Opinion

Do passports reflect our whole identity?

"What happens when the soul does not agree?"

By Asad Al Harthy

Illustration by Emirati artist Alia Al Hammadi.

Passports are weird. They’re these small books that declare that a holder belongs to a state, and with it comes an unspoken contract. Depending on the issuing country, the state is obligated to provide the basic pillars of a decent life, such as education, healthcare, employment, social mobility and to ensure your rights are preserved in foreign lands. In return, the state is entitled to a share of your output as a contribution to the system.

Patriotism is a concept we are inundated with since birth. Movies ,cultural references, posters and cults of personalities often romanticise and symbolise what is essentially a byproduct of bureaucracy and demographic record keeping. Suddenly, our nationality becomes a big part of our identity, and the passport becomes the ultimate tribe.

But what happens when the soul does not agree?

At 26 years old, I have lived more than half of my life outside of my home country Oman. My earliest memories are of our apartment in New York City, and how its warm interior contrasted with the cold grayscale skyline outside our window. I remember petting every dog I met on the street. I remember tossing whatever objects I could find from our window on the eleventh floor, and enjoyed watching them fall,  to the point that the building’s management released a memo to keep our windows locked. When we moved back to Oman in 1997, everything was sepia toned, and white two-story houses were scattered across vast stretches of land. The fuzzy sound of the oud playing through the radio was in contrast with the live music echoing in New York’s subways, and the heat weighed like a heavy blanket reminding you of the sun’s might.

Five-year-old me did not know it yet, but he would come to learn that there is a place called America, and a place called Oman, and while they are on the same planet, they might as well be two different worlds. It started off with a handful of innocent quips, like when I served guest coffee with the wrong hand in a milkah (marriage ceremony), or figuring out how to tie the msar (Omani turban) every Eid, and I how I pay extra attention to what I say because a certain phrase can have a ruder, more aggressive meaning when I translate it from English to Arabic. As I grew older, I also noticed the immense pressure distant relatives can have when it comes to key personal decisions such as pursuing passions, choice of education and marriage.  The pressure to conform is present and real.

Fast-forward thirteen years, I earned the opportunity to attend university in Dearborn, Michigan, a town known for having the largest Arab-American community in the country. It wasn’t always easy, but for once I no longer had to remember the set of protocols for every situation that I inherited when I landed in Oman for the first time. It was there that I came to befriend many Iraqis, Egyptians, Yemenis and Lebanese. They were often second and third generation Americans whose only ties to their homelands were in the confines of their house, and whatever short time they had spent in their respective countries during summer vacations. On those trips to their ancestral homes and to their extended families, they were often labeled as the “Americanised” cousin, and frequently expressed dismay that they could not carry out a full conversation in Arabic. Some have come to terms with it, and some have sought to overcompensate by avoiding to interact with students of non-Arab ethnicities.

As we marched together with our tassels to the right, the irony of the situation dawned on me. We all had nearly opposite backgrounds, but we shared the same conundrum: a crisis of identity borne out of the struggle of reconciling two cultures, a crisis that is seemingly only becoming more prevalent, or at least more expressed.

The Gulf Region of today is one that is more connected to the rest of the world than ever. As families pursue opportunities overseas, their children grow up in an environment that is vastly different from the ones they left behind. Should they return, these children often feel like they must reconcile between the person they were overseas and a persona they must maintain to avoid criticism, or worse, bring shame to the family. For them it’s either assimilate, or be themselves and risk being called “ghair” or different.

While manageable at first, this can become a distressing process, that sometimes leads to burnout, a sense of isolation and an unhealthy nostalgia for a past life overseas somewhere far away. In extreme cases, the burden can be so great on some that they opt to emigrate.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Our Khaleeji culture has a way of emphasizing the collective over the individual, and that can lead us to believe that the people around us are mediocre. After all, we dress in the same clothes and partake in the same customs. Even our religious practices are made in a way in which we all act in unison. We engage in faux politeness with strangers and acquaintances. It becomes easy to think that the people around us lack depth, and thus we are less encouraged to build meaningful relationships, which in turn makes us feel more isolated. If all those years abroad taught me anything, it’s that everybody is “ghair.” Every person you meet has a story, and each one of them has something to teach you. Life is a book that has no main characters and side characters. We are all trying to figure it out as we go along.

One thing I wish young creatives did less is identify themselves, or their brands, by their nationality. They want to be the best Omani artist, the top athlete in the Emirates, have the number one app in Saudi Arabia… Nothing is wrong with a little hometown pride, but it’s very limiting when the top five attributes you come up with to the question, “how would you describe yourself?” are ones that are decided upon your birth, rather than ones that are the result of a lifetime of experiences.

When I moved back home after graduation, I asked a friend of mine who is a few years my senior and in the same situation as I was in, “Does that feeling ever go away?” “No,” he replied, “but it does get a little easier.”

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.

Asad Al Harthy is an investment analyst with a creative bone. His passions include music, history and bridging gaps between cultures. This is his first published article.