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Rites of Return

Rites of Return

Odysseus, Don Quixote, modern refugees—some of us never truly leave home behind.

Photograph by Kourosh Keshiri.


Among the countless homing pigeons released into the sky every year—their return to the coop all but certain—a few always go missing. They might take an unanticipated left and drift off, flying into the unknown or maybe even the imagined, somewhere far away from the sureties of home and destiny. Soon enough, some evolutionary biologist will pinpoint the gene responsible for this sort of errant behaviour and eliminate the mutation; their individual genetic makeup now aligned with their species’ purpose, no more homing pigeons will wander or get lost. In a goal-oriented world, wandering and getting lost are considered malfunctions.

Every homing pigeon association has guidelines for people who happen to find stray birds. From the owner’s point of view, the pigeon is lost. Even other pigeons might consider it lost. But what about that individual bird’s perspective? What if it isn’t lost at all, and has simply found adventure elsewhere? Either way, unlike their more orthodox siblings, the independent-minded birds that betray their genetic patrimony have received little critical or scientific attention. Everyone studies the homing mechanism, and pigeons that don’t return are forced back home.


Iranian refugees who came to Montreal in the eighties knew that Canadian immigration policy was humane—meaning that there was no automatic deportation at the border, no forced return without a proper refugee hearing to examine claims of persecution. That’s what migrants and refugees looked for as they flipped through the atlas or spun the globe trying to find Sweden or Australia or the Netherlands—places they had only ever imagined in the abstract. The world was wide open. We could have chosen Senegal or Venezuela or India, but those weren’t destinations we sought. People-smugglers didn’t have a special on Senegal the way they had specials on the West: Greece for two thousand, Sweden for five, Canada for ten. You paid smugglers to take you places that didn’t want to let you in.

So, as they dropped their fingers down on the globe, Iranian refugees asked each other, “Does Holland have ‘Deport’? Does Sweden have ‘Deport’?”—as though “Deport” were a feature of geography. Another addition to the new vocabulary of globalization, it was the word everyone feared. Someone whispered, “Did you hear, so-and-so got a ‘Deport’?” and all the free-floating molecules in the room suddenly froze in the chill.

No one wanted to be sent back home. It meant money wasted. It could mean jail time or torture back in Iran. But most of all, it meant failure. It meant you were unwanted and discarded, your efforts simply not good enough. Others had made it, after all. The deportation stamp was a stamp of shame, and return was an admission of defeat.

There are triumphant returns, of course, with laurels and parades, but most are of the other kind. We say, “He came crawling back”—an image of debasement. No one likes to come crawling back, especially without a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills. Isn’t that what you went there for, son? Aren’t the streets paved with gold? Did you bring any back? We’re having yogourt and dry bread here—what did you have to eat over there? Thick, juicy beef burgers?

In the mid-eighties, when I landed in Montreal, no one spoke of going home. Everyone spoke of home, of missing Iran, the family, the friends, the tastes, the usual. But no one was going to return. “We burned the bridges behind us,” Iranian refugees used to say, meaning that they had to burn them to stave off the temptation of going back. As for the road ahead, all you had to do was walk out of Mirabel airport and there’d be cars and luxury apartments for the taking, goods of all sorts on the shelves, brands you could only have drooled over in Iran. That’s why you left home, paid a smuggler, said goodbye to friends and brothers and mothers, walked across mountains, risked prison, deportation, madness. The voyage was the sacrifice, and everyone back home expected it to be easy once you landed. They expected pictures of you in front of a nice Toyota.

So you snapped those pictures, in front of any Toyota, though the preferable Toyota was red and parked on Crescent Street, with some girls in the background, their hair blowing in the arctic breeze as they walked into a bar for happy hour. You could always say the girls were with you. And when you were put to work by Immigration Canada picking turnips on a farm in January and came home in the dark—that early, northern dark—with your frostbitten fingertips cracking on the door handle and your tears icicled to your eyelashes, you wrote home lies that glowed on the page like a fireplace, speaking of warmth and work and success, of the bounty of this new land. You enclosed the picture of the Toyota, and maybe another picture of a well-lit mall with a new escalator and peaceful little waterfall surrounded by recognizable brands. You made sure everyone back home believed that the journey, the sacrifice, the alienation had been worth it. You were wearing Nikes and sunglasses indoors, because here everything is so bright.

