I have lived outside Iran, my home country, for almost a decade, and I am yet to know what to call myself.
Australia and the U.S. have been my hosts, so the labels I have at my disposal belong to the English vocabulary: immigrant, exilé, refugee, expatriate. The term “immigrant” derives from the Latin root migrare, which means “to change residence or condition.” In its contemporary usage it refers to someone who has left one nation or territory in order to take residence in another. Exilé, from exul, or “banished person,” is a term for those banished from their native country or community. Refugee, a compound of re and fugere, to flee, describes a person, often violently displaced, seeking shelter outside of their country of origin. Expatriate, literally out (ex-) of the native land (patria), suggests a willing abandonment of one’s homeland.
All these terms have one thing in common: an intrinsic connection to the state. You have immigrant or refugee status only when a state grants it, as though proffering a token of its magnanimity. They also imply that change of status is synonymous with change of nation-state, and takes place only when an established geopolitical border is crossed. So every time one is called an immigrant, a refugee, an exilé, one is thrown into a nexus of power at the center of which the state looms large.
No wonder that, if you are not qualified for any of those labels, in English you are called “stateless.” Also, it is no coincidence that, unlike most English words that have French and Danish and Old English roots, these terms all come from Latin, the language of the Roman empire, probably the first powerful state that excelled at the cruel art of systematic, state-sponsored xenophobia.
In English, the most technically correct description for me is immigrant. I got a visa stamped into my passport, boarded a gigantic Boeing 707, and crossed the ocean to New York City, where I now live and work. But the word doesn’t fit right. It is not capacious enough for what I see as the scope of my experience. I feel the same way about these other terms for people whose movement from one place to another is a central feature of who they are.
For a long time I thought it was my obsessive, sometimes pointlessly defiant mind at work, rejecting the characterizations most people accept without a fuss. But it has dawned on me recently that maybe my obstinacy has a point. Maybe something is wrong with this available vocabulary. Maybe English, the ultimate language of colonial settlers, can’t conceive of a word that could capture what people like me experience. So I went back to Persian, the other language I know, to see if that old tongue of fallen empires and sublime poets had a better name for me.
In Persian there is a word, avareh (آواره), which doesn’t have an accurate equivalent in English. According to the Dehkhoda Dictionary, avareh originally meant an iron splinter created as a blacksmith hammers out a horseshoe.
Picture that shard. The mallet hits a small fissure, in the place where the iron is no longer one contiguous piece. The strike forces the shard to fly. It hurtles through the air, lands on a new surface, and cools down into a new reality. This image conveys the initial shock, the jolt, the abruptness of dislocation. Whether you get a visa and sit nervously on a plane bound for a new home, or cross borders on bruised feet, fearing wolves, the gray clouds on the horizon, and the border patrol, it feels like sailing through the air, unmoored, sometimes in frightening free fall.
Over time, the medieval Persian Sufis embraced the concept of avareh. At the core of Sufi doctrine lies the notion of the longing soul. The human soul, the Sufis held, lost its unity with the divine and fell upon the earth after the original sin. While the human body may seem contented by earthly possessions, the human soul has never felt comfortable. It has never ceased to mourn the separation and yearn for reunion. The soul is light, predisposed to elevation. It wants to fly in the opposite direction of the Fall and reunite with God.
For the Sufis, an avareh was one who abandoned the comfort of one’s home in a quest to reunite his soul with the divine. In Fariduddin Attar’s Tazkirat al-Awliya, a biography of seventy-two sufis composed in the twelfth century, a pattern can be detected: in the beginning, the Sufi is often an everyman, leading an ordinary life. Then he (and in rare instances, she) experiences a life-changing shock. This can be a brief encounter with a man of God, reading a verse from the Quran, or hearing a saying by Mohammad.
After this transformative encounter, the Sufi leaves home and becomes an avareh in the world. He walks around on foot, often wearing an uncomfortable woolen robe (suf in Arabic means wool, possibly the origin of Sufi), stripped of worldly possessions. In doing so, he attains spiritual strength and sacred knowledge and accumulates disciples and acolytes along the way. That first move, that breaking away from the bodily comfort of home so as to equip the soul with wings that enable it to fly back to an unadulterated, pre-Fall world, was frequently referred to as making oneself an avareh.
