© Anushka Bose. All rights reserved.*

Life in Liminality — A Familiar State of Being for Expats
Near 6th Street, Dhahran Main Camp.

A state of being that is all too familiar to expats around the world is living amidst transitions. Life goes on while there are unpacked boxes in your living room, and the chair you were assembling is sitting half-done in front of you while you stare at it, drinking coffee in the morning, planning when you will get around to finishing it.

This space, between the past and the present, a then and a now; a before and after—is often riddled with many emotions, and many call this in-between space liminal space. Liminality is a concept that sprouted from anthropology, reflecting the ambiguity and disorientation we counter during a rite of passage. Author Richard Rohr describes this space as “where we are between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.” In short, liminality is a state of transition, literal or abstract.

Life in Liminality — A Familiar State of Being for Expats
Bakery at Dhahran Commissary.

During the pandemic, the entire world was stuck in liminal limbo as vaccine programs rolled out and we had to stand with one foot in and one foot out. We were faced with the ultimate litmus test; can we remain resilient while the noise of the world gets louder?

For expats, in general, living in a state of liminality is quite familiar — although unsettling. Before the life in front of us gets realized and fully known to us, we are physically and mentally unpacking box by box, piece by piece. The Lego-like assembly of furniture isn’t just a physical reality, we have to mentally assemble a new state of being in a different environment. A state of being that has to support and be aligned with the person we are becoming. And that takes time. It’s a process that is riddled with both anxiety and a zest for adventure. In combination, these feelings begin to define the liminal space. While we let go of the old, we make space for the new. 

Life in Liminality — A Familiar State of Being for Expats
Candy bar assortment box right before the cashier checkout, at Dhahran Commissary.

During moments of liminality, poetry can become a safe harbor to grapple with the unspoken feelings and uncertainties we experience. One of my favorite poets is Jalaluddin Rumi—commonly known as Rumi—the mystic poet from ancient Persia.  I would like to share one of his poems that I adore, which speaks to the concept of liminality: “The Guest House.”

“The Guest House,” can help us understand the sharp and soft edges of the liminal space. I’ve read this poem countless times, and I find it to be an elixir for moments in which we need some perspective and clarity. 

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jalaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi

Rumi’s metaphor embodies humans as a “guest house,” in which unexpected visitors show up now and then. Every morning, a different emotion pays you a visit. Some days, the guests might be your friends, joy, hope, and laughter, who spend a delightful day with you and leave you feeling replenished. Other days, the guest might not be a guest at all—anxiety and fear might barge in and rob items from your house, such as your sense of security and happiness.

Life in Liminality — A Familiar State of Being for Expats
Starbucks at Kings Street, Dhahran Main Camp.

And other days, you might be greeted by an acquaintance you can tolerate, but don’t have a particular affinity towards —sadness, loneliness, self-criticism, rejection.

Rumi notes that we should, “entertain them all.” I suspect he wants us to experience the totality of each emotion so that we can clear the space for a new energy to replace it, the “new delight,” as he calls it. Far too often we try to run away from uncomfortable feelings or distract ourselves to numb it out. Sadly, what we ignore intensifies. The pain doesn’t subside, we just run into its flames in due time.

Life in Liminality — A Familiar State of Being for Expats
Random alleyway near 6th street, Dhahran Main Camp.

Emotions as Signposts

“Be grateful for whoever comes, /because each has been sent/ as a guide from beyond,” the poem notes. I truly believe the emotions we experience are signposts of something bigger, that teach us about our core being. Jealousy might indicate we lack something that we want, so we can try to work for it. Happiness and joy signal we want more of a particular thing or feeling. Grief tells us that we lost something we cherished, and we need to be kind to ourselves. Frustration tells us something is unresolved, so we can take steps to move toward resolution. Feeling unappreciated is a sign that we need to draw boundaries.

Life in Liminality — A Familiar State of Being for Expats
New Women's Gym in Dhahran Main Camp.

Everything we feel comes as a messenger; it speaks to us if we listen closely enough.

“The Guest House” advocates for experiencing the entirety of human emotion. Both the shadow and the light are here to deliver a message. This is particularly important when we are navigating liminal space. A move, a retirement, re-expatriation, these are all processes that push us to deal with the liminal space that invites a plethora of emotions into the guest house. When the going gets tough, it could help to remember that our feelings are fleeting. It doesn’t last. Soon, with time, with each physical and mental Lego assembly, liminality decreases and we become more embedded into our new reality. And before you know it, the new reality becomes the new home, and you become a new you. Only for this process to once again repeat (or not). 

Life in Liminality — A Familiar State of Being for Expats
Looking back on 6th Street, Dhahran Main Camp.

Turning the Lens:

What do you think of the concept of liminality? Do you think it describes your expatriate experience in times of transition? And do you find solace in poetry? If so, what is one poem that has been your companion throughout the years? I would love to hear from you! Please write a comment, or feel free to email me at bosea9000@gmail.com.

Arabian Nights and Mornings: The Emblems of an Expatriate Upbringing in Saudi Arabia

Anushka is a current PhD Student at American University in Washington, D.C. She spent her youth growing up in Dhahran, where she attended Dhahran Elementary, Dhahran Middle School, and Dhahran Academy High School. She loves learning about new cultures and is fascinated by the diversity that brings us all together, especially the expatriate community, where the only thing that is common is that we are all different, in culture, language, and the perspectives we hold. One day she hopes to publish a book on the Third Culture Kid experience. Dhahran continues to hold a big place in her heart.


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