The sun bore down mercilessly, as I made my way to find this tree in the intense Middle East heat. It was hard to miss it. Standing alone; tall and proud with its roots on a hill in the middle of the Arabian Desert, surrounded only by sand was one of Bahrain’s top tourist attractions. The locals called it “Shajarat-al-Hayat” in Arabic, which meant “The Tree of Life.”
As you gaze up at this 32 feet tall Mesquite tree with green leaves, you can’t help but wonder how it had made a seemingly impossible living out of dry sand for approximately 400 years. Local legend claims “The Tree of Life” was planted in 1583. Since there is no apparent source of water or vegetation around, the mystery of its survival has made the tree a legend. Scientists speculate that the nearest possible source of water is an underground stream about two miles away. Other reports point to the fact that its widespread roots have reached a bed of underground water, ensuring its survival in this harsh climate.
It seems that if The Tree of Life would have only focused on its location, there was no way it could have survived. The only reason for its longevity is because it uses its widespread roots to search for ways to sustain itself, which gives this tree such a unique edge in the desert.
The thought made me smile.
What if those of us living a globally mobile life, could learn to do the same?
ROOTS & A SEARCH FOR BELONGING:
One of the most talked about and written about dilemmas for globally mobile families is the question of roots. How do we put down our roots in a new country or a new city? Does constantly being in a moving cycle from one country to another diminish our ability to establish deep roots and meaningful connections? And what is better to have: deep, location-focused roots or widespread but shallow roots because we are eventually forced to say goodbye?
This is the dual challenge often faced by families in global transitions whether they are military, expat, missionary or diplomatic families. Constantly changing postal codes, saying goodbye to one community before moving on to the next assignment can wreak havoc on our sense of belonging.
But what exactly does it mean though to “put down roots”? According to the Free Dictionary.com:
put down roots:
- If you put down roots, you make a place your home, for example by making friends and taking part in activities there.
- If something puts down roots somewhere it becomes firmly established there so that it is likely to last and to be successful in the future.
So, in essence, choosing to put down roots means building relationships and being part of a community. By this definition, globally mobile families are not without roots. They are simply rooted in something bigger than a place – often times their identity is connected more to relationships rather than a physical location. Making friends, contributing to local communities and engaging in their new home town are skills that globally mobile people learn to do rather quickly.
Then why this need for permanence? It’s the second part of the definition, that many global nomads (myself included) struggle with. To become “firmly established” with deep roots in one place does not happen for families on the move. Instead, we learn to re-apply our formula for “settling down” in many different cities.
A MIDDLE EASTERN PERSPECTIVE: HOW THE BEDOUINS STAYED ROOTED YET NOMADIC
Living in the Middle East for the past three years has helped to change the way I look at the challenge of “being rooted” and whether I “put down roots” while being globally mobile. My wanderings through the Arabian Desert and conversations with the Bedouins tribes in Jordan have brought forth some interesting revelations. After all, the Bedouin tribes of Arabia have always been rooted in the desert, but they still stay true to their nomadic culture. They wander far and wide in search of food and shelter for their animals and themselves. How did they develop such strong roots to the desert, while still remaining nomadic?
It’s a question I had asked one of the Bedouins who took us around Wadi Rum, Jordan’s biggest desert. The stewardship of this desert lies with the local Arab Bedouin. Jordan is home to approximately 380,000 Bedouins who settle in or near Wadi Rum.
He smiled, before explaining:
“Roots are important. But being nomadic is in our blood. Allah gave us legs, so we could wander! It’s better to spread your roots far and wide, and not limit yourself. Some of the strongest trees in the world have roots that go far and wide.”
Roots versus reach.
Why had I never thought of it this way?
Our roots help us widen our reach. In the end, our reach is what determines how successful or impactful we are. Putting down roots is not the end, but just a means to an end.
There was so much that a Bedouin could teach us global nomads. Once we start focusing on how far and widespread our roots can help us reach, we can shift our perspective. Being rooted does not mean you are stationary. It does not mean buying a house in one country and then planning an entire life there.
So, if we don’t put down roots the traditional way, how can we ensure our survival and feeling of belonging in the world?
TIPS ON HOW TO PUT DOWN ROOTS FOR GLOBALLY MOBILE FAMILIES:
- Don’t search for permanence. Keep your focus on maintaining ties through people, projects, languages, books and foods. These are sometimes the tangible things that keep us rooted to a certain place, long after we have left it.
- Focus on your reach, not your roots. As the Bedouins would say, focus on not how deep your roots are but how wide they stretch. Do your roots stretch over different states, many cities and internationally through many different countries? Have your roots helped you to connect with different people in the world? Do your roots mean you are interested in what is happening in corners of the world far removed from where you are watching? Focus on how wide your roots are spread, rather than how deep they go.
- Maintain roots through experiences and memories. For many global nomads, geography does not determine their roots. Instead, memories and experiences are what root us. For instance, I know I will always feel rooted to the countries in which I gave birth to my children in. Regardless of how long I lived in them, they have seeped into my family’s story and we will always feel “at home” in them.
- Find similar people. Finding people who share your uprooted sense of identity can be comforting and give you a sense of belonging in terms of a joint struggle of ‘not belonging’. Finding our tribe matters, because it can be another way of keeping us rooted to a fast-paced globally mobile life, where everything seems transient.
- Get involved in your local community. Find a way to give back to the local communities you have been a part of. This could be in the form of taking an interest in local projects or volunteering your time and effort for a local cause. This will ensure you are making meaningful connections and contributions that can live on, long after you have moved somewhere else.
Carry your roots with you, wherever you go and decide where they will grow. You might just find that your roots may not be in a particular landscape or in one country. They might just reside inside of you.
As Alice Merton sings, in her song “No Roots”:
“I like standing still, boy that’s just a wishful plan
Ask me where I come from, I’ll say a different land
But I’ve got memories and travel like gypsies in the night
I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground.”
How have you “put down roots” while being a domestic or internationally mobile family? Share your tips and thoughts in the comments below!
Author: Mariam Ottimofiore
Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore is a Pakistani expat who grew up in Bahrain, the United States and Pakistan. When she was 19 years old, she left her home in Pakistan to go on an adventure. She has spent the past 16 years, as an expat living in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Passionate about different cultures and languages, she currently lives in Dubai, where she is raising her two multicultural and multilingual children in her East meets West marriage. Her writing has been published in Global Living Magazine, Expat Living Singapore, The Huffington Post and Expat Connect Dubai and her international life has been the subject of a video documentary on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) for their Super Soul Sunday series. She writes about her expat life, cross cultural experiences and world travels on her blog ‘And Then We Moved To’ (www.andthenwemovedto.com) and you can connect with her on Facebook and Instagram @andthenwemovedto.