And now, after all that, after more than twenty years, I hear friends saying they want to return. Not visit, but return. Many have gone back to Iran voluntarily. Enough time has passed since the date of departure, and besides, failure here or failure there—what’s the difference? It takes less effort to fail at home. Those twenty years in Canada—what was that all about? This whole other life—a business, children, the struggle to make sense of the rules, figure out the lease and the concept of taxes withheld, job applications, the anxieties and triumphs of citizenship interviews, the cold, the damned cold—twenty years, and this one decision to return makes it all seem like a mere passage. Worse, you’re back where you started. You’ve been circling around home.

The circle is the enemy of departure. It is the shape of futility. It is the present, bending to the simultaneous pressures of past and future.      


These days, we’re often told it’s the journey that counts. But historically, from the Bible to the classics to the stories of contemporary refugees, what has mattered most is the return. There was a time when returns were heroic, when only heroes managed to go out into the unknown and then come home. Odysseus took a decade or so to return. He went to war, got waylaid and came back to find Ithaca waiting. Nothing much changed while he was gone and not much happened upon his reappearance: he disguised himself, surprised his faithful Penelope and shooed away her incompetent, unsuccessful suitors. Compared to blinding a Cyclops, meeting the dead or listening in ecstasy to the sirens, this homecoming was pretty uneventful.

Yet it was his return that made Odysseus a hero. Imagine if he had decided to stay on with the nymph Calypso, with whom he had a rather pleasant few years. Imagine Penelope executing a coup, taking the throne and indulging a few of her suitors. Or imagine something simpler: Odysseus catching pneumonia and coughing himself to death somewhere on the shores of the Mediterranean. His life would have been as insignificant as any other. Oh, that Odysseus: just another fool who should’ve stayed home!

A hero of Odysseus’ kind—the prodigal son, the wandering Joseph, the crucified Jesus—must always return. Not for his own sake, but for that of the expectant crowd at home. It is his homecoming that redeems the faith of the waiting. In a way, then, it is home as the precondition of return, and not the journey, that makes a classical hero: husband reunited with wife, Ithaca happy; or the Lord and his children together again in Paradise, forever and ever.

Times have changed. Today’s Penelopes weave burkas and wait for husbands disappeared into the vast, ominous void of the post-9/11 world. Having lost Troy, the modern Odysseus has a terrible time securing all the necessary travel visas and is harassed whenever he crosses a border. Maybe his loved ones can’t find him at all. Chances are he’s been deported—the paradigmatic return of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—or even stuffed into an orange jumpsuit and taken on a night flight to Guantanamo. As with the times, the heroes have changed, too.

In the old days, those who left were expected to come back, preferably with spoils. Nowadays, return indicates failure. In the old days, exile was a punishment. People like Ovid were banished to some remote land and left to suffer from homesickness and insecurity. Exile meant losing your place in the world. Today, our place in the world is not so fixed or self-evident, so penalization takes the reverse course; as punishment, governments send people back to where they came from. Following 9/11, the US government even disappears people off the street and ships them back to prisons in their own homelands. In 2002, American officials picked up the Canadian citizen Maher Arar in New York. Following lengthy questioning and solitary confinement, he was forcibly returned “home”—not to Canada, but to his place of birth, Syria, where he was promptly jailed and tortured.

The US government’s lawyers call this “extraordinary rendition.” Rendition, in this case, means the transfer of a person from one legal jurisdiction to another, while extraordinary means outside of the law. This makes the term a contradiction. But according to my dictionary, rendition has other meanings too:

1. an interpretation or performance of a piece of music or drama
2. a translation of a literary work
3. the act of translating something into another language (formal)
4. a surrender (archaic)

“Surrender” is close to the US legal team’s sense of the word. But even if you are forced to surrender, it still must be an action you take yourself. Otherwise, it’s not surrender at all, but rather imprisonment or abduction. The blunt transformation of an archaic term into a twenty-first-century political-legal euphemism for kidnapping and forced return ignores the key concept in surrender and dissolves the agency of the surrendering subject. I wonder how a word that means “surrender” came, at some point, to mean translation or performance as well.


