I was a month shy from turning 12 when my mother decided to move us to America. I had no idea what I was in for. Up until that point, all I knew was how to be Tunisian. Since then, I’ve developed a multitude of selves- among them Arab, American, Muslim, and a blanket ‘minority’ identity- all of which have culminated in a kind of normalized, identity crisis that’s all too familiar for migrant children like me.
When you move to the west, you tend to go on a quest to integrate and adapt to your environments, and consequently you end up creating a sort of portfolio of identities that you flip through.
It’s a great strategy. But, what ends up transpiring is a double, triple, or quadruple life that you’re forced to juggle – and I don’t care if you work in the circus, but when you juggle long enough, it loses its fun. The constant switching back and forth gets tiring, but nothing is more troubling than having to constantly justify who you are.
In my case, I became too exhausted and decided to leave. And I wasn’t alone. Over the last few years, there’s been a growing trend that has seen a lot of young Arabs like myself move back to our respective countries. And reports like this one by the World Bank Group- that claim a lot of us will refrain from moving back because of a distinct lack of job opportunities- are kind of missing the point. They’re underestimating what it feels like to really be ‘home’.
There’s a certain allure to living in your native country that unless you’ve experienced, can be difficult to understand. You move past the nostalgic ideas of your hometown and have something real to grasp onto. You get the opportunity to reconnect with you roots. Personally, I enjoy the easy pace of daily life, speaking my native tongue, and not least, the fresh bread and pastries from the local bakery.
That’s not to say that living here has been a glorious, magical experience. It’s also been pretty tough. I miss the availability of the green Tabasco sauce I really like. I miss the taquitos you find at 7/11, and I especially miss being able to go to a 24hr CVS at 3am to get the Hershey’s Symphony Truffle and Almond chocolate bar I always crave.
But I’ve come to accept not having those things. What I truly miss is having an organized local government. I’ve come to completely despise bureaucracy since I’ve moved back to Tunisia (I spent three weeks bouncing between four different offices just to get an official government ID). Not that catcalling is exclusive to Tunisia, but a simple two-minute wait for a taxi has turned into a dreadful experience. What I hate most is the rampant misogyny and sexism that is so ingrained in our culture.
On the upside, I’m no longer considered a minority. But that’s not to say that I no longer suffer with mild identity issues here. French colonialism has left its marks on Tunisia, so much so that my western-ness is actually more appreciated than my Tunisian-ness, which, although problematic, doesn’t take as much of a toll on my mental health as constantly carrying a spanning portfolio of cultural identities.
Now, the most annoying thing I have to deal with is constantly answering the questions of why I decided to leave the US, and interestingly, Tunisian locals (especially those who have never been to any western country) are the ones who ask it most. It’s sad honestly, because most of the time the question is drenched in shock, disbelief, and a lack of faith – as if Tunisia has nothing to offer.
I can’t blame them; maybe it doesn’t have anything to offer most natives. Realising this made me recognise and understand my own privilege. However, I’ve realized that carrying my blue passport and very American English accent can be beneficial here – and not just for my own benefit.
Our decision as members of the diaspora to leave our convenient western lives to move to our native, still-developing, countries goes far beyond our quest for belonging. Aside from selfishly wanting a place to fit in, we more importantly are in the best position to help.
Hear me out, and I’m going to be brutally honest here. For the most part, natives who have never managed to leave the region also want to help, but our sometimes-corrupt governments don’t give them opportunity to, so a lot of them give up early on and spend their lives trying to leave. So who better to nurture our countries than the diaspora?
Despite the government’s failure to realise and utilise our potential (and despite the gasps of the many locals who are shocked that a westerner would voluntarily choose to leave behind what they view as a better life) to many of us, moving back is actually a very logical decision.
It’s simple really. We’ve always felt attached to home, we’re educated, and our countries need people like us.
Photography by Sarah Ben Romdane