Leaving Scotland by the pound

“Do you think this is going to be OK?”, I ask my new flatmate, after showing him my spare room. He looks over the cheap IKEA sofabed, the “KEEP CALM” poster, the pictures of my parents’ dogs, the tiny radiator which guarantees cold nights, and the fifty year old wallpaper, with scratches from cats that died in the last century. In the middle of the room his heavy suitcases, waiting to be unpacked. “Don’t worry, I’m a survivor. I have been in the Iraq army.” If I ever get around to offering this room on Airbnb, this is going to be the testimonial.

Laith came to St Andrews as a PhD student in his forties, basically my age. In Iraq, he was teaching astronomy at the university, just like me, and after his PhD he went back to teach astronomy at the university, just like me. He came on a stipendium from the Iraqi government, lived in Scotland for four years with his family, and finished his thesis on post-starburst galaxies in autumn 2018. Because it is impossible to find accomodation in St Andrews in autumn, I offered him to live in my flat for the last two months of his Scottish diaspora.

He is a quiet person, who walked through the house like a cat. He managed to appear behind me without making a noise, practically gliding about the hundred year old creaky floorboards. He didn’t seem to touch the ground. He is a quiet person, who can become loud, when talking about his country. Enthusiastically, exuberantly loud. I strongly resisted to calling it “his country”, because I’m not used to having a country. But for him, Iraq undoubtedly remained his country and Scotland remained an alien world.

Every day new packages arrived. Small packages, large packages, although most of them were fairly light. In his last two months in Britain, Laith must have received about fifty packages from Amazon marketplace, all addressed to “behind the house”. My door is at the back of the house. Laith lives behind the house, I joked. My mailman, not a particularly life-affirming creature on the best days, became sullen after all these trips to the door behind the house.

Laith spent money on presents for his extended family, on items that were difficult to get in Iraq, on various things he always wanted to have. But he didn’t spend a lot of money and instead he was hunting for deals. He would have bartered with Amazon as well, if that were possible. A pair of binoculars for ten quid, pretty good deal. He went to Edinburgh to buy a suit, for twenty pounds. He went to Dundee to buy a suitcase for one pound. And then another one.

All the buying and delivering created a new problem for Laith, the weight. He was allowed to take two pieces of luggage, each maybe twenty kilograms, maybe thirty, I forgot. He had to take five copies of his thesis. The more he bought, the more weight he accumulated. Of course he had a scale to keep track of it. Regularly he would inform me about the excess weight, and then he shipped things away. He had a guy to do the shipping. Someone came and picked up a suitcase, usually in the morning, when I was still asleep. The last suitcase with excess weight left the day before Laith. I imagined a guy with a tiny boat sailing directly from East Scotland to Basra. On board Laith’s assorted British stuff in heavy hard-shell suitcases, one pound each, charity shop Dundee.

After about a month in my house, Laith came to me with a stern expression on his face. “I’ve reached a new stage”, he proclaimed. “I’m now buying perfume.” Ostensibly the perfume was for his mother and his wife, but of course he had to try it out. From that day onwards, the house started to take on another smell, in addition to the smell of cooked eggs and chicken and lamb that came with him on day one. Olfactorily, it wasn’t my home anymore. It was a multi-odored multi-cultural multi-language bubble. Arabic noises from one room, German from the other. On his very last day in Scotland, Laith finally showed me his present for his youngest daughter, a remotely controlled giant spider with red-glowing eyes that crawls up and down the walls. We both wanted to keep it for ourselves.

Laith was both very different and very familiar. The differences were either annoying or funny. Annoying, because he was a house-man who liked to cook and clean and sort. He organised the shoes in the hallway. He never left anything in the wrong spot. He introduced various plastic vessels for different types of waste. He used enormous amounts of detergent, for laundry, for himself, for everything. He cleaned the dishes the moment they got dirty. I had to devise complicated schemes from keeping my dirty dishes for a few hours. It felt like I was suddenly married to a British housewife.

The funny differences had mostly to do with geography and climate. Laith just didn’t go anywhere without having a very good reason. And only if the weather seemed agreeable, which means: no rain or wind. This is the default in Iraq, but it is hard to get in Scotland. Too much wind, too much rain, and Laith stayed inside, basically the whole day. When he ventured outside, it was very brief. “I went for a walk”, he said, after going about two hundred metres along the path. He had a strange concept of time and place, where a few hundred metres could easily turn into miles, and a few minutes into hours.

