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  • Paniz Edjlali

Making Liminality My Home

I am writing this blog from my small studio in Paris during the second lockdown due to COVID, and only a few days after the murder of Samuel Paty by a young Islamist.

I am rewriting this blog from my small studio in Paris during the second lockdown due to COVID, and only a few days after the anniversary of Bloody November, the massacre of civil protestors on the streets of Tehran.

I am re-rewriting this blog from my small studio in Paris during the second lockdown due to COVID, and only a few days after the U.S. elections.

By the time you reach this line, I hope you already know that I belong to three countries, political milieu, cultures, systems of thought and sensibilities, hence, I fit in none of them. I have lived most of my life feeling an outsider and an observer with a burning desire to truthfully connect with others and live in the present moment. To that end, theater has become my playground and anthropology and cultural studies my oasis, both allowing me to get as close as possible to experiencing varied emotions, worldviews, and ways of being and living in the world without jeopardizing the observer positionality within which I feel safe.

Since my initial participation in Group Relation International conference in 2018, I became fascinated with Group Relation work, as it was a middle ground between theater and anthropology for me. GR work provided a safe space (rather than in a real social context) in which I could explore different aspects of myself (rather than a character), enabling me to identify how humans, as constant variables, respond to different stimuli and systems. Realizing how different I feel and behave in different groups, and how easily dynamics can shift within a group, took an immense weight off my shoulders—instead of thinking about the notion of belonging as something that either exists or does not, I began to see it as more of a fluid concept, depending on many parameters.

Engaging with GR work has helped me so much in situating myself within the real world. I have always felt removed and uneasy in groups, while deeply desiring to be part of one. As long as I can remember, my family was on the move from continent to continent. When you are always moving, you are just trying to cope with all the change, fit in, and adapt yourself to the new rules of being. Social acceptance means survival and it is hard to think of your own wants and needs and feelings in a group setting. It is easier to be a shapeshifter and become the person others want and expect you to be to avoid tension, discrimination, or worst of all abjection; especially when you are perceived as different—when you do not look like others, speak like others, share the same cultural and religious sensibilities, or the same historical memory. You are technically part of the group, but you feel, and perhaps are, left out by other members. In my GR group, time and time again, I got to sit with these uncomfortable feelings, really absorbing them, and becoming aware of my positionality and what it meant for me and for others. It is a remarkable opportunity in which each member becomes aware of their own conditioning, worldview, learned biases and beliefs, and that of the others.

Through my GR experience, I have learned that all that people can offer us are projections. Yet, these projections are important as they have the power to structure the world around us a certain way and inevitably shape our sense of self. The work I have done with GRI has made me mindful of how I engage with the projections I receive from the external world, enabling me to better detect and negotiate the boundaries of who I believe I am, and to locate and claim my truths with confidence. I used to think that I am always in the wrong, because I probably do not understand how things ought to be in a certain setting, and I always feared voicing my thoughts. However, my participation in GR has shown me that no matter how I feel about “belonging,” I do exist within a group, I take on a particular role depending on the will of the group, and my feelings are a reflection of a certain sentiment or a dynamic of the group, rather than my essence or individual burden to dwell on alone. For example, as a person who is simultaneously thinking about Samuel Paty, Bloody November, and a potential civil war in the U.S. I might have a certain viewpoint on certain social matters that might seem foreign to each group—my fellow Americans, French, and Iranians. This could, at times, challenge the ethos of the group and group members would react by either ignoring, rejecting, opposing, or condemning my truth. In response, I would usually shrink down in fear, translating their reaction to mean that I do not deserve that sense of belonging. Now, I see their reaction as an opportunity for an engaging discussion. This has tremendously changed my self-representations in groups, and has improved my work as a researcher of liminal and minority identities.

I truly believe that alongside our individual growth, we need to work collectively in creating nurturing and inclusive social systems for all members. We need to attend to the unmet need of others if we want to live in peace. This attitude is particularly important as our societies are becoming increasingly heterogeneous. Thus, the more I can make sense of my own experiences and emotions in the safe and unfiltered space of GRI, the more I can understand and help others with a similar disposition within the multicultural systems and societies that are now ours and continue to expand.

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