A chosen exile
Asmaa Guedira, a digital nomad who moved to Australia during the pandemic, explores the paradox of embodying an identity beyond labels and borders.

I landed in Australia in March, 2020, exactly six hours before quarantine was imposed on all travellers arriving into the country. I flew from Berlin with my new partner. We were looking forward to our first romantic holiday but instead ended up in lockdown with his family in Canberra — an intense way of meeting your in-laws!

The thought of returning home had crossed my mind but I couldn’t get to my parents’ place in Rabat, Morocco, as it had closed its borders, even to citizens. I couldn’t join my sisters either as Europe was in full lockdown. So, here I was, in Canberra, experiencing the global pandemic and the big world shift that was happening. Strangely, it’s also the longest I’ve stayed in a country since I started living as a digital nomad five years ago.

Finding common ground

I’ve only received love here in Australia — from my partner, his family and his friends. Every Australian has met me with generosity and warmth. They’ve made me feel as close to home as someone can, despite the current context. I feel lucky to be in a very safe and privileged country during the chaos of COVID-19. At times, I’ve been sad to see the comparison of experiences in different countries.

I decided to stay in Australia for a while, until the world feels safer. I made a pact with myself to let go of the “saudade”, the nostalgic homesickness that sometimes comes over me when I’m very far from home. Instead, I’m welcoming the situation and taking time to observe and learn. Not only has the pandemic uprooted life as I know it, it’s also shed light on Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) activism, triggered by George Floyd’s tragic death in the US.

Through my work on social justice and systemic change, I am usually connected to activist circuits in the countries where I spend my time. So, while in Australia, I used my elected exile as a way to learn and contribute to the conversations here about BIPOC. I looked for information in books, conversations and on social media. I come across custodians who are building bridges for a common ground, like Bruce Pascoe, Tyson Yunkaporta or Silvia Klein, among many others who I still long to discover and learn from. I know the best way to learn and create real change is by spending time with people and communities.

Liminal identity

Exploring Australia’s land and its First Nations People has added an unexpected layer to my own exploration of “liminal identity”. Liminal, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, means “between or belonging to two different places or states”. I see my identity as something fluid, multiple, beyond labels and borders. However, I enjoy playing with the paradoxical description of my identity at the intersection of many labels: Moroccan, French, Arab, European, African, Amazigh, Muslim, female, queer, nomad, Afropolitan, millennial, BIPOC.

All my life I have been navigating various environments where I embody multiple identities. I’ve had to quickly learn which identity is charged where. Within me, it has created a sort of heightened awareness. I call it the “chameleon superpower”.

Growing up, I went to a French school still called “French Mission” — one of many legacies of colonisation. My skin is relatively pale, so I didn’t suffer from racism. In Morocco, I was the privileged one. It is only after I moved to Paris that I realised what coming from North Africa meant there. France treated North African immigrants as second-class citizens. In my first years there, I made sure I differentiated myself from the French second-generation immigrants. I was first generation — a chosen immigrant coming directly from Morocco and part of the educated elite. For me it was a way of stating “I belong here”; conscious of the racism, I was perpetuating it myself by denying the connection.

In France, I desperately wanted to be a Parisian until I pursued the digital nomad life. Suddenly, when travelling, I became exotic and interesting. In a city like Berlin, with a big turnover of people, migrants are welcomed — celebrated even. Cross-cultural kids are common. There I was sharing a multiplicity of cultures alongside a quest for self-expression with many other humans.

Between nomads, it is common to ask where you’re based as it focuses more on the movement location and less on the power dynamics of your passport. However, a nomad would never ask where you are from. I’m mindful never to ask that question, especially when I talk to other BIPOC. I first have a conversation with them and listen to what they want to share about themselves. I know how hard it is to try to belong somewhere when it is not a given, especially when our experiences have been structured by decades of European colonisation.

In Morocco, being French gives me the freedom to leave whenever I want without a visa. This a privilege my parents don’t have. But being queer in my home country could send me to jail whereas in Berlin, everybody’s difference is celebrated. In France, as in many other countries, Muslim communities aggregate a lot of tensions. As a direct result of industrial societies, our globalised world is built on trauma and extraction. Identity politics is expanding everywhere as a reaction to this.

I only realised I was affiliated to the BIPOC category in the last couple of years. It took me 17 years to unlearn what I had been told about my Moroccan and French culture; it took years of experiencing discrimination to see it. We are sitting on many power dynamics we have to explore and deconstruct, with empathy and mindfulness towards one another.

Asmaa Guedira is a Moroccan-born and adopted French digital nomad. She works at the intersection of social justice, systemic change and regenerative culture through writing, facilitation, performance art and public speaking. She’s currently writing a book about identity.