Learning how to yearn

share this article

The Welsh have a word that encapsulates a profound melancholy that spurs creativity, a longing for a possibly non-existent place — Hiraeth.

The annual George Town Literary Festival, funded by the Penang State government, celebrates the literary world of poetry, prose and spoken word, hosting various writers, novelists, spoken-word artists and more from diverse writing disciplines. | Tishani Doshi

'Hiraeth' is not a word you expect to hear in Malaysia. 'Bumiputra', yes. "Salaam Datang", sure. "Point me to the nearest satay stand", obviously. But this little Welsh gem, which means homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past — is becoming quite the Celtic export along with Corgi hosiery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

It’s a word you feel before knowing what it means. My mother, who is Welsh, and who grew up speaking Welsh, never shared her language with us. But throughout my childhood and the summers we spent in Wales, I understood that she must have missed her home when she came to India in 1968 to marry my father. The neat one-street village in North Wales where she grew up, her family, the fields of bluebells, netball, coal sheds, sheep, the playground at the end of the street — it was all so different from her life in Madras. And it was only later, when I made my own journeys away from home, and began retelling one of the stories from the medieval Welsh tales of the Mabinogion that I could guess at the quality of her yearning as a kind of hiraeth. Here, in Penang, for the George Town Literary Festival, where the theme was hiraeth, I saw the word everywhere, and something of my part-Welsh heart warmed to the shape of the letters even though I still wasn't sure I could pronounce it right.


Hiraeth isn’t just homesickness, it’s a kind of longing and incompleteness, a sense of neither here nor there, and you can feel it for place, person, language. One of the writers at the festival, Robert Dessaix, an Australian who specialises in Russian literature, said, “Language is the most erotic thing to me, more erotic than the body.” And I thought of the lost possibility of Welsh on my tongue and felt like a castigated lover. The Malaysian poet laureate, A. Samad Said, proved you can feel hiraeth even when you’re in your own country, speaking your own language. “Maybe some of you don’t know,” he said, “but my country is trembling.”

Aged 81, Malaysian poet laureate Abdul Samad bin Mohamed Said will have experienced a lot of 'hiraeth'. | Tishani Doshi

The previous day the Malaysian political cartoonist, Zunar, had been roughed up by a gang of thugs at his exhibition. He was later arrested for sedition because he dares to make cartoons about corruption, conspiracies, election fraud and the Prime Minister’s bossy wife. (Zunar was eventually released, but he must face trial for nine counts of sedition in January 2017. He could spend up to 43 years in prison if found guilty. His detention provided a timely platform for the festival to talk about free speech and levels of repression in Malaysia).

Hiraeth is protest, hiraeth is disconnect — something liberals the world over will understand in these politically divided times. Martin Amis recently described this disconnect to me as the “Barry Manilow Law,” which he in turn pinched from Clive James. The gist of it is: Everyone you know thinks Barry Manilow is rubbish, but everyone you don’t know think he’s great. Hiraeth for liberals could be waking up to a world where everyone around them is loudly singing 'Copacabana' when what they’re longing to hear is 'Hallelujah'.

On the first night of the festival I met a woman with an Anna Akhmatova fringe. We went to get a plate of food at the welcome party, but seeing the buffet line snake around a corner, she firmly directed me back to the table. “I’m an only child,” she said. “We never queue for anything.” This woman, Olga Martynova, lives in two languages. She writes prose in German and poetry in Russian. “And you?” she demanded. “Are you an only child?” I had to admit I held the most abject position when it came to birth order — the middle child. I had to explain that we are those types who stand in queues whether or not we are paid to because it is in our nature to grovel.

Source: Wikipedia

Much like Sisyphuswho was doomed to repeatedly rolling a boulder up a mountain for eternity, human beings are programmed to constantly feel a sense of yearning, for realising one's potential, to achieve a feat, to create, to become self-actualised.

This is a form of hiraeth.

The next morning I was put on a train from childhood to the city where I live by the poet Nathalie Handal, who is so multicultural it’s better not to ask where she is from, but where she isn't from. She asked us to describe the stranger sitting beside us on our imaginary train — an exercise in otherness. And this too is hiraeth. A woman in our workshop called Melizarani T. Selva (a fine performer of poetry, I later discovered) described herself as the central pillar in a house, which everyone was constantly trying to renovate. Archaeological rootedness as a revolt against other peoples’ imagination of what you should be. Also, hiraeth.

The British philosopher AC Grayling, him of the fabulous hair, gave the keynote address and explained how hiraeth isn’t just geography or people or actual houses, it’s also purpose, it’s the act of seeking, how this is vital to us because we should always be in a state of yearning, journeying. Dissatisfaction is important, he said, because it makes us creative. He reminded us of Sisyphus, destined to keep rolling that rock up the mountain, about how suicide is the greatest philosophical question of all, and how literature helps us make sense of the narrative of our own lives. He also said something about Stendhal and love baubles but I wasn't quick enough to write that down.

Once you get the hang of hiraeth it rolls off your tongue as smoothly as an Ais Kacang. I walked the streets of Little India, past nightie stands and houses of costume jewels, past the MGR café and an office promising speedy OCI applications, all with the soundtrack of Tamil film music blaring from radios. This strange familiarity of home but still far. And when you’re sitting with new friends in a bar at two in the morning, when all the stools have been turned over, but there’s a piano and one of you is playing the Beatles and the rest of you are humming along, talking about the pitfalls and glories of love, you begin to long for this moment even as you’re living it. Yes, yes, hiraeth.

Ghayath Almadhoun is a Swedish/Palestinian poet, playwright, journalist and literary critic. | Tishani Doshi



And then, there is the most difficult hiraeth of all, the hiraeth of exile, of guilt. I listened to the poems of Ghayath Almadhoun, son of a Palestinian father and Syrian mother, born in a refugee camp in Damascus, who now lives as a political refugee in Stockholm. “I sold my white days on the black market / and bought a house overlooking the war / and the view was so wonderful / that I could not resist its temptation,” he writes in the poem 'The Celebration'.


He talks about the “memory thief” and how “the massacre has room for everyone”, of his killed brother and the thousands of others killed besides, and when he says “This city is bigger than a poet’s heart and smaller than his poem”, that also is hiraeth of survival.

On the last morning of the festival, Ghayath and I were eating breakfast when the head waiter came up to us and said, “Excuse me, sir, but I have been looking at you for days and I must ask, are you Nicholas Cage?” Ghayath laughed loudly, “Funny you should say…” he said, and explained how when he was a baby everyone thought he looked like Jesus Christ. He brought his fingers up to his cheeks and chest and described how narrow they used to be, how sunken in. “But my mother, she say, my son does not look like Jesus Christ, he looks like Nicholas Cage. And I think a mother knows her child best.” Hiraeth? Of course, or at the very least, a Stendhalian love bauble.

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor