In the ancient Ethiopian town of Lalibela I once met a German guy. He was short. He had thick shoulder-length blond hair with a fringe half-covering his eyes. He was on a 6-month jeep journey from Hamburg to Cape Town.
Rather than coming through Spain, Gibraltar and West Africa, or through Tunisia and Central Africa, he had chosen to drive through Turkey, the Middle East, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and then was going to continue down along East Africa all the way to Cape Town. He had a white jeep with lots of stickers, spare tyres, roof-rack, large fog lights — the type of jeep from which you can immediately tell he was on an epic journey.
Sitting in the dimly-lit communal room at the guesthouse in Lalibela — a wonderful town of rock-hewn churches which according to legend were built after the King had visited and been impressed by Petra in Jordan — he, George Khan from Australia (whom I had met earlier in Aksum and then ran into in Lalibela), and I shared travel stories.
He was telling us about the problems he had faced at the borders and that he had had to obtain two passports in order to navigate through the countries, as some of them didn’t let you in if you had a stamp from Israel.
George who was in his 50s was telling us about a secluded rock-hewn monastery he had visited after Aksum — so secluded that there were no other travellers, in fact no other humans, but monks! And he had had to climb up to it by rope.
In Aksum he had tried to convince me to join him. There was no transport to this place so his idea was to take a minibus to the junction and then hitch a ride from there. ‘I’m lucky usually in such situations, and don’t wait long!’ he had told me (words which have ever since been inscribed on my mind when I am travelling and take risks). But the thought of visiting a monastery hadn’t appealed enough to me.
And I shared some experiences of living in Africa. In Ghana I had lived in a very rural area. Apart from Baptist missionaries who ran a hospital, I was the only foreigner. My house was a compound with 3 round huts and no running water, on the campus of a secondary school. Every morning a student would bring me one bucket of water. Every 3-4 weeks I would go to the regional capital for shopping, internet and to socialise.
But otherwise I had spent my year in near-isolation, reading and writing in my hut. Out there the sky was dark, the stars shiny. The climate was extreme. One season the place would be filled with watermelons, the next with sunflowers twice my height. Then rains would destroy all the crops, the harmattan wind from the Sahara would cover the place in dust.
At one point the German guy asked me where in all I had lived.
So I explained that I grew up in Turkey and had lived there until 2000, then had studied in the US for 2 years, worked in Canada for 2 years, spent 8-9 months in Wales reading novels, then had worked for a British NGO in Ghana for a year, another 6 months reading and writing in Wales, a month of travelling, and had now been in Ethiopia for 9-10 months.
Bemused, he looked at me through his thick blond hair, and said, “Vats vrong vis your kountry?”
I laughed of course. Not least because I love the German accent.
But more seriously:
I never feel like I belong to a country. The question, “Where are you from?” other than being a means for getting a reference point to start a conversation, does not have a meaning for me. Every country I have lived in, every country I have visited has left its mark on me.
In fact the concept of belonging to one country in this day of age is becoming obsolete for more and more people. A lot more people like myself have mixed origins. Most people can travel to any country they want. Relocating to a new country is easier than ever.
And if belonging means feeling close: the people I feel closest to are neither Turkish, nor English. The people I feel closest to are those who are well-travelled, have lived in multiple countries, are of a mixed ethnic background, those who can appreciate multiculturalism. Those who don’t belong to a single country.
Besides, it’s boring to belong to one country.
In Seneca’s words: “I am not born for one corner, the whole world is my native land.”