If every return has a particular history, there is also something like a history of returns. The Odyssey was one of the earliest heroic road epics, Exodus the first record of a refugee population. The children of Israel are taken prisoner and, after a showdown between the Pharoah’s magicians and the Lord’s representatives, are finally freed from bondage. In the desert, the Lord makes a series of promises—“milk and honey” being particularly famous—the delivery of which comes in exchange for acknowledging that “I am the Lord your God.” The Hebrews move from wilderness to wilderness as from doubt to doubt, until Moses finally comes down from Sinai with the tablets—textual proof that settles the matter. We must obey, we must wander. Exodus ends with the construction of the tabernacle, a temporary home or its transportable symbol, lit up with the glory-fire of the Lord.

Yet the Lord’s promise, in order to remain a promise, must also foreclose on the possibility of return. It seems contradictory, but the promise of a promised land goes hand in hand with the destiny of perpetual movement. These are the last words of Exodus: “For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.” Sounds at once like a gift and a condemnation. Wandering becomes its own goal, a self-fulfilling prophecy, carrying in itself proof of the promised land.

The absence of home offers the possibility of endless promises; if they have not yet come to be, at least they have not yet died. More importantly, they are promises that cannot die as long as the community is wandering. In the words of the late poet A.R. Ammons: “Arriving takes/ destination/ out/ of destination.”

The creation of Israel was the twentieth century’s great episode of return. At a time when everyone was fleeing their war-ravaged homes, Jews were going “home.” Whether that was a good or bad thing for them remains an open question. Some ultra-orthodox Jews believe unequivocally that it was wrong, even idolatrous. They do not believe Israel should have been created in historical time. They fear arrival; they are wise enough to know that once you reach a promise, the promise wilts. The ugliness of Israeli politics is proportional to this wilting.

It was the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13, 2) in 1948 that first established the concept of “return” as a basic human right. Every person has a right, states the UDHR, to return to her own country. But what, in the twenty-first century, might count as one’s “own country”? How far back in history can you reach to claim a land as your own and invoke the right of return? Does one also have a right not to be returned to it? Anyway, isn’t it better to just go to China—booming, optimistic—and start all over again?

Two years after the UDHR, following several millennia of Hebrew displacement and wandering, the Israeli state secured a return for Jews worldwide. It was called, in grand biblical manner, the “Law of Return.” Enacted by the Knesset in 1950, the Law of Return gave the right to almost any Jew in the world to come to Israel and legally reside in this brand new country. But what kind of a return is that? In what sense were people going back, if they had never actually lived there—at least not for the last few millennia? What were they returning to? A collective memory? A hiding place? A future posing as the past?

Israel’s Jews have built a new home while their state systematically expels Palestinians from their own, with more than two thousand housing demolitions in the West Bank alone since the turn of the millennium. In addition, in a calculated demographic policy, the Israeli state has barred displaced Palestinians from returning. The fight over a Palestinian “Right of Return” is a constant stumbling block in discussions, such as they are, between the two sides. A “Right” is a wispy, abstract concept; it can merely be invoked. But a “Law” has machinery behind it. A “Law” can be deployed.


Early epics, the very Christian C.S. Lewis claims in his preface to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, do not have a “great subject.” Despite its poetic metaphysics, Exodus is essentially parochial. God makes His promise to the Hebrews alone; there is no sense of the eternal or the universal. Homer’s epics are stories of great men carrying out incredible feats, but no grand design gives them direction or clocks their travails within the progress of history. In the Odyssey, history is not yet teleological. Odysseus triumphs entirely as a person, a solitary figure moving from challenge to challenge. He has no greater goal than heroism itself—and perhaps the defence of a few principles of that heroic age, such as chastity. (Penelope’s, of course, not his own.)