And he had a strange concept of risk. “That’s pretty dangerous”, he observed while we were watching a guy picking snails between the slippery rocks at low tide. Going outside in the wind was dangerous, too. I guess I knew that risk is always relative to what you are used to, but I didn’t know it would go that far. Roadside bombs, raids by foreign armies, being abducted and killed because you have the wrong religion, all things that happened either to him or to close relatives, all a normal part of life. Slippery rocks, much less so.

On the weekend before Laith left, I showed him a few places in the the East Neuk, my part of the Scottish coast. It was a blustery day on our side of the peninsula, very bad weather for Laith’s standards. It was his first time outside after spending days in his room. It is now clear to him, he told me, why people in Scotland go outside to walk, or run, or cycle. If you just sit in your room for days, your body starts feeling weird. When it is forty degrees outside, like in Iraq, there is no need for physical exercise. You just sit there. Why would you move. It’s only the weather that makes people move around so much. It has taken us only several years to figure this out. Laith’s exploration of East Neuk beaches was slow and graceful. He picked up a piece of algae. He took pictures of the Sun. He left footprints in the sand. He went back to his room.

One question I had saved to the very end, and it was clearly one that Laith was tired of answering: Why are you going back? Why are you so attached to Iraq, a country you are so frustrated about, with its corruption and occupation and violence and superstition? He must have heard this question a million times, but I was asking for a reason, because I often get the same question in a different shade — people implying that some day I would certainly go back to “my country”, thereby also implying that I’m only a visitor in Scotland. But I don’t want to go back, I don’t even know what “back” means anymore. There is no real home for me in Germany.

Laith had never thought about not going back to Iraq, and if I had to make a list of the strangest statements I’ve ever heard, that one is close to the top. Never thought about not going back to his war-ravaged country with traditions that impede academia and astronomy and normal life in so many ways. But I believe that he is saying the truth. One of the things I really like about Laith is that he is not afraid of expressing silly feelings, like the love for a country, or the attachment to a specific religious tradition, to insist that these feelings are important, and yet to be able to see how arbitrary they are. We are all irrationally attached to certain things, but rarely do we have the courage to admit how irrational they are. Instead, we make up stories and we claim that we are right. “I love my country”, that was Laith’s reasoning for going back, “and I know how stupid this sounds”, followed by a story about grass and sunshine and landscape and wind. I think I know what he means, the only difference is that I have this feeling about multiple countries. Not even countries, regions. In contrast, Laith is monogamous in his relationship with his country.

None of this is to say that Laith was a weird person in any way. Everybody appears to be weird, when experienced out of context. If you take away all the individual habits and the cultural differences, what remains is someone just like me. If you peel away all the layers that we keep using to describe people, all the peculiarities and characteristics and idiosyncrasies, what remains is someone whose needs and desires and pleasures correlate surprisingly well with mine. I am familiar with the superficial kind of conversation between people from different cultures that includes details from the IKEA catalogue, or the different Christmas traditions around the world, or how to get extra legroom on airplanes. With Laith this tedious small talk never worked, because he can’t relate to these topics anyway. Instead, it seems to me there is a fundamental alignment between people that becomes easier to see when they are very different. I remember this quote from George Sanders: “The universal human laws are constant, predictable, reliable, universal, and are merely ornamented with the details of local culture. What a powerful thing to know.”

Laith and I are both astronomers, but the more I talked with him about our science, the more I got the impression that his kind of astronomy was very different from mine. He was intrigued by specific eclipsing binaries partly because his father had studied them. I insisted on some other reason why we would want to look at them again. He seemed to rely on tradition, on faith, on hearsay much more than I was comfortable with. There are obviously different ways of achieving things. While astronomy was not the expected common denominator, we found a shared interest in war, religion, and dictatorships.

For him this interest was admittedly more first-hand than for me. But at least I grew up in a militaristic oppressive undemocratic one-party system (East Germany), although my dictator was a feeble man (Erich Honecker) whereas Laith’s dictator (Saddam Hussein) was so strong that he could swim across the Tigris, twice (an anecdote I learned from Laith). I learned how to throw a fake hand grenade in middle school, just like Laith. I had pictures of dictators and mass murderers in my class rooms, just like Laith. Dictatorships are, after all, fairly similar, all over the world, we found out. There seems to be a standard set of rules how to run a tyranny, maybe a Wiki or a textbook or a university course that every tyrant has to take.

