What am I going to do? When I first came to Leuven two years ago, I envisioned a career as an academic Arabist, journalism was merely a way of paying for school, and I couldn’t wait to leave Belgium for more exotic social and intellectual terrain. Two years later, I’m a post-Sovietologist, journalism has become the cornerstone of my career, and I’m terrified of leaving this country of deep continuities and all the people here I’ve come to love.
A few weeks ago at the Zonnekompas café on Brusselestraat, a strange tan and yellow book, slumped in one of the bookshelves, caught my eye. It was entitled Steppevolken, an out-of-print Dutch translation of the out-of-print English book Horsemen of the Steppes by the deceased American archeologist Walter A. Fairservis, Jr. This was a highly unusual discovery given the context, for, as its name suggests, Zonnekompas is a New Age cafe, brimming with texts on spirituality, science fiction, astrology and the like; rarely does one find a proper academic work therein, much less concerning Central Asia, my region of passion. Intrigued and desirous to try my literary Dutch, I asked the café’s owner if I could have it, and she generously granted my request.
Well, my literary Dutch proved terribly deficient, but I couldn’t let the book go. Everyday since finding it, I’ve kept it in my bag, frequently rummaging through its pages, reading the occasional paragraph and glancing at the 1960s pen-drawn illustrations. It wasn’t until this past weekend when I began to realize that the book’s significance for me lies not in its content, but in its symbolism: its peculiarity, right down to the timing of my discovery of it, captures of the essence of the dilemma with which I’m currently faced.
When I left my homeland over two years ago, I did so with the intention of never returning. I’ve always felt more like myself “out here”, in the world, away from the inward-looking giant of America. I also intuited — correctly, as experience has since proven — that my career would only pick up in the intellectual and international context of Europe. However, in April 2009, I was not only desirous to leave, but also ready for it, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. All the signs were there, too. In the last weeks of my American existence, there were many uncanny, synchronous encounters that confirmed to me that I was making the right decision.
Not so with my Belgian existence. I truly feel called to Central Asia, but I simultaneously find that I’m not yet prepared to completely let go of here — the quietly mystical Ardenne, the joyous Atomium, ugly Brussels, and stately Namur and Arenberg — these new landmarks of my psyscape. It’s been very difficult to hold onto those left behind across the Atlantic, especially as I find my mind more and more turning eastward; will Belgium also slip from my grasp? Indeed, must it?
The book signifies two problems, the solutions for which I fear could be contradictory but I pray are reconciliable or even harmonious. The first problem is practical and emotional: simply put, I’m not a European citizen, and with my visa expiring on Halloween, time is running out. I’m irrational when it comes to the possibility of returning to America — that country of the future feels like yesterday for me — but I’m also confronted with the professional requirement to learn Russian, and for as much career reasons as personal and spiritual ones, I long to really get to know the generous people waiting for me in Central Asia. Acquiring a medium- to long-term visa in either context is not easy, and without a meaningful job opportunity either here or there, I’m basically limited to student status.
The second problem is spiritual with two dynamics. The first is narcissism: the insecure part of me, raging at insults and injustices real and perceived here in the West wants to continue climbing the social ladder. It sneers at Leuven and rejoices when various professors urge me to apply to more prestigious (i.e., better branded) universities in Germany, Italy and Sweden. Some questions: does this constitute a moment of temptation? Is what is really at stake whether I can tame raw, panicked ambition and egoistic existentialism for a more anonymous path? Am I even thinking in the right categories? Can I disentangle this from the more genuine desire to be challenged in an intellectual environment populated by people who know more about me about topics I care about?
The second dynamic was brought to my attention by Ben Schewel: whether I can also detach. He believes that for God what may really matter is neither the journey nor the destination, but the willingness to pursue the light beckoning to us in the fog, wherever it may lead us. I’m reminded, on the one hand, of Abraham and his son upon the sacrificial mount, and on the other hand, of all those experiences in my own life the importance of which proved to have nothing to do with my expectations — trying to join the FBI in 2006 led me to rebuilding my broken and aimless life, deconstructiong the Qur’an for my first Master’s thesis in 2008 led me to the Baha’i Faith, my job with neweurasia led me to a region where I can do what so few intellectuals and journalists can really say they do — making a difference — and studying Averroes in Leuven led me to a profound encounter with the sublime within my own bloodline. Thus, what’s really at stake in the question of Belgium versus Central Asia isn’t Belgium or Central Asia at all.
But I don’t know how to proceed. I stand upon a crossroad that has arisen unexpectedly on the steppe of my life. To my left is Belgium and all the desperate attempts to hold onto her; to my right is Central Asia and all its unknown terrains; and the soil beneath my feet is beginning to crack as legal and financial drought approaches. The darkness of America looms behind me, gloating, You forsook me; now I’ll forsake you. I want you to fail, while the horse of reason, awaiting her rider, gazes at me, her eyes saying, Perhaps the roads’ divergence is only an illusion, for there is only one horizon to which all roads lead. The sun is rising. Must I choose one path, or can I walk forward and make my own?
The book is in my hands. Is it only a sign of my dilemma, or is it something more: a divine confirmation that somehow, in some way, I can — and should — find this middle path? I don’t know.