“If Troy falls,” Lewis writes, “woe to the Trojans, no doubt, but what of it?” Another Troy gone. Others will be built, others will fall. Greatness in the early epics “lies in the human and personal tragedy built up against this background of meaningless flux. It is all the more tragic because there hangs over the heroic world a certain futility.” Lewis, enveloped in Christian transcendence but reckoning with modern finitude, feels that struggle for its own sake is futile. Homer’s heroes may have fought Scyllas and Hydras, they may have battled a whole catalogue of men and monsters, but, as Lewis puts it, “No one in Homer had fought against the darkness.”

But then, after Greece, Rome happens. Virgil writes the Aeneid, and twenty years later Christ comes along, He Whose Arrival and Kingdom Are Predicated On Return. Lewis considers the founding of Rome (the Aeneid) or “still more, the fall of man” (Paradise Lost) the kinds of events that “effect a profound and more or less permanent change in the history of the world.” The Aeneid, composed on the ashes of Troy, gains a true historical destiny: Aeneas, after a mere six years of wandering, does not return home to continue the heroic cycle of futility, but finds his own true unidirectional way. He actually ends up far from home and founds an empire. The glory of that empire determines the course of history from then on. The Roman order also represents a universal world order, a greater good that gives meaning and purpose to every struggle.

Aeneas never thought of turning back. Why would he go home? Unlike Odysseus, there was something greater in the works for Aeneas than just a waiting wife; there was not simply a story, but History itself at stake. That, according to Lewis, is the kind of position from which we can begin to see our place in the grand scheme of things, envisioning ourselves not as a tribe here or an empire there but as part of humanity, on a road toward some good and glorious end. As far as Lewis is concerned, this is the stuff of later epics, of Virgil and Milton—and maybe The Chronicles of Narnia.

Lewis was surely aware of the irony here. He made claims on behalf of Christian universalism in the preface to an epic poem of which the hero is Satan, a revolutionary angel, expelled and exiled, trying to smuggle his way back home. Milton’s story is all about exclusion, about how a community comes together around the banishment of one of its members. Satan is kicked out and asked not to return. He’s a “wop”—without papers. His attempts to cross back into his lost homeland, Paradise, fail repeatedly because, as Milton writes, “The towers of Heaven are fill’d/ With armed watch, that render all access/ Impregnable.”

Milton was motivated to think about rebellion and exile because he was a revolutionary himself, a defender of the short-lived English Republic who worked for Oliver Cromwell. In 1660, the Restoration brought back the monarchy, and Milton had to slip into hiding after a warrant was issued for his arrest. He spent a short stint in prison but was eventually pardoned. By the time he was released, he had gone blind. Four years later, Milton finished dictating Paradise Lost to his amanuensis.

Still, C.S. Lewis has a point about the parochial and the universal, one best illustrated by the respective doctrines of return in Judaism and Christianity. Although both faiths carry a promise of return, they are different kinds of promises. In Exodus, you as a Hebrew are displaced, waiting to return to a particular land and end the plight of your people. In Christianity, your displacement, or your people’s, is irrelevant. You are not waiting for your own return as such, but for the Return, which will end the plight of all humans and destroy evil forever. In the meantime, millions upon millions have killed and died in a contest to organize the King’s glorious homecoming parade.


Milton’s is the nostalgia of the disappointed revolutionary, someone who caught a glimpse of utopia before it was snatched from him. A better world was still possible, though: Paradise could be regained, society could be improved, and indeed it would be—just not yet.

Milton’s earnestness has its contrast in Miguel de Cervantes’ ruthless mockery. In Spain, Charles I had created a vast empire built on the wealth of a newly discovered continent. By the time Cervantes began to write novels at the end of the sixteenth century, however, Spain was losing its Paradise: the Armada sunk in 1588, and Protestants were challenging the old Catholic dominion. The adventurer’s treasure-laden return had given way to mercantilism and an administrative regime dependent on backroom deals and tax collection. “I was born in this iron age of ours to revive the age of gold,” Don Quixote boasts, rather emptily. Cervantes had clearly caught a glimpse of the end of his own empire.

