It was a Friday evening when I joined my good friend and her cousin on a visit to the Tate Modern. They were on a short visit to London and they repeatedly asked about my life here. I was at a loss for words. As a graduate student I spend most of my waking hours in the library. I can barely recall what happens elsewhere. So I couldn't properly answer their questions. I wasn't sure how I am doing in London. I think I am doing well, but there is a "but" in there somewhere.
After we'd gone through almost the entire museum collection, we sat down for dinner at the restaurant on the top floor. "What did you think?" asked my friend's cousin. After we talked about a few pieces we'd liked or disliked, she asked, "But how do you decide if you like something or not?" She went on to explain that in her case, the collection managed to re-instil her conviction of God's mercy. She believes all humans have varying degrees of insanity and different coping mechanisms. All the art we saw was "an idea", she said, something that went on in people's heads, and was re-created in the shapes and media we had seen. Some of the art was disturbing, some of it was complex, but most of it spoke to us, separately.
Three portraits by the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra caught my attention. Each was of a naked woman holding her naked baby. According to the museum description, Dijkstra "photographed three women, one hour (Julie), one day (Tecla) and one week (Saskia) after giving birth. The raw immediacy of these images captures something of the contradictions inherent in this common and yet most singular of human experiences. The women appear at once vulnerable and invincible, traumatised and self-composed".
That struck me as an accurate description of the emotions and thoughts these pictures stimulated in me. Am I meant to be one of those women? Ever? Will I undergo the same experience? Will I carry the same expressions? Most importantly, will I stir the same feelings in others as they did in me? They were beautiful women, exposed, worn down but happy, the babies in their arms worth it all.
I called my guardian and told her about the portraits. She told me that had she been with us, she would rather not have seen them. Long before she became a mother, she casually watched childbirth on TV. Now that she's given birth twice, she'd rather not have such a complex experience reduced to fleeting imagery.
I enjoyed our dinner. The talk was pleasant, something I realised I don't often experience here. I also realised I could answer the question my friend's cousin asked: "But how do you decide you like something or not?", not in the context of art, but rather in the context of my life here, the life they were eager to know about. I like it when I feel at ease with the people I'm with. I like it when I'm happy to see them and I know the sentiment is returned. I like the familiarity, the fact that I don't have to introduce myself. I like knowing I could approach this person with a hug and another with a kiss on the cheek. I like how such friendships are easy-going and unguarded.
My friends are the baffling "but" I couldn't tap into. I miss them. I miss their presence. I miss the conversations, the silliness, the adventures. And I miss the memorable experiences they bring with them.
I'd like to think I wouldn't be standing alone in my portrait, that they'd be standing next to me.
Salma Khalifa is an Emirati graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.