It’s two years ago this week that I packed a small suitcase and closed the door of my apartment in Sulaymanya behind me. I’d be back in a month or so, after visiting the Kurdish Conference in the European Parliament and family and friends in the Netherlands. I would fly back on 18 March 2020, which was one of the first days that international travel came to a stand-still because of the coronavirus pandemic. Not having been back ever since and having lived in my home country, the Netherlands again after an absence of some fifteen years, I am contemplating about what I miss. What I miss, is connection.
When I first moved to Turkey to work as a freelance correspondent, in 2006, I wrote an article about settling down in a new country. I interviewed a psychologist about it, and she was explaining what happened when you migrate with the allegory of changing clothes: you start wearing a new coat and it’s not very comfortable yet, but the longer you wear it, the better it feels. That’s good, but simultaneously, something else is happening too: when you return to the country you came from (if you are in circumstances in which that is possible), you can’t just pick up your old coat again and wear it, because you changed and it doesn’t fit anymore. The question is if there will ever be a coat again in which you feel perfectly comfortable.
That’s the state I’m in now.
Waterproof and warm
It’s okay, a coat that doesn’t perfectly fit can still do what it needs to do and keep you warm. Materially, I have what I need in the Netherlands. Also, I have my work, I have a good family and loyal friends, no complaints. The coat is, you could say, waterproof and warm, it is long enough, has all the buttons and the zipper works. But still, it is not exactly my size but a bit too tight, there is a hole in the pocket and a few stains I seem unable to remove.
I think it may have something to do with being alone. During most of my years in Turkey, in both Istanbul and Diyarbakır, I was alone as well, but especially in Kurdistan, being alone was different than it is in the Netherlands. Whenever I stepped outside the door, I felt part of a wider community. Of course, Diyarbakır is a very political city and I am very political too, so the coat that was thrown over my shoulders there suited me. Not that I never felt lonely there because of course I did. My Kurdish was lousy and stayed lousy, whatever I tried. In groups with friends and acquaintances, I often felt lost because also in Turkish I couldn’t follow the conversation well enough to really be part of it. But even though it was a weird coat at times, I loved it and never wanted to take it off.
The Turkish state robbed me of it, of course, now more than six years ago. Kurdistan in Iraq was not the same. Not by far as political as Bakur (Kurdistan in Turkey), with less developments to follow that were suitable for the media I work for. Less easy to travel around alone without a car. Yet another Kurdish dialect, written in a script I started learning but I don’t have a language learning talent and I basically couldn’t communicate at all. It was much harder to build a social life than it was in Bakur. The disconnection I felt, was profound, and I had already decided to return to the Netherlands later in 2020, before the pandemic expedited it.
Feeling disconnected in your own country is weird. Especially after having lived in a land where community is still much more important than it is in the Netherlands, and having felt how important that actually is. Individualism in the Netherlands is extreme. If you don’t want to be alone, the most accepted refuge is to have an intimate relationship with one person and build your nest together with your door and curtains closed. To be clear, that’s not in the first place a critique on individual people, but on the system we live in. Strong communities can’t thrive in capitalism. But I’m not interested in a relationship with one person. I don’t think it can fulfil what I am longing for.
Thin and cold
Of course, the pandemic has made it worse. While it showed us how important is that we take care of each other and of the community that we as human beings can’t survive without, it has brutally revealed how our societies, and the Dutch government for that matter, are designed for egoistical choices. That’s the coat that the Netherlands has thrown on me. The fabric is thin and cold. The arms my friends and family wrap around me are somehow not sufficient to compensate that.
When Turkey had just kicked me out, in 2015, I often said that I had left my heart in Diyarbakır. I can only conclude it is still there.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.