Immigration, time and hope

Dr. Daniel Delouya

Immigrants in Europe, in the USA and everywhere. Images and still more images; stories and dramas often exhibited in real time by the media.


Immigrants in Europe, in the USA and everywhere. Images and still more images; stories and dramas often exhibited in real time by the media. Therefore, within one or two years, this will have become a mass phenomenon. This is a characteristic effect of waves of news stories that assault us, and, this mass spectacle will engulf us in heavy clouds. Smothered inside of them, time resists and emerges to meet memory, with its pain and sweetness.

To migrate, to emigrate, to immigrate. Immigration, to be an immigrant. There are times in which emigration occurs hurriedly– for example, an escape – due to circumstances. Migrating from one land to another, from one language to (and with) another. Sometimes one has the good or bad luck of being a child or a toddler at that point in time. Such happened to me, but I believe I was not aware of that at the time. The light of this memory is shed, immediately and surprisingly, upon a feeling of joy. I remember the joys of emigrating and immigrating – but not only that.

First moment: the feeling of vertigo at being thrown in the air and coming back down to my brother’s strong arms. Amid my mixture of fear and pleasure, he whispers something in my ear: “We are going there. We are moving out of here. It’s a secret, don’t tell anyone, ok kid?!” He, thirteen years old, was radiant, and I, six, was affected by his excitement and overwhelmed by the privilege of entering into another crack of the mysterious world of the adults’ plots. It was a Sunday and I was finding entertainment in watching a cycling competition through the window of our “immense” dining room, when I was dragged towards this warning of a future whose references were still rather incomprehensible to me.

We were already “foreigners” in Marrakesh, despite the fact that my father’s family descended from refugees of the Spanish Inquisition who had settled in Morocco five hundred years before. Nevertheless, we belonged to the Jewish community and lived in the French cultural environment. Thus, we had to be vigilant in the face of the Muslim world as it was both hostile to Jews and the then young State of Israel. We were not to mention any resentment towards the French influence as Morocco had only recently freed itself from French colonialism. As a child, I remember that my siblings’ and my own movements were constricted; we were alert to potential muggings in the neighborhood. Later on, I learned about the intense emigration movement that happened in the early 1960s from Morocco to the USA, Canada, Europe and Israel – mainly among the Jewish community. This included almost my entire family. Only many years later did I realize that in preparation for the escape, the house had been charged with a clandestine atmosphere: furniture was moved around and removed, and there was an intense and silent activity around travelling clothes suitable for the European cold. First in Paris and then in Marseille, French money – probably bought on Marrakesh’s black market – was rescued from inside the folds and buttons of our jackets and trousers. After many months in Marseille, my parents accepted the decision of my older brother – the first-born – who wanted, despite the advice of our French uncles, to fulfill the Zionist dream of living in a Kibbutz. Some months later still, we left for Israel. I keep some memories from Paris and Marseille, flashes mixed in with photos of innumerable landscapes and visits to places and family members. They are all tinted with an excited wait for the boarding towards this destiny that had been so strongly fought for by my father’s older siblings against the adults – parents, uncles and friends living in the USA, Canada and Europe.

Second significant moment: one year later, maybe on the second day in the new land, I am returning home euphorically with a distinct feeling of freedom. I see, after opening our home’s door, that same brother, except he is now sad, in tears – I had never seen him crying before. He, a fourteen year-old teenager, was standing, leaning against the kitchen door frame, speaking (in between sobs) with our parents, who were touched too, about the loss of his homeland, about the huge disappointment with this “backwater” where he now was.

Early on – and still as a child – I progressively enter into this immigrant world where the initial excitement (from both my brother and me) blends with and survives inside the disappointment that is interior to the second moment’s nostalgia. I quote below a passage written three decades later about my panoramic memory of this period - between the ages of seven and fourteen years old:
“I grew up in one of those neighborhoods situated at the border of enemy territory, and also away from the city center. No child had ever been born there before my family arrived. There were only immigrants. It was one of those “paradises” whose existence God would never dream of forgetting or of remembering to forget; a fertile land for trailblazers who end up baptizing the notable pages of History: people in whose blood simmers an ideology that, although sincere, often becomes blind, rude, stupid and ignorant to History, dreams and passions – i.e. to life – of those who they intend to sacrifice in order to advance their utopia. A lot of life was created there, nevertheless – something that God could not have predicted: many languages (eight or more) that I can still identify; odors, traditions, nuances of lifestyles and religious (and other) practices, ranging on a long and curious spectrum – from Eastern European Jewish traditions to those developed within the communities in North African countries. Not to mention those coming from our neighbors across the border – the enemy – whose voices, songs, odors and lights arrived at sunset, when the night would start to lie above this small community who knew nothing about the ideology that began to trace its destiny… A strange ideology that intended to turn the country into a melting pot and that, therefore, only did the opposite – that is, isolated (from inside and outside) its immigrants, its future generation.” [1]

The two moments between excitement and disappointment, between discovery and nostalgia, define the experience of the immigrant being. And this is verified even when the previous articulation between the two states of mind is affected- such as in my memory, by the weight of the specific political, social and personal circumstances. The openness to what is new and foreign, while still tied to what is familiar is intrinsic to the labor of mourning. And it is within this labor we find the constant combat for access to the promises and flavors of the new environment. On the one hand, there is the desire and excitement in the face of the encounter with the new world and the new language. On the other hand, there are battles against nostalgia, against the longing for the previous place and time.

