Thursday, June 08, 2006

Obsessing Over Origin

In Arabville (as my friend's American grandparents call the Middle East) nearly every conversation between newly acquainted people starts with "Where are you from?” Arabs take lots of pride in their cultural and familial background, and discussing these issues is a given, especially amongst themselves.

This might look like a weird obsession to an outsider, but to Arabs, it's as natural as eating cheese is to the French. The reason for this is that the Arab World is spread out over a nice little stretch of land, spanning Western Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa. Naturally, the distinctness of "Arab" culture varies throughout the region; each area has its unique traditional dress, cuisine, music, and dialect (let alone political, social, and economic systems). So you see, Arabs have a lot to discuss when it comes to their origins.

To add to this already extensive list of variables, there is the whole issue of living outside the Arab World. What are you exactly when you come from Morocco but have a British passport? You've lived in Britain all your life, and only step foot inside your "home country" during two or three month-long vacations at most. The British would (legally, at least) consider you British. Arabs would immediately classify you as Arab, regardless of how well immersed you are in Arab language or culture. Actually, Arabs get offended if someone clearly of Arab heritage claims to be of any other nationality. "What, we're not good enough for you?" is the general reaction that seems to generate.

An example: At a wedding yesterday (my friends' older sister's) my friends and i were in the elevator with the bride's (Arab) hairdressers. Of course, we were asked where we were from. Although we had all lived in "the West" and had Western nationalities, we replied with straightforward, Arab answers. All except one girl, who said she was from New Zealand. The hairdressers looked at her strangely.

"You don't look like you're from there..."

"Yeah, my parents are from Jordan, but i was born and brought up in New Zealand."

"Oh, so you're Jordanian. How can you be from New Zealand if your parents are from Jordan?" They looked at her, eyebrows raised, before leaving the elevator.

A bit of an unpleasant situation for most Arab kids. On one hand, they don't want to reject the country that gave them sanctuary, an education, and a way of life. On the other, they don't want to betray the culture they've been brought up to think of as "home". Where exactly do we, as both Arabs and Westerners, draw the line?

Or should we even be drawing a line? Maybe blurring the line holds the answer? Having straddled both worlds, we can't be just Arab or Western. We'd be incomplete if we adopted only one culture. Perhaps it's about time that we created our own culture: a mixture of the best of both worlds.

This new culture can be what today's international community really needs. A bridge between East and West, a vantage point all can relate to, a platform for civilizational dialog and understanding.

Hey, not too bad an idea. I'm all for it. Anyone wanna come along for the ride?


Mathew said...


although im indian (and still hold an indian passport), I've never lived there. I go there every (well, most) summers. Its not like im a major part of the Indian community. Most of my friends are from other countries. So, its always been a struggle to balance both cultures and to identify with one. It isn't easy.

Noor, I'm so talking about this on my blog!

Anonymous said...

The point her blood...she is Jordanian. So in the end you are originally from Jordan. Regardless of what you want to be or what you think you are, you must accept what's in your blood. Dnt get me wrong, it's not like i'm obsessing over it. There is no forbidden thing like: oh no you can't be both...but wen you are asked a give a straightforward answer. i mean the REAL straightforward answer. Good Topic though.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'd love to come along for the ride but it concerns me when someone who is rallying for equality and searching for a "platform for civilizational dialog and understanding" and wanting to "build a bridge between East and West" uses such derogatory terms to describe people as "hillbillies" especially when those particular persons may not be. This blatent banding about of negative labels does in fact not help to build any bridges or further any communication.

Noor said...

Ack.. i knew i should have cleared that up! That's a bit of a inside joke with my friend. Her family is from Ohio, and they use that term to refer to themselves. If you have a better word, i'll gladly replace it.
It's good that you noticed the apparent contradiction between what i'm "rallying for" and my use of the word "hillbillies". When there's such an obvious contradiction, it usually means there's some sort of mistake or misunderstanding going on. Otherwise there's hypocrisy involved. Now we wouldn't want that, would we?

Anonymous said...

Who in their right mind would refer to themselves as "hillbillies"? It is a derogatory term the same as "sand n***er" or "red neck". I wonder if you asked your friend if she/he thought their family were hillbillies what the reaction would be. The definition of the term hillbilly is: a disparaging term for an unsophisticated person [syn: bushwhacker] *** disparaging means a remark that shows that you do not think someone or something is very good or very important. P.S. There are no hills in Ohio... it is flat land.

Noor said...


i appreciate your comment because i understand where you're coming from. i've experienced my share of discrimination, and i definitely don't wanna be spreading that around. i'll be sure to talk to my friend about this.

i'm going to change the term i used, despite the fact that you didn't supply me with an alternative word. and thanks for the lesson on the geography of ohio. the bitter sarcasm was enlightening.