Arts & Culture The Identity Issue

I felt like I wasn’t Arab or Muslim enough

"I’d never been confronted by my identity that way before."

Words by Ayla El Assaad Dandashi

Illustration by Hala Al Abbasi

This story is brought to you by Dr. Rocco’s Specialized Dental Center in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Identity. I don’t think I know a word so charged, a word so stirring. Nations wage wars because of it, crimes are committed in its name, academics publish journals revolving around it and historians spend years reflecting on it.  Journalists, terrorist groups, policy makers, politicians, kids, adults, my grandmother… everyone has a say on this topic! Language, fashion, culture… everything we do is an expression of our identity in some form.

When I was younger, I was always so sure of my identity, of the small elements that made up who I am and who I thought I was going to be. Growing up in Saudi, it all seemed rather simple. I was a modern, young Arab Muslim woman. I was strong, intelligent and determined. I knew all of the latest American sitcoms and British game shows, and never missed an episode of Tash Ma Tash. I knew the latest from the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys as well as Nancy Ajram and Fadel Shakir. I could easily balance East and West, and I was ready for whatever the world would throw my way.

Naturally, I would go through testing times as I got older. As teenagers, we all struggle to come into our own. We rebel and set out to show the world our likes and dislikes. We argue with our parents over our visions for the future. But, we never doubt our core identities. If anything, I was so sure of who I was that most of my confrontations were centered on making sure everyone else would stop defining me —a modern, young Arab Muslim woman.

‘ “Identity” became a word of challenge, a word used to stir up emotions and a word so charged.’

Then, when I turned 18, I moved to London and I was ready! No culture shock, no loss in translation; I was an expert in fitting in at first. I was the perfect international student going to university in London, so much so that people started asking me, “what part of the US are from? Not from the US! Are you Italian then? You look Italian but your accent…” What really confused them was my lack of an accent, and when they learned I was an Arab I got the “but you don’t look…” comments. I’m sure many of you can relate and anticipate all the questions I was asked and my responses. It didn’t bother me much. After all, I was a young, Arab Muslim woman breaking stereotypes. If anything, it was thrilling to showcase my Arabness and my Muslimness to them. I was proud and I wanted them to know it.

No, I didn’t mind at all. But then I started meeting other Arabs at university; Arab international students like myself, and British Arabs brought up in the UK. They also asked questions. But, they were different, and almost certainly followed by statements stated like facts: “You grew up in the Gulf? Really…you don’t look it…so you’re Lebanese raised in Saudi…you don’t sound very Lebanese…. You’re a Muslim! But I never see you in the prayer room.”  I’d never been confronted by my identity that way before. I was never asked to justify those broader pillars that I thought were solid—my Arabness and my Muslimness—by fellow Arabs and Muslims.

You see, at that point in my life, I knew that identity was made up of little fragments of experience, heritage, culture etc. But, what I was to learn was that all these elements themselves are constructs; each of those core pillars was made up of different definitions for every one of us. And sometimes another Arab, or another Muslim, might not see themselves in my definition of those elements.

“I still don’t understand why it was easier for my brothers and sisters to challenge me rather than just take me in… My Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters that I had so naively assumed would have my back.”

By moving away from my surroundings and my environment, where everyone around me expressed those elements in a similar way, my understanding of my Arabness and Muslimness was now being challenged. Suddenly, I wasn’t Arab enough, I wasn’t Muslim enough and certainly not Lebanese enough. “Identity” became a word of challenge, a word used to stir up emotions and a word so charged. Time and time again, I had to prove it to those who I assumed would be those who would understand it the most: Arabs and Muslims. I had to prove it to those that I thought I could take for granted.

Five years later, I left London and moved back to the Gulf Region. I’d made a few good friends at university, and it might surprise you to learn that my closest friends were not Arabs (at least not Arabs that grew up in the Middle East). But, then again, it might not surprise you at all. It turns out that many of the people I grew up with that moved to the West for university had similar experiences. Everyone who moves into new environments has to justify who they are, how they choose to express themselves and aspects of their identity. It seems that it is easier for us to judge others when they don’t fit a label the way we were raised to understand it, than realising that there are just different versions of that label.

Ever since coming back from the UK, I’ve lived and grown. I’ve learnt that the aspects of my identity revolving around being Arab and Muslim are, of course, valid. My Arabness and Muslimness are enough regardless of where I am and where I choose to go. They are valid because the only validation I need is that of myself; just like my fashion choices and my taste in music and books. Basically, they are valid because I say they are. But it still makes me sad to think back at my university experience . I still don’t understand why it was easier for my brothers and sisters to challenge me rather than just take me in… My Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters that I had so naively assumed would have my back.

Ayla El Assaad Dandashi is a writer and communications professional who has lived and worked in the UAE for the past eight years. She has a BA degree in Media and Communications with a specialization in Journalism, and an MA in Social Research both from Goldsmiths University of London. She was born and raised in Saudi Arabia to Lebanese and Syrian parents.    

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