testimonial of Rahila Khalwa

My Desert Odyssey

No, I can’t possibly return to Japan. I don’t want to.

Towards the end of the eventful academic year at Essex University, I began to hear my inner voice crying. That super-capitalist, sexist, materialist society where I’d always felt so out of place. Where I was made to believe that something was wrong with me, I was to blame. The thing is, Japanese society and I, we were incompatible with each other. As simple as that. I didn’t belong there. I always had that awful feeling of not fitting in, in that highly group-oriented, homogeneous nation state, my self-doubt intensified by my parents who stood firmly with society at large, blaming their daughter who felt so isolated in it. Now, all of a sudden, it was clear to me. This revelation turned out to be the biggest – if painful – harvest of my intense graduate research as a feminist historian. No, I wouldn’t return to that country I’d left just over a year ago, without much ambition or motive, the country in which I was born and brought up, and had lived for nearly a quarter of a century.

Few people would become a rootless vagabond on completing a master’s degree in England; I was one of those few. I never looked back since. I accepted with grace that I had nowhere to go, nowhere to return, and nowhere to be. Ever since I’ve been on the lookout for my place, somewhere in this world. First I dreamt of the desert, preferably somewhere in the Arab world. The desert was where my soul came from, ever since I was a schoolgirl in Japan, the place I longed for: I’d return there, the desert would embrace me as no humans ever did.

Somehow, I decided to see the socialist world instead. It was October 1989, when East German ‘refugees’ were flooding out towards the West day in, day out. I did identify with them, except, I had no compatriot as those East Germans, and I was heading for the opposite direction. The socialist bloc crumbled away with the Berlin Wall, while I was travelling the Continent with a rail pass, before I ever had a chance to observe socialism at work. I felt as if one more door was slammed in my face.

After a few years of trying a new life in xenophobic Vienna, some more wanderings and a futile attempt at PhD at Essex, I finally arrived in the Algerian Sahara. For the first time in my life, I blossomed. I found my niche, where I could be myself, where people accepted me as I am. My age, where I come from, nothing mattered. The vastness. The heat. The horizon. The silence. The desert did embrace me. I probably wanted to die in the Sahara. I found myself living; I was finally in the right place. Only, it was the wrong time.

Algeria was rapidly descending into political turmoil. The humane, friendly ambience turned repressive in a matter of months. I was tipped off, hunted by the police, suspected of espionage, arrested by the gendarmerie. I grew paranoid, had a nervous breakdown, which developed severe eczema on one hand, and rheumatic arthritis on the other disabling my right arm for months to come. Unbeknownst to me, I was also with child. When I emerged from the burning desert of the high summer, I was virtually an invalid, anorexic and painfully thin, by now seven months gone.

I really had no choice but to come back to where my return flight had originated from: London, where, by chance, my unborn baby’s sperm provider would be there, for good or bad, if not for me.

Having decided to keep my baby boy two months later, I became a mother. As such, I could no longer move away, out and about physically, carrying one single rucksack, as before. My search for my place has been effectively, indefinitely suspended since. London turned out the worst possible place for a vulnerable single parent with little means and no family support. I was surrounded by those hypocritical people called professionals, from social workers, some psychiatric doctors and nurses, in effect all mother bullies. They were mostly women, many of them coloured, from the so-called ethnic minorities.

Curiously, the same government, who had abandoned me years earlier as a PhD student because I couldn’t pay the astronomical overseas tuition fees, subsidised me as a penniless mother, not generously but enough for me to provide my son and me. I’m a desert person, I never need much materially. Always economising, I can live well with what little I have.

My son’s growing into a young man. During my London existence, which I’d hardly call a life, I’ve done one thing; - bringing up this wonderful, confident individual, practically on my own. Never having been on the receiving end, I believe I’ve learnt to love unconditionally. A tremendous achievement. Otherwise, I’ve achieved nothing, on material terms. As someone who’s destined to return to the desert eventually, I’m comfortable owning nothing. Only, while reminding my son that I’ll be always there for him when he needs me or my support, I wonder where on earth, when I myself have nowhere to be?

Single motherhood with no family support did keep me from active job-hunting for long years. Accumulating useless qualifications, I sensed the fallacy of equal opportunities: no one wants a Japanese dissident, a multi-lingual obscurity, with opinions, no traceable work history and many blanks in her CV. Only recently did I come across certain groups of creative people, one Exiled Writers’ Ink, and another one-off course entitled ‘Creativity and Dissidence,’ led by the rebellious Egyptian writer Dr Nawal el-Saadawi; those groups where I can be and express myself, and where my voice is valued. I’m struggling to publish my first book, a memoir; admittedly I hardly earn a penny by creative writing.

My son will fly away, some day soon, from this ‘nest,’ which for me has been permanently temporary accommodation rather than a home, where his entire life has been spent. With no more ‘child,’ all the state subsidies will cease, at which point I’ll find myself standing at the crossroads: would I like to stay in London where, with all my son’s mementoes, photos, fond memories, I’ll no longer have means to eke out a living, or, shall I leave, no matter where, to resume my haphazard vagabond existence? My place in the desert, my home, that’s all I want, where I’ll return and die, but before that, I’d like to live, even for a little while, in châh Allah.

Nowhere to go, nowhere to return, nowhere to be. As ever before.

Name: Rahila Khalwa (I’ve renamed myself. It roughly means ‘a nomad alone’ in Arabic)

Age: in mid-40’s

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