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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Emily Stumpf

The Liminal In-Between

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

This time of year - between the years - makes me think of all that Sayyida Salme lived between.

I am writing this first blog post zwischen den Jahren – between the years, my favorite time of year. So aptly named, this is the time after the one year stops before the next one starts; the momentary pause that lets you catch your breath; the brief intermission before the performance resumes.  With one foot in the old, one in the new, or simply lifted into abeyance and not even caught in time, we pull back from our routines and feel the leeway. Freed from the quotidian grind, it is an almost sacred expectation that we not go to work or attend school, that we not follow our emails or even obey the rules. It is a light twinkling in the twilight, between this year and the next.

Sayyida Salme is known for being in between – between two worlds, between countries, cultures, families, and faiths. Transitioning from East to West, she traversed much more than geography. Her choices, in a way she could not have imagined, put her into a whole-body, out-of-body experience, one that transported both body and soul. It was a trip that rerouted everything she knew of herself in a complete redefining of self. Along the way, she came to see things with hindsight and insight, living her past in a fraught present facing a daunting future. Over time, she found herself in the either/or and the neither/nor – a fractured state that left her straddling, rather than settling.

It took me years to find my way out of my inner astonishment at everything around me and all that I saw and heard. ... By contrast, the imposing reality hits the newcomer with such heft that he cannot, for lack of any understanding, help but seek refuge only in himself. ... (Letters, p 2-3)

Hers was not the kind of liminal space that we call zwischen den Jahren. It was an in-between state that took instead of gave. Constrained by the unyielding requirements and expectations of her particular time and place, including the ones that came with her royal station, this going “between” forced friction and tension, not leeway. Caught up in the monarchy, patriarchy, bureaucracy, and theocracy, she kept bumping up against society’s restrictions and impositions. Thus hemmed in and pushed out, she then also withdrew herself further. This in-between was a cramped space, an unfit space, where she made due as best she could.

Not until she had had it with Zanzibar and Germany, both of them constraining who she really was and what she wanted to be, not until she took her overflowing exasperation and disappointment to a more liminal space, could she be more of herself, her whole self. It is telling that she chose a “half-cultured” setting, a combination she had criticized, as her refuge. It was in turn-of-the-century Beirut that she could be her own “and” combination – melding Orient and Occident, Islam and Christianity, Oman/Zanzibar and Germany/Europe – where she did not have to choose between parts of herself, but could instead layer who she was into a more holistic whole. I take the fact that she spent a quarter century there, almost a third of her life, as an indication of her comfort in this inclusive in-between, before returning to Germany to be with family in her waning years.

Today we are mostly fortunate to live in less restrictive times. Those of us with the free choices and lifestyles of liberal societies can hardly fathom the constraints faced by Sayyida Salme. Instead, we have open vistas and opportunities galore, so much so that this cross-sectional way of being is a practical exigency in our shrinking, flattening world. We each embody many things, we can navigate our mixed and messy ways, and we are even encouraged to seek our own destinies. Even so, we also yearn for some respite from the world, a chance to touch base with ourselves.

As Sayyida Salme knew all too well, whether by force or choice, it is in the interstices – one of my favorite words – that we can be most true to ourselves. 

(c) Andrea Emily Stumpf, December 27, 2023


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