulatory email on his upcoming wedding.
Writing in English would be fine. He understands it well enough for a simple “congrats, so happy for you” to resonate with him. But as I was writing the email, I had an uncanny sense that it was not me who was writing it, but maybe some small alien that was living inside of me and feeding off of my confusion and leftover sauerkraut. At that moment, I understood the problem. I don’t have a Hebrew keyboard.
There’s no logical reason I should have a keyboard with Hebrew letters. I’ve been living abroad for seven years now, and I work and write in English.
When it dawned on me that I couldn’t communicate with my friend anymore in the language we had shared as kids, the realization of where I actually was, not geographically (well yes, but that’s not the point), but where I was as a person who writes, started to creep in like a cool draft from under the door. At first it is only a flutter, but gradually it seeps into the room, climbs up your leg and before you know it, you’re shaking and you can’t understand why.
I scoured the city, from computer stores to Judaica stores but there was no Hebrew to be found. When I got back home, I shared my experience with my roommate, who is a nice Midwesterner, and quite worldly, but the look she gave was as if to say, “Hey, you’re in New York. Why would there be Hebrew keyboards? Have you seen ones in Russian, or Tagalog?”
And then it hit me. I write this way because I am not from here.
I’m an immigrant.
I never thought of myself as an immigrant. No one has ever talked about me as an immigrant, “Hey, meet my friend. He’s not from here.” Then again, as I sat on our couch, drinking beer straight out of the can, like I’ve seen in many American movies, I realized that I have always felt something like an outsider, and now finally, in a moment of inebriated clarity, I had a word for it.
Immigrant: from the name Hagar, which in Hebrew stems from the root of the word convert. Hagar is the mother of all immigrants, the one who Abraham had a one-night stand with and then returned back home to Sarah. “Call me Ishmael!” the cry of the immigrant to the father who never named him, who left and the family that never was, or heard,
“Eli Eli Lama sabachthani?”
But the precise definition is not merely a convert or an outsider. It is “the stranger who lives within you.” There is an immigrant in every society, but more importantly, in each one of us, in the “I.”
I am the unity of nearness and remoteness. I can find my house in a hollow tree on top of a desolate mountain or in a lavish hotel room in a dying city and the only luggage I carry with me is the specter of the other, a too-familiar strangeness. I am the plural in the singular; I am we; I am they. I am this way because my father was one, and my father’s father, and my mother’s father, and their mothers before me. The only documents we share are etched on crumbling rock, on railway passes whose tracks have been discounted, corroded, molten. I write this way because I am the other’s other, I am the thou in his reverie, in his toil, in her labor pain and when I’m gone and vanished, I don’t leave houses or ornate tapestries or unwanted semen, only words, written hurriedly on recipes and napkins and tree trunks and jail cells. I leave behind words, which turn into ideas, which turn into memories, which turn into elegies.
I also come from a long line of immigrants because I’m Semitic. Semitic, from Shem, ten generations from Isaac, Abraham’s son, who changed his name to Israel, and created a nation.
Isaac and Ishmael. The first, the chosen one. Our father if it were. Laughing at his superiority. Leader. The latter, the outcast, the eternal immigrant – Ishmael.
I came here to find a home, but I only retraced the steps back to the island from whence they came. I’m not from here and yet I am here always. I wander through this world unseen yet talked about, remembered as an afterthought.
I am an immigrant because I am a migrant, like birds flying in perpetuum, escaping the harsh winterers and scorching summers, leaving their habitat, nests and weak hatchlings to perish behind. My story is about what once was – “Once there was a country,” or to be more precise, “There is a country, just not for me.”
Some of us stayed in the country and did things like love and laundry and created magnificent things and had large dinners where intimacy was served and had coffee shop bums whose intelligent poured out onto the square table, and had family dynasties in towering houses made of crumbling limestone, but all the people in this country are immigrants too, so in fact they live on an island that is slowly drifting away from the mainland.
When I write from left to right (with my left hand) I smear the ink and my words become unintelligible, my thoughts become half thoughts. They bleed into each other, leaving me tongue-tied, but with no nation behind me to push me along the arid desert into the Promised Land. In a way I broke my promise, unknowingly and have been condemned to wander free in the wasteland forever.
When I sat down to write this letter, it felt like I was writing from a million light years away, in a strange language only known in outer galaxies, trying to warn humankind of the perils to come. But as I pressed SEND I realized that the letter probably wouldn’t get there anyway, because by now the island has already sunken into the lower depths of the cool, sweet ocean.