Don Quixote sets out heroically, like Odysseus and Satan, but unlike them he never wants to return. And unlike Aeneas or Jesus Christ, he is not interested in founding a kingdom or empire. In fact, Cervantes’ epic documents the attempts of the Don’s friends, the Curate and Nicholas the barber, to lure him back to his village—a kind of a comedic, medieval version of extraordinary rendition. At the end of Book I, Don Quixote begins his journey home in a cage—forcibly returned not by the authorities, but by his friends—and the symbolism is lost on no one: the cage as home and the home as cage.

When Cervantes finally allows Don Quixote to return for good, it is to have the Don declare his adventures a farce. The Don was mad; he was under the spell of illusion, running after a woman who wasn’t real and attacking a great, imagined enemy that existed only in the form of viciously indifferent windmills. When he returns home, the Don announces to his pleasantly surprised friends that his journey has cured him. He is no longer a chivalrous knight, but plain old Alonso Quixano. Everything else was madness. And we, having gone through a thousand pages, agree. He was attacking windmills, for God’s sake, and we went along with him, turning the pages one by one, over and over. And we’ve ended up in the same old place: at home, at the end of an epic.

What does Don Quixote do next? Having given up his illusions, he dies. Or, as they say, he goes to his death, the only place left to go. Don Quixote is a fin d’empire, absurdist elegy for the end of promises. But what has survived, four centuries later, is the adjective “quixotic” and the metaphor of the windmill. Four hundred years on, we still say that someone is “tilting at windmills”: fighting a losing battle against an enemy that simply turns and turns in a circle.

Cervantes had his own real-life difficulties with departures and returns. His family had to escape their hometown when his father, a surgeon, botched an operation and faced the wrath of the victim’s relations. Not long after, Cervantes had to flee his family’s new home following a failed duel. He ran to Virgil’s city, Rome, and joined the army to fight the infidel Islamic empire, hoping to return with a bit of redemption for his genealogical line of failure. The infidels, of course, captured him. He tried to escape four times in eight years but bungled every attempt. It was only after ransom payments were arranged from Spain that Cervantes was freed. He came home ill and humiliated, a string of defeats behind him and no Penelope awaiting his arrival. Upon his return, Cervantes worked as a tax collector. This is not the stuff of epics. From failed hero to petty bureaucrat—it is the beginning of Kafka, of Beckett.


Cervantes is certainly a prelude to Samuel Beckett, but with the latter we are the exhilarated beneficiaries of the absolute failure of departure. Forget about returns, triumphant or otherwise. Beckett’s books and plays are about the impossibility of going anywhere to begin with. After all, where, in the twentieth century—with the whole world mapped—is there to go?

A few thousand years after Odysseus takes off and returns, Beckett gives us a road movie in which the protagonists are always moving but never manage to leave. Estragon and Vladimir are nowhere, and even as they move, they remain there. Mercier and Camier can’t even get going. And Molloy, the man without papers—his only papers are those with which he wipes himself—thinks he has set out to visit his mother, to go home in the most primal sense. But he cannot be sure where exactly his home is, or that returning home is in fact his purpose, or even of what day it is. In Molloy, everyone moves around on roads that lead nowhere: after he hears “that when a man in a forest thinks he is going forward in a straight line, in reality he is going in a circle, I did my best to go in a circle, hoping in this way to go in a straight line…And if I did not go in a rigorously straight line, with my system of going in a circle, at least I did not go in a circle and that was something.”

Having wandered like this from sentence to sentence for some two hundred pages, the book begins its final stretch, via an alter ego who is looking for Molloy without having gone anywhere himself: “That night I set out for home. I did not get far. But it was a start. It is the first step that counts. The second counts less.” And so we know how much the third or the millionth step counts. The more you move, the less your movement matters. Beckett’s abstract spaces flatten geography. One place is as illusory as the next.