As Persian mysticism evolved, the balance tipped from the religiosity of the Sufis of ninth and tenth centuries, like Sahl Tustari and Mohammad Ghazali, to the poetical, symbolic language of Attar and Rumi in twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In this context, the word avareh was used in a different fashion. In the perennial conflict of love and reason in Persian mysticism, avareh, among other things, refers to the shifting state of reason upon the event of love. Reason, confidently exploring the world, loses its bearing when love happens. It is confused and stifled by the intensity of love. Rumi’s ghazals are pervaded with this conflict: “Love arrived and rendered the reason avareh”, “Reason knocked on my door last night/I said push the door open and enter/ it said how can I come in when the house is set aflame [by love].”
While the equivalents of words like “immigrant” and “exilé” are now well-established in Persian, the term avareh maintains an all-encompassing function. It experienced a resurgence in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution in Iran, when people fled the brutality of the new regime in droves and formed large communities abroad. In 1983 the great Iranian writer Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi published a short essay titled “Transformation and Emancipation of the Avarehs,” which soon became a classic of Iranian diaspora literature. In his typically vital and dynamic prose, Sa’edi draws a distinction between an avareh and a mohajer (immigrant):
“Avareh doesn’t have a choice. He has to accept any shelter. He is in a jail with great weather and tasty food and nice clothes. He is a stranger, dead inside, lost, tired, perplexed, alien, weak, angry, nervous, quivering. His feet are at the edge of a well and he is constantly wondering why he hasn’t jumped yet […] Immigrant, by contrast, is hopeful. He thinks he has gotten over the shock. He smiles. He jokes. He develops his palate, his knowledge of colors. He takes vitamins to enhance the balance of his body, visits museums, goes to the movies, takes walks, wears ties, whiles away in the parks. He thinks he has put down new roots, not knowing that even the sturdiest trees, once uprooted, are doomed to wither to death.” (Author’s translation)
For Sa’edi, immigrant and avareh don’t constitute a dichotomy. They sit at two ends of a road, albeit one that flows unidirectionally. For him, “One can always travel from immigrant to avareh, but an avareh will always remain an avareh.”
Where am I on this path? This is the question I ask myself every day. Sa’edi, an uncompromising avareh in body and soul, drank himself to death in Paris shortly after the publication of his essay. He was forty-nine years old.
I am not that person. And I am too old to romanticize that person. I am too cowardly or too reasonable (take your pick) to indulge in self-destruction in order to make a statement. As I move through New York City’s concrete ecosystem, I unfailingly behave like a good immigrant. I don’t stare into people’s eyes. I make way for other pedestrians, pause at red lights, give up my seat to the elderly in the subway, show up at work on time, and diligently file my taxes far before mid-April.
But in my mind, on the page, it’s another story. My inner self is a product of multiple universes, several lived experiences. In my skull there is a centipede, each foot stuck in a different reality, many of which are in conflict with one another. When I come to the page, I refuse to resolve this tension. I long to intensify it. I long to brave the terrain that lies between immigrant and avareh.
In the end of the essay Sa’edi calls upon the avarehs to find each other: “Avarehs of the world, unite!” He exhorts the avarehs to “remove padlocks from their mouths and scream. They have to scream. This is the time, the season of the avarehs screaming.” For him the avarehs constitute a potent political force.
Which brings us back to that burning metal splinter again, floating helplessly in the air after the mallet’s strike. When it settles on a new surface, cools off, and looks around, everything is new. The city skyline is new. The landscape outside the city is new. The language is new. So is the way people talk, walk, gesticulate, comb their hair, wear clothes, flag down a taxi. The whisper of the water running in the gutter is new. When the wind blows through the trees, the rustle of the leaves sounds like a music the avareh has never heard. The avarehs find themselves in an Adam-and-Eve state.
Acclimatization to a new land is never complete for avarehs. They always have a foot out. They defy total assimilation. They are brimming with freshness, overflowing with new thoughts, new perspectives. They bring life, with all its intensities, to wherever they are. Blessed are the countries run over by avarehs. Cursed are those who lock them up in border camps or let them drown in the sea.
Amir Ahmadi Arian’s essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. His novel, Then the Fish Swallowed Him, is forthcoming from HarperVia in March 2020.