I didn’t have any thoughts about Laith’s religion before he moved in. I guess I thought he would be some kind of secular person, like most scientists. I’m so used to dealing with atheists in academia that I am always surprised when I find someone who is not. It took me days to figure out what the carpet was for, the little carpet that Laith had rolled up neatly and placed on the table in his room. I wondered why he always had a watering can with water in his room. I only found out when I complained about orthodoxy in Christian churches, and about people seriously kneeling down to pray. As far as I know, it is the first time this house has seen any serious, diligent praying.

It has been a while since I had meaningful conversations about religion that are not limited to defending my religion against atheists, a type of debate I am quite tired of nowadays. I grew up in a protestant family with priests everywhere in my ancestry. I have worked quite hard for my faith. With Laith, faith was a given and does not have to be defended. God was there, undoubtedly, and all we could do was to explore the different ways we tried to approach the supernatural. With curiosity, but without disrespect. For him, Jesus was a prophet who spoke as an baby, defending his mother, while still in her arms. We talked about funerals, about resurrection, about religious holidays. We had no arguments about religion, nobody claimed to be right, because it ultimately doesn’t matter. I really regret, with hindsight, how short these conversations were, and how tired I was in the evenings when Laith would come to me to talk. We found common ground, but also huge chasms, and the chasms were not limited to the way we prefer our food to be killed.

Laith ate meat that he bought in Dundee, from one of the very few places that sells halal meat in Scotland. It took him months to find that place, that guy, months when his diet consisted of eggs and fruit. It also took him months to find out that he had to drink water without being thirsty in this climate, a learning process painfully aided by kidney stones. Laith cooked eggs in the morning, with lots of fat. He ate them with baked beans, because that’s what he learned to eat when he lived in Britain as a child, when his father got his PhD. He ate British pies and desserts, stuff that I despise. In many ways he was more assimilated than I will ever be.

He cooked chicken in water, and ate it with rice. His lamb was delicious and smelled like Babylon, his home town. He made dishes that had names and tradition, whereas I just throw stuff together that I like to eat. In the kitchen, we were not operating on the same level. I basically abandoned the kitchen and its oriental smells and left it to him. For balance, I had the bathroom mostly for myself. Laith’s hygiene routine was mysterious, but it included only one lengthy stay in the bathtub every week. He took baths, not showers. At least that’s what he claimed to do.

Laith conducted his life not necessarily very efficiently, but with grace and with rigorous scheduling. He seemed to do about one thing per day, one errand, one bit of research, one item on the to-do list. And that bit was done, it was really finished, unless the circumstances conspired against him. There was never any rush, or any attempt to do things faster than dictated by natural rhythms. When things went wrong, Laith was wearing his smile like a mask. “Try to beat this for luck”, he joked in a text message, after the train that should have brought him one step closer to home was temporarily stopped by a tree.

On a windy Tuesday morning in late October we got up at seven to drive to the station. After weeks of waiting around, Laith had finally all the things together for his departure, the letters, the books, the suitcases, the presents. The final package arrived on Monday. He took a train to London, where he had to visit the embassy to prove that he actually has a PhD now. Then he had to book a return flight, in some place in London, for some reason. Then he had to board the flight. By Friday, he was safely on his way back to Iraq. Since that day, I only have one sign of his continuing existence: he confirmed my friendship request on Facebook.

Laith left me his sandals, his pots and pans, and some of his spices. For the next years, all my dishes will taste a bit more like the middle east. I will literally walk in his shoes when I’m at home. Laith left me two plastic boxes with medicine, pills mostly, but some powder and gel as well. Antibiotics to feed an army. Medication with arabic instructions. A cream that healed a few weird blisters on my hand. He left office supplies, an electric heater, a large umbrella, a hair brush, items I have absolutely no use for. Laith left me his duvet, ragged and worn out, and his bedsheets. He left a pair of socks, probably because he forgot about them. All other spare clothes he gave away, or threw out before he disappeared.

He left me his warm winter jacket, after a new one came in one of the many packages. This red jacket smells like Laith and whenever I try to wear it, I become him, to some extent. I move more slowly, more tentative, more like in an alien environment, like an astronaut on planet Mars. Laith left me two incredibly soft and warm blankets, one red, the other purple. They too smell like him, and assimilating them into my life will be an ongoing struggle. Will they ever become mine? They are good blankets, hand-picked and imported. I think Laith liked Britain, on balance, but blankets were one big disappointment for him. Blankets and carpets.