ILLUSTRATION BY ANA JUAN
ILLUSTRATION BY ANA JUAN

In the 21st century, we are all migrants

Humans are in motion across time as well as geography. Why must we be divided, the migrant versus the native?

This story appears in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

All of us are descended from migrants. Our species, Homo sapiens, did not evolve in Lahore, where I am writing these words. Nor did we evolve in Shanghai or Topeka or Buenos Aires or Cairo or Oslo, where you, perhaps, are reading them.

Even if you live today in the Rift Valley, in Africa, mother continent to us all, on the site of the earliest discovered remains of our species, your ancestors too moved—they left, changed, and intermingled before returning to the place you live now, just as I left Lahore, lived for decades in North America and Europe, and returned to reside in the house where my grandparents and parents once did, the house where I spent much of my childhood, seemingly indigenous but utterly altered and remade by my travels.

None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment, now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory.

Things they carried

Recent migration waves have inspired many art and photography projects. Tom Kiefer made images of water jugs (shown here) and other items that migrants left behind at the U.S.-Mexico border. To reflect migrants’ “hope for a better life,” Kiefer calls the photo project “El Sueño Americano”—The American Dream.

To be human is to migrate forward through time, the seconds like islands, where we arrive, castaways, and from which we are swept off by the tide, arriving again and again, in a new instant, on a new island, one we have, as always, never experienced before. Over the course of a life these migrations through the seconds accrue, transform into hours, months, decades. We become refugees from our childhoods, the schools, the friends, the toys, the parents that made up our worlds all gone, replaced by new buildings, by phone calls, photo albums, and reminiscences. We step onto our streets looking up at the towering figures of adults, we step out again a little later and attract the gazes of others with our youth, and later still with our own children or those of our friends—and then once more, seemingly invisible, no longer of much interest, bowed by gravity.

We all experience the constant drama of the new and the constant sorrow of the loss of what we’ve left behind. It is a universal sorrow and one so potent that we seek to deny it, rarely acknowledging it in ourselves, let alone in others. We’re encouraged by society to focus only on the new, on acquisition, rather than on the loss that is the other thread uniting and binding our species.

Pull Quote
We move when it is intolerable to stay where we are. We move because of environmental stresses and physical dangers and the small-mindedness of our neighbors—and to be who we wish to be, to seek what we wish to seek.

We move through time, through the temporal world, because we are compelled to. We move through space, through the physical world, seemingly because we choose to, but in those choices there are compulsions as well. We move when it is intolerable to stay where we are: when we cannot linger a moment longer, alone in our stifling bedroom, and must go outside and play; when we cannot linger a moment longer, hungry on our parched farm, and must go elsewhere for food. We move because of environmental stresses and physical dangers and the small-mindedness of our neighbors—and to be who we wish to be, to seek what we wish to seek.

Ours is a migratory species. Humans have always moved. Our ancestors did, and not linearly, like an army advancing out of Africa in a series of bold thrusts, but circuitously, sometimes in one direction, then in another, borne along by currents both without and within. Our contemporaries are moving—above all from the countryside to the cities of Asia and Africa. And our descendants will move too. They will move as the climate changes, as sea levels rise, as wars are fought, as one mode of economic activity dies out and gives way to another.

The power of our technology, its impact on our planet, is growing. Consequently the pace of change is accelerating, giving rise to new stresses, and our nimble species will use movement as part of its response to these stresses, as our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers did, as we are designed to do.

And yet we are told that such movement is unprecedented, that it represents a crisis, a flood, a disaster. We are told that there are two kinds of humans, natives and migrants, and that these must struggle for supremacy.

Pull Quote
We are told not only that movement through geographies can be stopped but that movement through time can be too, that we can return to the past, to a better past.

We are told not only that movement through geographies can be stopped but that movement through time can be too, that we can return to the past, to a better past, when our country, our race, our religion was truly great. All we must accept is division. The division of humanity into natives and migrants. A vision of a world of walls and barriers, and of the guards and weapons and surveillance required to enforce those barriers. A world where privacy dies, and dignity and equality alongside it, and where humans must pretend to be static, unmoving, moored to the land on which they currently stand and to a time like the time of their childhood—or of their ancestors’ childhoods—an imaginary time, in which standing still is only an imaginary possibility.

Such are the dreams of a species defeated by nostalgia, at war with itself, with its migratory nature and the nature of its relationship to time, screaming in denial of the constant movement that is human life.

Perhaps thinking of us all as migrants offers us a way out of this looming dystopia. If we are all migrants, then possibly there is a kinship between the suffering of the woman who has never lived in another town and yet has come to feel foreign on her own street and the suffering of the man who has left his town and will never see it again. Maybe transience is our mutual enemy, not in the sense that the passage of time can be defeated but rather in the sense that we all suffer from the losses time inflicts.

A greater degree of compassion for ourselves might then become possible, and out of it, a greater degree of compassion for others. We might muster more courage as we swim through time, rather than giving in to fear. We might collectively be able to be brave enough to recognize that our individual endings are not the ending of everything and that beauty and hope remain possible even once we are gone.

Accepting our reality as a migratory species will not be easy. New art, new stories, and new ways of being will be needed. But the potential is great. A better world is possible, a more just and inclusive world, better for us and for our grandchildren, with better food and better music and less violence too.

The city nearest you was, two centuries ago, almost unimaginably different from that city today. Two centuries in the future it is likely to be at least as different again. Few citizens of almost any city now would prefer to live in their city of two centuries ago. We should have the confidence to imagine that the same will be true of the citizens of the world’s cities two centuries hence.

A species of migrants at last comfortable being a species of migrants. That, for me, is a destination worth wandering to. It is the central challenge and opportunity every migrant offers us: to see in him, in her, the reality of ourselves.

Mohsin Hamid is the author of four novels —Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Exit West—and a book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations. His writing has been translated into 40 languages, featured on best-seller lists, and adapted for the screen.