Opinion The Summer Issue

Are you where you are from?

If our forefathers belonged to a place, then does that automatically mean that we belong to it too?
If our forefathers belonged to a place, then does that automatically mean that we belong to it too?. Illustration by Kostis Grivakis.

As we broke our fast one Ramadan evening, my uncle passed me a platter of his farm-grown golden dates to break my fast with– an Islamic practice that many Muslims around the world follow.

I refused and said that I would settle with my drink until we had our iftar meal after Maghreb (sunset) prayers. He looked at me quizzingly and asked: ‘You don’t eat dates?’

I shook my head.

He raised his eyebrow as he drank his tall glass of laban and then turned to me and said: ‘People from our region will question your behaviour. How can a native not eat dates? They will wonder if you really are a native!’

I didn’t reply and instead wondered about all the other things that would shock my uncle and have other fellow Khaleejis ‘question’ me.

For instance, I don’t like how soft sand dunes feel under my bare feet. It sends me running with goose bumps coating my arms. I don’t know how to eat with my bare hands- the way many Arabs eat their food- and I’m not a fan of the Khaleeji cuisine. In fact, as much as I enjoy cooking my meals, I hate making local dishes and prefer making more East Asian and Mediterranean dishes instead. I don’t drink Arabic coffee and I don’t intend to. I tasted it once and cringed at its bitter taste.

I’m a third culture kid, having lived abroad my native land for all of my life. Having travelled left and right, I took it upon myself last year to familiarise myself with my native homeland and its culture.

And so a few months back, and without any prior plan, I took my four-wheel drive, and drove across the desert road, leading to my hometown for the first time – the town where all my tribesmen are from; proud people who have fought off numerous foreign invasions, died along the way, and wrote verses of poetry about their hometown and their people.

They’ve lived in this town generation after generation, for thousands of years, and here I was headed towards it with no connections to it except my last name.

I drove past its outskirts, past some date palm farms and children running barefoot chasing a chicken, before reaching the town center, where my ancestors once lived in a clustered neighbourhood. I walked past the old sekkas, past the local cemetery, and past the lime trees.

This is where my grandparents stood, and where their grandparents stood before them, and yet I had no connection to this place. I didn’t know the names of each townsman the way they did. I didn’t know the names of the trees, and I don’t think I’ll ever defend it with my life if things ever go down.

My eyes welled up, because I knew that for as long as I may live, I may never feel connected to this place; that my heart will forever belong to places foreign to my Arab identity.

Being a third culture kid has its bonuses, but also its downsides. I feel that I belong more in Europe and North America, places I lived in and frequented, more than I belong in my native homeland. I relate with people from diverse cultural backgrounds more than my fellow hometown natives, who connect more with their cousins.

I’ve been thinking about identity lately. If our forefathers belonged to a place, then does that automatically mean that we belong to it too? What if my heart feels at home in Washington, and mind is at ease in Paris?

Is identity something as flat as a birth certificate and passport that says where you are from? I believe that identity is more multi-layered than that. It involves where your parents are from, but it shouldn’t be the sole definition of it. Identity is more unique, more personal.

Just as how no two fingerprints are exactly the same, the same applies to identity. It should be a mix of where home is to you, plus your roots, what you enjoy in your life, your likes, and dislikes, and where your soul is at ease most.

Latifah S. is a Khaleeji storyteller based in the US.