Ayelet Tsabari’s latest book is The Art of Leaving.
A few days before our trial move to Israel, my five-year-old daughter shuffled around our Toronto apartment, shoulders drooped, gazed forlornly out the window at the Eritrean church and the glimpses of light and traffic on Bloor Street and sighed.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“I know we are going back to your home,” she said. “But this is my home.”
I left Israel for Canada 20 years ago with a suitcase filled with books and summer clothes and no long-term plans to stay. I was 25 and in love with a Canadian boy I had met in India. Canada was an adventure, and I was going with the flow.
My boyfriend and I spent that first glorious summer ferrying between islands and hiking through rain forests. But once summer ended and the rain came, loneliness and isolation set in. I didn’t know a soul in Vancouver, not a single door I could knock on. Canadians didn’t seem to get me; I was always too loud or too frank or too intense or not polite enough. Other times, I felt like a novelty, the exotic girl with the accent – a Yemeni Jew? How interesting! – that you might chat with briefly at the party. And I had to do it all in English. I felt inarticulate and imprecise, not myself.
But after that first year, as I found work at a café, enrolled in college and made some friends, something shifted: The dislocation and anonymity became exhilarating. That loss of roots, language and cultural identity that is so often regarded as the cost of immigration felt liberating, an opportunity to reinvent myself. Vancouver grew on me; its quietness – an antithesis to the intensity and instability of Israel – calmed me. I walked around Vancouver’s tree-lined streets and breathed in the clear air, feeling impossibly free.
When the relationship that brought me to Canada ended a couple of years later, I decided to stay. I started working at Mona’s, a Lebanese restaurant downtown and a hub for the city’s Middle Eastern community. It was the first time I felt at home in Vancouver, whose Jewish community was predominantly Canadian and white.
Working at Mona’s satisfied my cravings for real hummus, Arabic pop and the informal camaraderie I had known from Israel. But its familiarity also made me homesick. I longed for the Mediterranean Sea, dreamed of it frequently: the velvety, warm water, the taste of it lingering on my lips and skin. I missed Tel Aviv, the bustling cafés and bars, the windswept buildings along its shores, eaten by salt and moisture, coloured orange at sunset. Most of all, I missed my family, the smell of Yemeni soup that permeated my mother’s house on Fridays, the sound of Yemeni singing that woke me up on Shabbat morning.
It turned out that being an accidental immigrant did not shield me from the repercussions of migration. No one had told me that this would happen, that with each passing day my nostalgia would increase, while the gap between me and my birthplace would widen. When I came home for a visit, people commented on my politeness; some detected a slight accent. In the store, I pronounced the names of cigarette brands with an English lilt. “Say it again.” The clerk leaned over the counter, grinning. “It sounds so pretty.”
Back in Vancouver, the baristas at my Commercial Drive café knew how I liked my coffee; at the breakfast place, the owner remembered my order; at the local pub, they kept a tab for me. One day, as Canada was playing a major hockey game against the United States, I asked a stranger on the street, “Did we win?” Suddenly, going back to Israel became as inconceivable as staying in Canada once was.
Years passed and I remained. I turned 30. I met Sean, fell in love. I began writing in English. We moved to Toronto, where I enrolled in an MFA program. I published a book. We had a baby. My life settled comfortably, blissfully, in a place I had never envisioned it could. A place I loved. A place that treated me well. And yet, all this time, I never stopped writing about Israel. I tried to remember what it was like to live in a place that held my history, a place I had a profound, visceral connection to, the only region, it turned out, my family had ever lived in (100-per-cent Middle Eastern, our DNA results boringly stated). Sometimes I wondered if I would ever feel like I truly belonged. “Go back to where you came from!” a man yelled at me one day as I pushed my kid’s stroller by the YMCA. It was completely unprovoked, unless my demeanour (I was laughing loudly, hollering at a friend as she walked away – was I not polite enough? Too Middle Eastern? Too brown?) offended him. I was stung, then angry, but not entirely surprised. It was not the first time that someone recognized my foreignness and singled me out. It was just the first time they had used that particular clichéd phrase.
