Silent Witnesses of Hardship : Things Obtained in Displacement

This comb and the scissors have been with Wassim for six years. He is a hair-stylist who works at a hair salon in Goettingen. He does not use these items anymore, but he still has them and carries them with him!

Objects cementing past, present, future

Wassim started working in barber shops since he was an eleven-year-old boy in Lebanon. He learned to cut and style hair and gradually became a professional hair-stylist. He worked later in some other countries such as the United Arab Emirates as well as a country in South-West Africa and he was for a while in France from where he migrated to Germany six years ago.

I met Wassim in his workplace, the hair salon Laufsteg in Goettingen. When I asked him what he brought with him as a migrant to Germany, he brightened up: “That is an interesting question”. He continued: “I would have brought many things, if I had not lost them”. In the process of his migration journey, he lost his luggage - the only suitcase in which he had packed all his work tools which he wanted to bring to Germany. “I had bought them from Africa, they were all brand-new expensive hair-styling machines. I loved them a lot… I made a mistake. I had too much stress that time, so I forgot that I would not get my luggage if I discontinue a transit flight in one of its stops”, he explained.

I asked how it felt to lose those tools. “I was upset for a while, but little by little I forgot…”, he answered. “…because in this life nothing will stay…”, he added.

“Would you like to see something?”, he asked me while cutting hair. He took out a tooth-missing comb and a pair of old scissors from the small barber-bag he had around his waist and said: “I started my job in Germany with these. They are with me now for six years. I decide every time to leave them at home, but I forget.”

It sounded like Wassim did not even think of throwing away these old, inoperable items. I digged deeper, why he keeps them with him if he does not use them anymore. He answered: “I started with these in Germany, from nothing. Every time I look at them, they give me strength… they make me strong again… I started with them… You remember that you started from nothing. You were nothing. Then things will be easier. It was difficult to have them here [at the beginning in Germany]. I had no money, I knew no one here. Someone gave it to me… I want to put them in a box and keep them until I show them to my children in the future”.

It could be interpreted these objects remind Wassim of all his efforts and strains of the past six years of his migratory life in Germany that he has gone through. All the vicissitudes of making a life in displacement are reflected in them. Looking at these comb and scissors, Wassim finds courage to persevere the challenges of everyday life in present. He keeps these objects so that in the future he can show them to his children as witnesses of hardship. They silently testify that hard days will be over and good days will come through persistence and endeavor.

These simple ordinary objects provide a tangible link to the past; they evoke the hardship and hard work in a past life that precede the success of making a good life in present. Different emotions such as pride in oneself, self-esteem and dignity are attached to them. They became ‘emotional objects’ of significance and agency [1] which help to enhance the person’s spiritual welfare beyond their utilitarian functions [2]. As such, the comb and scissors turn into objects that convey inspiration and hope.

People attach value to things for their instrumental function or their monetary cost but also because of the emotions and sentiments that are attached to them [3]. According to Guy Fletcher, something is sentimentally valuable if the thing is valuable for its relational properties. It could have belonged to or given by someone special, or perhaps has been used by a person who is connected to us within a relationship of family, friendship, romantic love, etc. Or, as in the case of the comb and scissors, the things have been used or acquired during a significant experience [4].

Maliheh Bayat Tork

1. Downes, Stephanie, Sally Holloway & Sarah Randles. 2018. Introduction. In: Downes, Stephanie, Sally Holloway & Sarah Randles (eds.),  Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions through History. Oxford University Press, 1-7, here p. 5.

2. Scarpaci, Joseph L. 2016. Introductory Essay. Material Culture and the  Meaning of Objects. In: Material Culture, Vol. 48, 1 (2016), 1-9, here p. 1. [last visited 12 Dec2019]

3. Hatzimoysis, Anthony 2003. Sentimental Value. In: The Philosophical Quarterly, 53, 112: 373-379

4. Fletcher, Guy. 2009. Sentimental Value. In: The Journal of Value Inquiry 43,1:55-65, here p. 56