Arts & Culture The Identity Issue

Neo-Bedouins and the search for home

'The question of “home,” and where home is, is often a complicated question.'

By Rym Tina Ghazal

Feature photo credit: Waleed Shah

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

On April 30th of 1998, the legendary poet of love died in London, UK.

The Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani—also known as the “Woman’s Poet” for his timeless romantic, sensual, patriotic and feminist poetry—after a lifetime of travels abroad as a diplomat, an artist, a poet and a writer, wrote in his will that he just wanted to go “home.”

And home for him, his final resting place, was the Syrian capital of Damascus, which he called “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.”

Regardless of where you are now, and what stage you are in your life, you do wonder about home.

In today’s world, many people leave the place where they were born in, and live in several cities or countries throughout their childhood, then travel even more as adults. Therefore the question of “home,” and where home is, is often a complicated question. Add to this those who have parents of different nationalities, cultures and even religions, and the question becomes even more complex.

Researching “home”

As part of my psychology research, I have been studying the concept of “home,” documenting such elements as where people want to “retire” versus where they want to be “buried.” So far, most of the 150 expats I have interviewed in the UAE want to retire somewhere “affordable” and “wholesome,” with a lot of nature and vibrant communities. However, interestingly enough, their choice of the final resting place would often be the place they were born in, or where they spent an important part of their childhood. While for most of the UAE nationals interviewed, the answer was simpler: home is the UAE and that is where they will retire and be buried.

But the study is at an early stage, and is part of a bigger literature of study that is gaining momentum. There are now more courses and research conducted on the “Psychology of a Place” and how a place impacts attitudes, perceptions of the self and others, emotions, behaviour and mental health. A place should not be underestimated: it can breed tolerance or intolerance, creativity, altruism and many other characteristics.

Neo-Bedouins and the search for tribes

Left to right: Omar Tom, Reem Hameed and Mohamed Akkaoui. Photo: Omar Tartoob.

Many of us have, at some point, been expatriates. Some people remain expats for most of their lives, feeling more at home in places other than their countries of origin. Some families have been in Arab Gulf cities for generations, usually because their fathers came for work in the 1960s or 1970s, and then stayed on. Their children and grandchildren now consider this part of the region their home.

“The Khaleej is actually not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic. Your identity and culture is a piece that contributes to the larger artwork,” says Omar Tom, the founder of the Dukkan Show.

The Dukkan Show is a multimedia storytelling platform that explores these themes, where the presenters have their own take on anthropological and socio-psychological concepts.  It claims to be “the voice of Neo-Bedouins and the home of the others.”

“A neo-bedouin is our take on being a third culture kid or diaspora,” he says. “ ‘Neo’ is the word for conceptual, new (for example neo-soul), and Bedouins are nomadic by nature. So, yes, it definitely feels like it applies to me.”

“I absorbed many different cultures and their practices, other than my own, due to that environment, as well as spending a large portion of my childhood traveling the world due to my father’s business,” says Omar, who was born in Sudan, and then was raised and lives in the UAE.

Modern day nomadism is an interesting concept as it implies a lack of attachment to one specific place.  Traditional nomadic tribes moved around the Arabian Peninsula in search of greener pastures and better opportunities. But they often went back to places they once settled in due to a special connection that was formed there. Borders were different then, marked by wells and lands belonging to certain tribes, and therefore you knew where to find a member of a particular tribe, despite them being “nomadic.” In other words, human nature is never completely nomadic. As proven by the case of most expats in the Gulf, even a “temporary stay” on a limited visa has a powerful hold over.

“I believe that identity is a social construct that allows us to connect to and understand one another, as it pertains to the middle ground between the perception that others have of you and the actual one that you have of yourself, be it as an individual or a group ( i.e. individual identity and a collective identity). Be it in your favor or against, identity is the bridging factor that brings people together or pushes them apart,” says Omar.

The show’s name “Dukkan” literally means shop in Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi.

“Dukkans are the cornerstone of every community they operate within. They are the birthplace of media and the community. The dukkan owner knew everyone in the neighborhood; he knew who fell sick, who got married, who had a baby etc. And  he looked out for everyone and their kids. In certain cultures, the dukkan owner used to write the news of the day on a piece of cardboard and hang it outside his shop for those passing by,” Omar explains.

With many today identifying themselves as “third culture kids”  —people who have spent their developing years in a culture outside of their parents’ culture or home country—there are important points to consider.

“The pros of being one are open-mindedness, empathy and the ability to deeply connect with anyone from any culture and understand them in ways that they might not be able to understand you,” says Omar. “As for the cons, it’s feeling lonely until you find your tribe.”

And Omar found his tribe: vibrant co-hosts Reem Hameed a Filipino-Iraqi who grew up in Canada and then moved to the UAE, and Mohamed Akkaoui, a Lebanese who grew up his whole life in the UAE.

Ultimately it seems that what each person seeks is some form of belonging.

Do places bring out different sides of us?

Let me share the story of Ahmed, an Iraqi refugee who migrated to Canada, and with whom I have been in touch with. I have watched him turn from an angry “west powers” hating individual who was getting into gang troubles back in Baghdad to one that is positive, grateful and empowered by the new home he has made in Canada. He is now a fireman, and is giving back after what he says to me was “a lot of support and positivity from Canadians.”

“I wasn’t judged and so I was able to become whatever I wanted to be,” he says.

Did the place change him? Or did it simply bring out a side of him that was buried while living in a charged, turbulent, war-ridden and sanctioned country. It was as if a sanction was lifted off his personality (or “soul” as he says) once he moved.

A place —and the people in it—carries a lot of symbolism, expectations and creates forms of attachment— some healthy and some unhealthy—and makes us who we are (for a limited time perhaps).

We all have different personalities: the social self, the private self, the family self and many more. Some call them masks that we put on and remove, based on the place, and sometimes based on the person that is with us.

I leave you with these self-reflective questions: Which place brought out the best in you? And which place brought out the worst in you? And lastly, what is home to you?

To find out more about the Dukkan Show click here.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist and author based in the UAE.