Ahmad is a photographer from Syria. Norma is an Irish artist.
I met Ahmad Al Saadi at Zinnema in Anderlecht, in June of last year. It was Ramadan and an exceptionally hot day in Brussels.
Ahmad is a young Syrian man who arrived in Brussels 3 years ago.
I am an Irish woman who has been living in Brussels for 30 years. Without revealing my age, I could be Ahmad’s mother.
As an outside observer one could ask what it is that should bring us together?
The answer is photography.
And the reason for our meeting? ‘Homelands, places of belonging’. Although neither Ahmad nor I were born in Belgium, my experience of ‘belonging’ somewhere is very different to Ahmad’s. I had the choice of coming to Belgium and can return to my ‘Motherland’, Ireland whenever I wish. Like many others, Ahmad was forced to flee Syria. He will not be able to return ‘Home’ for some time to come.
An innocent observer may wonder what makes my situation different to Ahmad’s? It seems to come down to where I was born and/or where I live. My homeland or more clearly, my passport.
As of May 2018, Irish citizens had visa-free or visa on arrival access to 185 countries and territories, ranking the Irish passport 5th in terms of travel freedom (tied with Belgian, Canadian, Danish and Swiss passports) according to the Henley Passport Index.
As of May 2018, Syrian citizens had visa-free or visa on arrival access to 32 countries and territories, ranking the Syrian passport 99th in terms of travel freedom according to the Henley Passport Index.
Another question the outside observer may ask. How is it that one person can be described as an ‘expat’ and another an ‘immigrant’ when it is clear that both people come from a different country to that in which they are currently living?
The word ‘Etranger’ in French translates as Stranger in English. A stranger is someone you don’t know and may possibly even fear. We tell our children not to talk to ‘Strangers’.
One cannot deny that as long as history has been written, the human population has always been moving, migrating. Somewhere in time we have all been considered ‘a stranger’.
Whether this migration is caused by war, economic or climatic disasters, humans have been forever leaving their homelands behind. As did their ancestors, they embark on long and often dangerous journeys, in the hope of finding a better and more peaceful life, elsewhere, somewhere they can call home.
But what is home then? And what does it mean to belong? What makes a person ‘belong’ to one place but be shunned by another?
These are the questions Ahmad and I set out to ask.
Our aim was to reveal a common thread among people despite their country of birth, their cultural background.
We looked for souvenirs evoked through the senses: smell, sound, taste… imperceptible links to moments or places to which people feel they belong or have belonged.
We examined the notion of borders, personal, physical, social and geographical. And the language used to describe people coming from beyond these borders, from another place.
This opened up discussions on identity and what it means to belong to a community, to be an accepted peer, or, on the contrary, to feel you don’t fit in. To be considered ‘different’, to be ‘from the other side’ – an outsider.
The work and our journey started to branch out into different paths, to become more abstract, reaching further intangible zones.
To keep our feet on the ground, we decided to come back down to earth, planet Earth, here and now.
If we think beyond borders, we know that this planet we inhabit is our first home. It is Mother Earth who provides us with what we need to survive. She has no care for gods and governments, power battles, wars and human greed, for she is the ultimate power.
When asked the question: Where then should our priorities lie?
The observer, by now that bit wiser, may simply answer by referring to the writing of someone who was also a ‘Stranger’, another ‘immigrant’ in his time : ‘Human beings separate into factions and tribes and adhere to countries and regions whereas I see my essence as foreign to any one land and alien to any single people.
The entire earth is my homeland and the human family is my clan.’
On Human Unity ‘The vision, Reflections on the way of the soul’
Norma Prendergast and Ahmad Alsaadi