Economic migration, religious persecution, emerging right-wing nationalism and populism, pandemics and lockdowns have forced many of us to reckon with a new plurality of identities, where the boundaries of nationality or a singular cultural identity are no longer relevant in the context of our dynamic times. It is, instead, the question of voice that matters. I found myself thinking: who you are is no longer a question of “where you are from”; rather, who you are is more accurately represented by “what you stand for.”

Home is a feeling

I think of myself as a serial migrant, with a whirlpool of maps under my carbon footprint. I collect homes in my memory, adding each new place to an album of sights, smells, textures, and climates. Each place blurring the idea of home even more. For my parents, “home” was an ancestral town they left behind in India after Partition. For my children, “home” is a button on their Apple devices that they press to access their digital lives. My parents’ generation talked about the idea of home with an infectious nostalgia – my children think of it as a transitory concept, a technical detail. They are at home with technology. They Facetime friends across continents, bonding over video games as if they were in the same room. Physicality is a minor detail for them.

Unlike my parents, who cherished the odd letter that passed through the stringent borders and reminisced about the “watan ki mitti,” the smell of home soil as they turned the aerogramme over and over in their hands, my children don’t find distances a matter of inconvenience. As long as they have a good Wifi connection. I am somewhere in between. Neither at home in the past, like my parents, nor in the future like my children; suspended somewhere in the middle trying to figure out what home means to someone whose identity has slowly eroded with each move.

Home is a memory

The sky is the same everywhere. The same cosmic blue decorated with puffs of white clouds, generous and giving, full of shade on some days, harsh and blinding, without cloud cover, on others. Sometimes, I think that places don’t change, people do. In the city of my birth, Karachi, I grew up in a rambling old bungalow with an ancient mango tree that provided shade to a vast courtyard in the harshest of summer days. The house even had a little brick well. It was idyllic and rustic in the midst of the urban chaos of Karachi. My mother cherished it. But I grew up watching Fraser and Friends, longing for a home where I could be like the characters on television. Long before I knew about cultural imperialism, and about internalising whiteness, I imagined myself walking through cosmopolitan streets, no one stopping me to tell me girls don’t do this or behave like that. I was tasting freedom through the television screen.

Later, when I did move to the UK as a young immigrant bride, I realised that freedom is never free. The streets of London were also about survival, albeit of a different kind. Sexism was replaced by racism and, in the UK, I struggled to come to terms with the new identity bestowed upon me. I was on display. The idea of freedom, just an illusion. However, I soon found that as someone who was not visibly Muslim or South Asian, I was free to pick and choose which parts of myself to display. Yet there was a nagging sense that this was not natural. If power was handed down to you, was it really yours to begin with?

My idea of home transformed into something even more complex when we moved back to Pakistan. I could no longer be restrained by four walls and my body ached to walk free on the streets, an act often unsafe for women in Karachi. Home was no longer the romanticised nostalgia I had indulged in, of the shaded gardens and afternoon siestas. Instead, it was a place where women had limited access to public spaces, the infrastructure strained and groaning under a burgeoning urban population. But was it the city that had changed or was it me who was no longer the same person? I find myself asking: is home then a “planted” memory?

Home is a piece of paper

Is home the country on your passport or the space inside your heart? During the pandemic, many of us who had taken the freedom to travel for granted began to question the idea of home. One European colleague who had deep ties with New York City, having lived and taught there for decades, found that he could no longer enter the US unless he was a national. One American colleague realised that she could no longer access her property in France without citizenship, as borders were closed to everyone except citizens. For the first time ever, at Immigration, the officer told me that as a dual national it was better to travel on my Pakistani passport than on the British one, as people from Britain were restricted from travelling during Europe’s raging siege under the virus. The idea of home was suddenly reduced to a piece of paper. Is home more than just your citizenship? Or is home what your passport says it is?

Home as a question

“And where is home?” This is a question I dread being asked not just because I genuinely don’t know any more but because often the real question behind it is, “Why are you here?” After living abroad for more than two decades, I feel the very idea of belonging is paradoxical. What does it mean when you feel at home in a place that is not your home? For a serial migrant like me, a woman who has spent more time outside the land of her birth than inside it, the concept of home has changed drastically with each migration. Every place I have lived in and called home, whether it is a location or a structure, has altered me in some way. It has taken a part of me as well as attached a part of itself to me. It has made me question my beliefs and my loyalties. But like Sindbad, migrants, too, dream of adventure only to yearn for familiarity.

Work took me to the Gulf, and here I found the coming together of the social freedom of the West with the cultural heritage of the East, and it felt like a homecoming. Yet, the temporariness of my stay here, and the fact that this is a country where you can stay only as long as you are useful, makes me reluctant to call it home. There is always a question at the back of my mind: where will I go next? Home then is a journey – with no particular destination.

Home is a search for the self. And for me, home is my writing. A place I don’t need any visas to visit, no tickets, no plane fare, only an imagination. The blank page is where I feel truly at home. Home, then, is what we write it to be. Home is a story we tell ourselves.

Excerpted with permission from Introduction and Confessions of A Serial Migrant by Sabyn Javeri in Ways of Being: Creative Non-Fiction by Pakistani Women, edited by Sabyn Javeri, Women Unlimited.