We have all heard some version of the popular cliché “home is where the heart is”, but like all clichés this declaration has seeds of truth within it. While we occupy physical spaces and assign the burden of preserving memories and sentiments to geography and architecture, these spaces remain temporal by design, a mere means of shelter, while “home” becomes more of a feeling, a state of mind that we carry with us and might ascribe to wherever we next arrive.
These are some of the ideas that the exhibition “Seeking Home” hosted by Goethe Institut at Commune Artist Colony attempts to unpack through an exploration of the immigrant experience. The two part exhibit brings together a travelling German exhibition “Arrival City: Making Heimat” by the German Museum in Frankfurt DAM and the Goethe-Institut, and its Karachi Chapter “Seeking Home”, focused on the Afghan narrative of Karachi’s immigrant crisis. The German exhibition is an offshoot of the German Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in Venice, 2016, and looks at the issue through an architectural lens and the perspective of the host city as a recipient assimilating the incoming migrants, providing home and hope. The Karachi chapter, on the other hand, speaks of displacement and identity crisis amidst mass exodus and the lived experiences of multiple generations existing in limbo.
Based on the eight theses from the book of Doug Sanders, a Canadian journalist and author, “Making Heimat” (a German word translating most closely to “home”) describes the qualities of a host city that makes it conducive to immigrant populations. It also provides an insight into the ghettoisation of these populations and the formation of immigrant colonies, their various attributes and the complex reasons behind them. This “arrival city” becomes a “city within a city”, kind of a transit that allows new settlers to more successfully integrate into the larger city and its social and economic fabric. For this purpose, this arrival city is “Affordable”, “Informal”, “Self-built”, with a strong “Network of Immigrants”, among other qualities laid out by the exhibit.
However, while this helps the new arrivals settle in and make heimat, what are the ground realities? The Karachi chapter sheds light on the ongoing struggle of “seeking home” that exists regardless, highlighted by real stories spanning multiple generations of Afghan immigrants in Karachi. We are able to pick on the nuances of their experience, the struggle of defining themselves in the reconciliation of a home lost and the one gained. During the 70s, hundreds of Afghans came to Pakistan in search of home and shelter. By the end of 2001, there were around 4 million Afghan migrants in Pakistan. Undeniably, the new generations of those Afghans migrants are still in search of a place they can truly belong, stuck between a home that labels them as outsiders, and one they have never seen, a space of origin that they may someday return to but do not relate to or understand. The Peshawar attack of 16th December 2014 forced many afghan refugees to return to their country, and this continuous dislocation has provoked them to question their identity and concept of home continuously.
Curated by Marvi Mazhar, this section of the show was a photographic, textual and video based exploration of these narratives by journalists, Zehra Nawab, Danial Shah and Salman Alam, who worked within these communities to excavate stories of the struggles embedded within the normal, everyday experiences of immigrants. These stories of displacement provide an insight into the marginalization of these communities and the lack of access to basic education, and the threat to security in a life spent under the looming shadow of an ancestral home existing only in a collective memory and creating a yearning for a place that might not exist and hinders the urge to truly settle.
Together, the German exhibition and Karachi chapter provide a more complete picture of the immigrant experience, and allow us to ponder the idea of home and what it represents. It is a place of shelter that we can return to, yet, for many it is not the place that they currently reside but an elusive idea encapsulated in a fictional land. It is this other place that provides them with comfort and sense of security, even if it might not truly exist. So is their true home the here and now, the one they left, the one they hope to gain, or all or neither?