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What it means to be a half-Lebanese, half-Emirati

"There were times when I felt like an outsider in both of my countries."

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By Ghanem Rafeh

I’m an atypical. My father is Lebanese and my mother is Emirati. For most people from outside the Arab world, these two nationalities can be snuggled into the same “Arab” basket. But that’s not the case here in the region. These two nationalities, although similar in some ways, could not be more different.

For those who understand the intricacies of the region, Lebanon and the UAE are homes to vastly different cultures and identities, and those contrasts somewhat molded who I’ve grown to become. I’ve had the privilege of spending parts of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood in both countries. I grew up in Al Ain, went to university in Beirut and currently reside in Abu Dhabi. That being said, struggling with my identity and my sense of fully belonging to either of my parents’ backgrounds has been a mainstay topic in my daily life. I find myself burdened with explaining mundane things to others, things that my peers have never had to explain out loud. For example, at a recent family function back in Al Ain, an elder man asked me, “Who is your father?” or “??? ??? ????”—a standard way of figuring out what part of the family you come from, particularly with big families in the Gulf region— and that put me in an awkward corner. Not many people outside of my direct family know my father’s name, so finding another way to identify myself, such as using my mother’s name, is pretty much frowned upon.

Aside from all this, my name seems to always strike an interesting note amongst Emiratis as my surname is not a common name amongst Emiratis. I find myself in the middle of a guessing game between curious people dissecting my surname. I have been put in similar situations during my time in Lebanon too. I have heard things like “But Ghanem isn’t a very Lebanese name” or “You don’t look very Lebanese”.

Photographs of Ghanem Rafeh in the UAE and Lebanon across time. Click on each photo to enlarge it and read its caption. Photos courtesy of Ghanem Rafeh.

All of these experiences have mutated into a sort of confusion that has put my sense of identity in crisis mode, pushing me to ask myself where I really belong. I feel a sense of belonging to both of my identities, but I find that I cannot fully relate to some of the experiences that some of my friends from either Lebanon or the UAE went through. For example, when I was younger and not as comfortable with my dual identities, switching between the Lebanese and Emirati dialects while talking to my parents in front of my friends made me feel uneasy. My inability to recognise myself manifested into a sort of fear that my awkward dialect flips were rendered puzzling and unrelatable to my peers. There were times when I felt like an outsider in both of my countries. When I was younger, I would sometimes wonder if it would have been easier if I had come from a more homogenous background that had a more clear-cut identity indicator and cultural rulebook.

But more recently, as I have gotten older and had the chance to experience the charms that both cultures offer firsthand, my realisation that the duality of my background should be a plus rather than a drawback has been brewing inside me. I now see the needlessness of having to come from a uniform background, and instead recognise my unique position of not having to fully conform to the traditional sense of either my Emirati or Lebanese identities to fully appreciate and ‘belong’, but rather, make the most of both worlds. I have had the privilege of experiencing both cultures, not as an outsider, but as a local.

I can easily switch between my two identities to suit the needs of any particular situation. I can effortlessly speak and understand both Lebanese and Emirati dialects. I feel comfortable wearing a kandoorah and a hamdaniya, and just as comfortable doing the Dabkeh at a Lebanese wedding. I feel an equal sense of patriotism and pride for both of my identities. I celebrate two national days, on the 22nd of November and the 2nd of December, and can recite both national anthems from memory. I felt a sense of pride when the UAE sent its first astronaut into space in September, and I am also proud of the resilience, diversity and adaptability that is characteristic of the Lebanese DNA. I will fervently come to the defense of either one of my countries and feel right at home, whether I am in Abu Dhabi or Beirut.

In spite of the differences between the two cultures, I feel blessed to come from two cultures that celebrate a value that resonates well within me, and that is the value of tolerance. I am also lucky to have friends and family from both sides that support and appreciate me and contribute to my sense of belonging to either culture.

Coming from two different backgrounds is not without its struggles and difficulties. It is only a matter of perspective, though. My life  has had its fair share of rollercoaster rides and awkward conversations about how I look or about my name, but the benefits of getting to experience and enjoy the best of two cultures as a local truly outweigh the challenges.

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.

Ghanem Rafeh is a Lebanese-Emirati political researcher based in Abu Dhabi. He is a graduate of political science from Beirut. He is passionate about international relations, politics and history.