I adored Toronto for how diverse it was, loved knowing I was a part of it. I loved Canada for welcoming me, for its clean-slate-ness, for the chosen family I was fortunate to have found here, like-minded people who came from everywhere. Yet, as a new mother, I began yearning for my actual family, aching for my mother in ways I’d never had before. Whenever we travelled to Israel, I watched my child with her Savta, with her cousins, and worried that by living away from my large, close-knit family I was denying her a richer childhood experience. I saw her sadness at the end of each visit, visits that extended longer and longer until they became two, three months long, as though we were rehearsing for the move.
Perhaps the root of my displacement, my debilitating indecisiveness, was that I had never truly made the choice to immigrate in the first place. Perhaps the only way I could make a decision was by moving back, trying it out.
I cannot recall the exact moment we decided to move, although there must have been one. Sean and I had been discussing the possibility the entire time we’ve been together, conversations that grew in frequency and urgency after our daughter was born. Anyone who’s ever moved with children told us not to wait; it would only become harder as she grew older. At the same time, my mother was aging, needing more help. The 20-year anniversary seemed opportune. It was time.
Coming home after 20 years is not so much a return but an act of reverse migration. The country I returned to is not the same. Some of the changes are dispiriting: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has deepened; the situation in Gaza has reached disastrous proportions; some days, I feel heartbroken and powerless. Even as I write this, I can’t help but think of the many Palestinians who are truly displaced, who can’t come home. But there is also so much beauty here, and hope, too: people who are trying to make a difference, examples of co-existence that give me life, powerful art and literature that are born of dissent and hope. It’s a messy place, but it is my mess.
James Baldwin wrote, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” After such a long time away, foreignness has become a home in its own, an irrevocable condition that imprints itself onto an immigrant’s skin: It’s in my disjointed speech, the interchanging two languages in my mouth, in the unsteady mélange that has become my mannerism, on the intersection between directness and politeness. Here, too, I am a stranger, and will likely always be.
Sometimes, I get disoriented. I leave the house to go to the cobbler and for a brief second superimpose one city over another in my mind, and I picture the Dufferin Mall’s cobbler in place of the Yemeni guy from my neighbourhood and I have no idea where I’m going.
“Why did you come back?” people here ask, sometimes with bewilderment. “You made it out!” one person said. For every loyalist who believes there’s no other place for us, there is a pessimist who thinks we have no future. Many have grown disillusioned with the government, the conflict, the economy.
The truth is I have more questions than answers, questions I came here hoping to resolve: What is the best place for me and my family? What are my priorities?
We’ve been in Israel for six months now. From my window, I can see the Tel Aviv skyline. It glitters at night and there’s an alluring glamour in that view, a hint of the energy of this city that I love still, even though I am no longer the twentysomething who worked on its beaches, finishing the shift with a predawn swim. On Saturdays, we visit my aunt at the Yemeni neighbourhood and old women who walk by ask, Bat mi at? Whose daughter are you? Once a week, I take the train to a small Yemeni village where I learn to sing the Arabic songs of my ancestors. The ghosts of my old self, which at first seemed to be lurking everywhere – as though there was another Ayelet who stayed – are receding now, their intensity fading, while new memories are being made: my child and her grandmother baking together, my child playing tag after Friday night dinner with her cousins, my Canadian family swimming at sunset on a hot day.
I titled my new book The Art of Leaving because in my peripatetic years, I believed I had honed leaving into an art. I left everything: family, homes, language, lovers. The final section of my memoir, “Return,” was meant metaphorically: I was delving into my family history, reclaiming the Yemeni heritage I had once rejected. I had no idea that by the time the book would be published I’d be living in Israel with my family. Maybe it is no coincidence. Maybe I had to write the book first, to fully understand the reasons for my leaving before I could return.
Truth is, there is no art to leaving. Leaving is messy, a fracture, an unravelling. And returning does not fix it. It’s also possible that this is no return at all, but another phase in a series of departures. It is too soon to tell. For now, I am here.