Here’s a story with a good and easy ending (easy to tell), but I haven’t worked out how to tell the middle.
I went to give blood a few years ago, at the anonymous, cosmopolitan donor centre in the West End, just off Oxford Street. The guy who took a sample of my blood to test for anaemia was black, and had an unusual accent, like a mixture of Canada and the deep south. I must have been in an unusually confident, sociable mood and have wanted to make contact. I must have felt dissatisfied with the silence and the distance which usually characterise these situations. I asked him about his accent, enquiring where he came from, and he made it plain that he was offended by this intrusion. Did I apologise and persist? Was I stupid enough to try to explain my interest in his accent even after he had made it clear that he resented it? What I do remember clearly is that I said that although he seemed to have this accent from the southern states, he also had a characteristic Canadian way of pronouncing a certain sound. And he said coldly, ‘Oh? What sound would that be?’ I was so mortified by that time that I couldn’t even remember, but it was the diphthong in house or mouse or down (or Down since it seems closely related to the same vowel in Ulster speech.) Then he told me, as if to say, ok, smart arse, that he came from Carolina but had lived in Canada, as if I’d dragged that information out of him. By that time I didn’t want to know. And all this while a drop of my blood fell into the little tube of liquid and slowly dissolved and sank.
Then it was time to leave the intimate little booth and go back to the waiting room to wait until I was called to give blood. I picked up the book I was reading, Joseph Roth’s The Wandering Jews, and I read these words:
‘Oh- the whole world thinks in such tired, worn, traditional clichés. It never asks the
wanderer where he’s going, only ever where he’s come from. And what matters to the
wanderer is his destination, not his point of departure.’
I felt terrible. But at the same time my mind was shining in the great light of coincidence.
I had thought that people liked to be asked about their past. The trouble with that sentence of course is the word ‘people’. But in my work at St Mungo’s I’ve met many exiles who’ve lit up when asked about Ireland or Scotland or Portugal or Morocco. Or Kent or Islington. Maybe that’s because they weren’t going anywhere. The past draws near as the future recedes. On the other hand, refugees from Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia don’t want to talk about home. What Nassim told me about eating cherries with lemon and salt is the only thing he ever said about Afghanistan.
I think again about the Kindertransport memorial. The original little girl seemed to have no future. She’s traumatised. She was surrounded by the things of the past, the things of home, photographs of the dead, children’s books and toys. The children with their heads in the air who replaced her, they do have a suitcase or two, and a violin, but they’re looking confidently towards a new destination. They’ll take the future in their stride.
(Remembering now that recorded message: ‘the destination of this bus has changed. Please listen for further announcements’. Shortly afterwards comes another: ‘this bus terminates here.’)
I’ve sometimes thought of my own attention to the sounds and traces people carry in their voices as a disability: I so often blurt out questions about where people are from and the response is always unpredictable. It isn’t just to the voice, though, it’s also to people’s faces: when I’ve been painting their portraits I suddenly discover an old friend has Irish eyes. But it seems the voice is what one’s attuned to when we first meet people. In Syria people always say, ‘Welcome in Syria,’ rather than asking where you’re from (they can see I’m European). The fact that they say ‘in’ I assume is a direct translation from a universal Arab greeting. I’m going very tangential here, but I think about Syria everyday. If we and they are lucky, you might have some Syrians at St Mungo’s one of these days. But I spoke to my Syrian friend on skype yesterday and she’s effectively imprisoned in her Damascus home. She told me about her brother’s heart attack and her mother’s stroke, both in the last two months. She herself has been injured but she didn’t say how. She told me about the fire in the Aleppo souk. The way it’s reported in the press, you’d think that everyone in Syria is to blame. It’s the first time we’ve spoken on skype. She’s been taking English lessons and her English is weirdly more fluent than when I used to see her fairly regularly in London or Damascus or Amman. She thought it might be safer to speak on skype than Facebook or email. I hope she’s right. Your blog Jonathan is great. I want to share it on Facebook, partly because it’s a way that my Syrian friends can read alternative versions of what people here think – otherwise they just think we all believe what the BBC tells us when it reports, with no blame attached, that the Aleppo souk has been burned. It is profoundly insulting to these people who have dared to keep on resisting after decades of oppression. They feel unheard in so many ways.
You’re not meant to ask someone where they come from because behind the question there might lie the insidious little thought that you don’t look or sound like me so you don’t come from here, but I do, the place is mine, what are you doing here? And so what might be a spontaneous gesture towards another person gets mangled up with global politics.