Where am I from, it’s a very complicated question. It took me a long time to come up with a convincing answer. My parents are from Syria and that’s where my roots are, but I’ve never been there and I won’t be going anytime soon. I was born in Greece, by chance, but never stayed there. I lived briefly in Spain with my grandparents. Now I live in the Netherlands and it’s as good a home as any, but I grew up in Nigeria and that’s where I spent my formative years.
Nigerian literature resonates with me in a way that no other writing does. When I was at university, I first read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It spoke to me like nothing else. I could identify the locations, names, regimes and I saw the situation I knew of but from an entirely different point of view, the point of view of Nigerians. In a way, it allowed me to go beyond myself. I read more and it became a passion, a bit of an obsession, actually.
Growing up in Nigeria, as expats, we lived in a privileged and safe environment though the violence, the corruption, the coups d’états were happening around us all the time.
The first coup that I remember happened when I was at primary school. The final hour bell rang just after lunch. I checked my watch. We still had two hours to go. I looked around and saw teachers ushering us to buses, so we could get home before roads were closed. It was scary. We were probably never in direct danger, but things were volatile.
Looking back, I regret not learning more about the Nigerian culture languages. I picked up a lot when I was there, but, nowadays, I look back and think, oh man, if only I’d known that I would grow up to really appreciate these things, I would have used my time to get fully immersed and understand them better.
Unfortunately, while I was there, a lot of the time, for safety reasons, I was restricted. Our apartment had bars in the windows and an iron gate at the door. There’s something really twisted about that, but we had to take precautions, which might not have been as dramatic as they sound, but they were isolating.
Still, because I’ve lived there, when I read Nigerian literature, I understand the conflicts, the tensions, the landscape in a way that makes it very special. It’s different to reading Dostoyevsky, which I enjoy and where I understand the psychology, but as wonderful as that is, it’s just a piece of art. Nigerian literature reaches deeper.
At the same time, Arabic literature helps me better understand my parents. I am far more European than Middle Eastern, which has translated into misunderstandings over the years. It’s interesting, looking back, when we’re young, we always blame the other for conflicts, but when we grow up, if we’re lucky, we realize that the tension is actually our own. We are fighting ourselves not someone else.
When I was younger, I definitely tried to define myself, find answers to all the big questions of values and where I stand in relationship to culture. This came with a lot of tension, but it was tension within me even if I liked to project it onto other people and tell them it’s their problem because it’s they who don’t understand. Once I realized it was my problem, it became okay because I got a sense of peace that I didn’t need other people to validate. It’s great if people accept me – it’s always somewhat nicer when people accept each other – but we can communicate without it.
Literature has been a solace throughout. Reading a novel with introspective characters, it taught me to understand how characters relate to one another and to the world. When we read, we get to experience and interrogate our own reactions to traits and behaviours that are sometimes in us or, other times, in people we know or judge without ever meeting. Fiction teaches empathy and, nowadays, we could all use a little more empathy. When we relate to each other, there are very few problems that can’t be solved.
I read very broadly and I love non-fiction because I am generally very interested in what goes on in the grand scheme of things. Having said that, I find it more and more difficult to know what’s credible.
I do follow what goes on in Syria though less than I did in the beginning. At one point I got angry at the injustice of it - people using a country as a chessboard. I understand Arabic, so when watching a news clip, I can understand the speaker and the voiceover. It’s valuable to be able to follow both points of view, but, all in all, everyone reports with a bias.
The speed with which information travels has become a problem. We’re evolving to read short bits of text and have an emotion and immediately react on that emotion. There’s no delay where we can question, confirm or reflect. Reactions are immediate and they spread like wildfire. Follow up, verification, consideration, none of that seems to exist. And things we’ve learnt, they’re almost impossible to unlearn. The more we believe something, the harder it is to accept evidence to the contrary.
On some level, this is the core of the issues we’re having now, socially and politically. A lot of us have strong convictions, but when we’re asked deeper questions, we have no real answer, no rationale, no thought process to back up our beliefs.
Education is as much a solution as it is a problem. We’re still using an industralised model even though we’re more than a century later. That’s no use. Plus, in many countries, people responsible for policy are out of touch with the reality outside their office. Kids are innocent when they go to school. They know nothing and they get what they get and no one’s asking what they’re thinking.
Having lots of knowledge on its own isn’t very useful anymore. We all have access to a lot of information. We can check most things even if a lot of information becomes obfuscated. Ability to scrutinize a claim, to work through the convoluted language of vague terms and dodgy sentence construction, that’s another thing. To then understand what it means, to interpret that information and to figure how to use it, that’s yet another level.
We also need to learn to not react on impulse. It’s important that we all acknowledge our emotions, even the difficult or extreme ones, but it’s crucial that we learn to recognize and let go without jumping ahead and making decisions based on bursts that are not in our favour.
I teach tai chi, which is all about being in the moment. It is draining but also liberating. It brings a sense of peace and a lot of headspace, which is very fragile, and, more often than not, disappears the minute the workout is done. I get out of the studio and then, boom, noise, information, expectations, mind racing toward what to make for dinner or back to that fight with a friend I had fifteen years ago.
I’ve been working on being able to access and hold on to this feeling on demand. Whenever I feel emotions moving up, when anxiety takes over the chest and the throat, for example, I focus on getting everything to move back down, through the legs and into the ground. If I’m talking to people and they’re saying something I want to object to, I breathe, remember, it’s a moment, it doesn’t matter.
It serves me when I’m on my own, too. I like to think a lot, which can get too much, too far or too long, and I need to get myself out of it. Being able to let go on demand, it’s important. When I do it right, suddenly there’s a huge amount of space I can access for whatever is relevant right now, be it reading or chopping vegetables. It’s difficult, but I am working on it.
Knowing who you are and being at peace with it, it’s tough. It takes time, a lot of time, like an essay, but without a deadline, a word count or a form. It's like the changing of body tissues in tai chi. It takes a lot of fumbling, too, but then there are milestones of connection and recognition, not to mention good moments where once we would have punched someone but now, we let go. It’s difficult, facing our demons. But there is no shortcut to being human.
Samir Rawas Sarayji is founder of Chi Works and is training Dao Lu (Chi Kung, Tai Chi, and Lu Kung Fu) since May 2005. His love for the art and its usefulness to his well-being has made him a devoted student for life – training 10 to 20 hours a week. In 2009 he started teaching and giving workshops. Samir adopted the Taoist philosophy because of its harmony with nature and life. In 2016 he became a vegan. He grew up in Nigeria and lived in Spain before settling in the Netherlands. He holds degrees in Mathematical Sciences and in English and Literature. When not teaching or training, he will most likely have his head buried in a book.