Memories from very early youth – of which some are screen memories and some others are reconstituted by adults’ stories – led me to this comprehension. Nevertheless, they appeared a posteriori, through the invocation and examination of the experience that occurred at the time of my second (or would it be third?) and last immigration, which took place more than thirty years ago. This time, as a young adult, I immigrated to Brazil, facing yet another new language and a new culture.

In Brazil, and Latin America in general, both thirty years ago and today, respect, curiosity and a certain reverence stand out when welcoming foreigners who come from the older and “more cultured” continent. The Brazilian and Latin American cultural consciousness and its links to colonial history align this attitude with a paradoxical search for identification with the “first world” and disregard of the “third world” in which they live and of which they are part. Nonetheless, this cordial attitude, customary of middle and higher-class hostesses, cannot be reduced to the mismatch felt by the immigrant in relation to her or his surroundings. There is something subtle in this Brazilian environment, something I am intimately familiar with, that increases the immigrant’s psychological labor. This Latin American paradoxical identification with both the “first” and “third” worlds certainly reveals their weak ties with their own institutions. The region’s history of political instability, corruption, etc. has resulted in an identity for the elites that is tinged with the reification of family names, the valorization of their large land properties and other inheritance, disdain for work, racial prejudice, etc. It suffices to follow the last decades’ TV soap operas- the main cultural element of Brazil’s masses, to verify this identity axis. These elements put together, create a discrepancy that further increases the distance between the foreigner and this environment of colonial roots and vices. This can provide the foreigner with an even larger detachment in her or his cultural and economical creativity. Latin American cultural sensibilities, together with a certain imprisonment within reified social values, creates a freer terrain for the foreigner’s challenges in the new environment, in the new land. On the other hand, the same Latin American conditions serve as a support for partly romanticized cravings of “nature”, the “more primitive” and more innocent parts of the more “native” regions of this continent. In my view, these elements partially replace the immigrant’s links to her or his original environment; they ease, one could say, the nostalgic denouement of the labor of mourning. 

Migration, emigration and immigration denote a geographic and demographic movement, with the person settling into a new and different cultural environment. Nevertheless, I wish to stress their temporal dimension, the labor of time - that is, the psychological labor specific to the migrant being. From my own experiences of migration at the ages of 6-7 and 25-26 to different continents, cultures and languages, I can distinguish – once more, in perspective, after some time, in the après-coup – a double movement. On one side, the privilege, albeit tinged with pain, of the position of foreigner, the freshness of the opening towards new and endless possibilities of integration. On the other side, the more arduous – and maybe longer – mourning, between the nostalgia and the detachment from my origins. However, the labor of time, its characteristics and particularities for each immigrant depend on and are intrinsic to the particular cultural context to which one immigrates, in addition to carrying the specific integration marks of the cultural context from the environment of origin.

The double movement of being a foreigner creates, in general terms, a spectrum of experiences of confrontation between the immigrant and life in a new land. This movement is, in many aspects, similar to the psychoanalytic path. Many authors have studied this foreign position intrinsic to the revelation of the subconscious. This is not the focus of this paper, though.

The motivation and principle of this text came from the migration movement generated by the Syrian civil war. This movement demanded that the West – preoccupied with economic, demographic and ethnic sensibilities – deal with its (mainly ethical) emergencies. The tragic incidents, the precarious conditions and other aspects of these immigrants’ crossings were, are, and will always be shocking, traumatic! The spectacular circumstances of the contemporary viewer, tuned in to “global events” and the public stage, in (nearly) real time, massify – i.e. tend to remove from their eyes and their experience – the denouement of the lives of people, our fellow human beings (nebenmensche), our neighbors, the immigrants.

It is important to recall here that Freud always insisted on luck being an essential factor for one’s psychology. The luck of the original object (the adult) is not only about who they were and how they welcomed the child at the beginning of the child’s life, but also the cultural context into which the child is placed, i.e. where the acquired repertoire will be tested and where new luck will open up. Every immigration, especially the kind caused by acute socio-political and religious crises, carries the bad luck inherent in the abrupt shock: a subjective exposure due to the hiatus in culture, the suspension in emptiness, the uprooting from one’s birthplace and desperation to re-encounter new terrain. This is a precariousness in which the impotence of language, values and habits, as well as the consequent shame, humiliation and revolt, put the first generations’ lives at stake. Crisis, instability and precariousness of all kinds, as well marginalization due to physical or mental illness, community dispersion and violence are common in the landscape that affects immigrants. Nevertheless, the emigrant’s and immigrant’s luck is not always all bad. It is often, actually, on the contrary. From the point of view of generational reestablishment, immigration is a sign of luck for the individual and for collectives. It is a re-launch, a revitalization of the person, cultural life, as well of the host nation. To migrate, to emigrate and to immigrate is to set life in motion, it is to breathe life into time and history.

*Effective member and professor at the São Paulo Brazilian Society of Psychoanalysis (SBPSP) and current President of the Brazilian Federation of Psychoanalysis (FEBRAPSI).
[1] Cf. Delouya, D. Torções na razão freudiana [Torsions in Freudian reasoning] (Unimarco, São Paulo, 2005), p. 202, or the original article: “O especialista, especificidade da alma” [The specialist, specificity of the soul], Revista Percurso, vol. 22, 1998, p.24.

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