As a child in Iran, Dina Nayeri belonged to a secret Christian church where the Rapture was welcomed as a rescue. She writes: In my mid-20s, after years of grappling with my identity as a refugee and my place in the world, I stopped believing in the Rapture. By then I had embraced all the secular, corporeal things I had secretly desired: a rigorous education, travel, great food, the admission that I do believe in science and that the Bible is at most a metaphor to me. I watched that old movie, A Thief in the Night, on my laptop and was fumed at the heavy-handed messages that had colonised my adolescent brain. The Christian characters benefit from the goodwill and love of their secular friends, then dismiss human love as insufficient. Ever blase, their lives never progress; they only wait. This was the detail in the movie that struck me most as an adult: the two primary Christian characters don’t have jobs or romances. They live in the next life.
This fetishisation of waiting was the final straw. Because here is something that only refugees (and people newly in love) can tell you: there is no painful business quite like waiting. Roland Barthes calls it subjection. For me, waiting for the Rapture and for political asylum felt much the same: the constant anticipation of a new start, of vanishing, of having already smelled the tiny yellow roses that draped our garden walls or tasted my grandmother’s celery stew for the final time. Being a refugee is dismantling home, setting out into the desert and becoming stateless in pursuit of a better life. Refugees are seekers of a sort of Rapture, and, in leaving their known world for something unimaginably good beyond, they enact a small apocalypse.
When I said this to my mother recently, she balked. Though she believes in the Rapture – it is her “living hope” – and has suffered long bouts as a refugee, she doesn’t like the comparison. “I didn’t choose to leave my home,” she said. “Being a refugee is being homeless, not having hope. In those years I lived in constant numbness, because while you’re waiting, there is nothing. No way back and no way forward. With the Rapture, going back isn’t an option, but what’s ahead is beautiful.”
The Rapture story offers a known future that you don’t have to build yourself. It happens in an instant: before you’re done with one life, you’re whisked into another. And that is everything – skipping that in-between space, the country of purgatory where the refugee lingers. “If you’ve ever been a refugee,” my mother says, “you know how much that matters.”
She’s right: I do know that. I understand now that eschatological promises provide closure, the end of mankind’s story on Earth, at once terrible and necessary. They are designed to assuage a universal fear: the fate of the refugee. To set off as an asylum seeker is to endure a carousel of embassy visits and interviews and application papers without any idea of what comes next. It’s life without a heaven or hell, just recurring cycles that lead nowhere. Refugees live out the ancient themes of purgatory and banishment literally, and that – not the guillotine’s blade or the antichrist or oblivion – is the ultimate nightmare: life without closure, forever in limbo.
But I also know that being rescued from the nightmare of waiting is not only the refugee’s greatest desire, but also her greatest dread, because then home is no longer home and she’s no longer who she once was; she is transformed. Maybe that’s why I was so much more afraid in Oklahoma than in Isfahan – by then, I had tasted that transformation. I knew what it was like to be taken away, never to smell the yellow roses or taste the celery stew again. [Continue reading…]