People often ask me the difference between being an Iraqi in Sweden versus in the United States. I usually find myself taking a deep breath and sinking into my chair before answering this somewhat mnemonic exercise. When I first became a refugee in Sweden there was a clear before and after picture, but as time passed those binaries started to fade, and memories of a past life were intertwined with present and future lives. When one is uprooted because of war, memories become a sort of lifeline to reconstitute oneself. There is a rebuilding of one’s biography in a way. That moment when I landed in Sweden as an illegal refugee marked a rupture in my biography, and the aftermath is something I deal with every day. This is the point that I became a war refugee. That moment created a distinction between my past life and my present, and as I was there in this foreign land the only way I knew how to survive was to erase my past memories and my lived experiences. It was a conscious decision to sweep my otherness under the rug in order to fit in. I underwent a process of assimilation. In any shape or form (socially, linguistically, aesthetically) I made it my mission to become a Swede. I did this to the point where I led myself to believe that I was white. I then went through a phase of rebelling against my “Swedishness” and asserting that I was in fact an Iraqi, born in Iraq and from Iraq, trying to retrieve memories associated with that locality and with that nationhood. This is a rather common occurrence within Arab refugees in Europe. An example is that of Muslim teenage girls who prior to migrating to Europe didn’t wear a hijab yet chose to wear it once they arrived in their host country as a form of assertion. As I grew older, I started questioning these very ideas of a nationalistic memory. Why was it so important to say that I came from that space? As I look back at those ideas I think it was more a form of holding on to something that I had actively chosen to repress. This goes back to the idea of trauma in migrant consciousness and the problematics of belonging, forgetting, and remembering. For me it’s not about asserting this nationalistic concept of the collective. It’s rather about inscribing these memories and getting them out there.
I landed in the United States by free will, carrying legitimate papers in my pocket. I chose to come here, and that clearly shaped a different encounter with this country. I find it easier to be me here. Yes, I’m seen as this fetishized Arab female who is both exotized for my brownness yet also feared for it. Where are you hiding your weapons? I was once sarcastically asked. Yes for some reason it’s easier being here than in Sweden. When I visit Sweden now, I always get an out-of-body sense. It’s like I can see myself walking the streets, being watched, being judged for the color of my skin. I am automatically degraded to a second class citizen. A refugee: an invandrare (in Swedish). With that also comes a sense of erasure and a peculiar sense of being a nobody yet being hypervisible via my skin. I think back at that moment when I landed in Sweden very often, and it elicits a sense of a violent ending of sorts and a beginning of a life of displacement that haunts me till this day. And I think that’s my fear—that erasure. In a way I am working against that erasure in a constant effort to remember. And when I remember there is also a form of repair that happens. A healing. A working through of something
HAYV KAHRAMAN is an Iraqi artist living in Los Angeles.