Of the three great modernists, Beckett was the youngest, and the only one to live through World War II. He alone witnessed the extremes of modernity that the other two had intuited—James Joyce with his abhorrence of nationalism, Franz Kafka with his fear of depersonalized law and delocalized state control. Beckett was also the only real-life hero: he joined the Resistance in France, was nearly captured several times and eventually received some medals from the French state. He was a man of conviction, obviously. While he never wrote—and rarely even talked—about his years in the war, it seems clear that, at the time, he knew which side was in the right. To what, then, do we owe Beckett’s breakdown of certitude? Why the anti-heroes, the absurdity?

There was certainly the influence of Joyce and Kafka, and of his environment: French existentialists wondering how such an illustrious, rational nation could have accepted the Nazi horror, fallen to it and even collaborated with it. There was no real, satisfying answer to such questions, which were equally asked by and of the Germans, Italians, Spaniards, all Europeans. It was this lack of an answer that provided the ground for Beckett’s work. The hero of “Stirrings Still,” Beckett’s final story, has nowhere outside of his own mind to move. He can’t even get up from the table; all he can do is hold his head.

In World War II, the conditions that made C.S. Lewis’ secondary epic possible—meaningful faith, directional history—were overthrown. The utopian promises that justified centuries of domination and exploitation in the name of progress fully broke down. Despite the Allied victory, moral clarity shattered; there was simply no way to account for the degree of injustice within us, lining our guts. Famously, there could be no poetry after Auschwitz—that is, there could be no meaning. The heavenly Cosmos gave way to the indifferent Universe, expanding without the slightest concern for humanity, its vastness and age enough to make us insignificant.

Beckett had written before the war, but his work got properly Beckettian right after, affected directly by the questions of the postwar period. In his emptied-out spaces, Beckett was perhaps sensing the shrinking and flattening of the globe, the erasure of distance, the television piping the outside world into the living room and mitigating some of the motives for departure. But, really, Beckett’s geography—the bare, circular road—was his way of suggesting that, even as we claim morality for our own side, we can no longer claim a grand purpose. History is going nowhere in particular, and it’s taking us with it. There is no discovery, no mission. Today, that vacuum has been filled: spas, time shares and malls with waterfalls give us intermediate goals, short-term destinations, a blinkered purpose, a sugar rush. They promise the same nice things over and over with slight alterations, to make us feel, like Molloy, that in this circular system we might actually be going in a straight line.

In such a universe, there is perpetual movement but no origin or destination, no home or return. Satan had his darkness, Odysseus his monsters, Aeneas history to build. Even poor Don Quixote had windmills. But Beckett’s men—what do they have? There are no illusions, no hills, just flat, barren spaces in which the protagonists wonder, “Where would I go, if I could go…?”

Compared to them, Sisyphus was a fortunate man. In the era after Albert Camus and other postwar Europeans,  we tend to think of Sisyphus endlessly rolling his stone uphill as a condition—the essential human condition of living in futility. Against this fate, Camus implores us to “imagine Sisyphus happy,” to accept absurdity or inevitably face suicide. Because he came to embody the doubts and existential struggles of postwar Europe—of the very end of modernity—we have forgotten that the Sisyphus of Greek mythology did not represent a condition at all. He was part of a story, with a beginning and ending, in which he was being punished for something he’d done. In other words, he inhabited a moral landscape, not an empty one. The original Sisyphus had a task, orders, duties. It was uphill, true, and he was not going home any time soon, but he knew what he was doing and why.

So to us, Camus’ cheerful counsel—an antidote to Beckett’s desperation—echoes only because, like all echoes, it is redundant. We have already heard it, even uttered and lived it; travelling the flat old circle of Beckett’s geometry, it is easy for us to imagine Sisyphus happy. Indeed, we imagine ourselves happy every day. Having left one country for another, crossed thousands of miles and several continents, we now find ourselves going back. Even if we don’t return to that faraway home, then we at least move along with everyone else, from home to work to the store, back and forth, imagining all the while that there is somewhere left to go.

Originally published in June 2011. See the rest of Issue 40 (Summer 2011).

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