Yearning for the ‘Arab’ identity

Reading about the Arab League Summit recently got me thinking about Pan-Arabism again; an ideology or a concept I had studied growing up but felt for a long period of time like it was this term parked in history somewhere at the end of the 70s, a term that only re-emerges in private circles in those nostalgic conversations with parents or grandparents when they talked of an Arab world that “once” was aligned, and managed to take a unified stance towards something.

In recent days I have been feeling the re-emergence of this on a political front between the Arab League Summit and the collaboration of several of the most prominent Arab states currently with Egypt in Egypt’s Economic Conference. I am feeling a revival of the term and it gives me a sense of pride.

It is far from a perfect picture. I am fully aware of that especially given all the regional struggles and wars. Such is a reality I am well aware of. I have yet on days to sit and think of the millions of Arab refugees; of the war children who will grow up as distressed adults full of war scars and psychological trauma from what they have experienced and continue to on a daily basis…

However, there is another positive picture I see sometimes. The picture is not only of presidents meeting, and money being pledged to cross-border projects in the region. That is one part. But the more important rise in the term of pan-Arabism I now see is on a societal and personal level.

I believe that the rise of new cities like Dubai has added a lot to the term. Dubai is a city that has attracted a huge young & talented pool of Arabs who are coexisting in such close proximity to one another – a hybrid of Arabs that still proudly identify with their respective nationalities but have grown to share a comfortable space of speaking different dialects, being open to different Arab cuisines and enjoying an enhanced cultural understandings of countries that were always ‘next-door’ but actually unknown to them or their families previously.

In the entrepreneurial space I see several of the cities in the region becoming start-up hubs attracting Arabs from other countries to live and grow their concept ideas in. Not only that, but such hubs provide a ground for co-founders from different countries to meet, whereas such opportunities may not have historically existed.

In the arts space there is a lot more overlaps now. Historically, there was a dominance of the arts by some countries like Egypt especially in theater and the film industry, but now we see a rise in the film industries in several other countries like Jordan, UAE and even Saudi. The rise of independent projects and a generation of young Arabs who want to find their unique artistic flare has made for a lot more cross-cultural exposure in the arts that has been very enriching for many in my opinion. I have also noticed a rise of Arab artists, actors and singers living and working in Egypt again, like they used to in the 60s and 70s. That gives me pride.

For someone like me who grew up in an expatriate community in Saudi, with a group of best friends whose nationalities were Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Yemeni, Sudani and Saudi, the word “Arab” always had a very real and tangible meaning. It meant speaking in the same language but having extremely different dialects that we’re constantly laughing at each other and try to explain the origins behind bizarre terminologies that we take for granted in our own countries. It meant continuously being exposed to new customs, traditions, inside jokes, and cuisines. It meant being exposed to different styles of fashion. It meant seeing different customs in weddings, childbirths and even deaths. It meant constantly seeing how similar we are as a region but how multi-faceted we are despite that similarity on the outside. Being in that environment meant being an ambassador 24/7 for Egypt because in many situations I would be the only Egyptian and having to answer to the endless questions of “what do you Egyptians say for this…” “or what do Egyptians do in that..” type situations. It meant that over time somehow our dialects became a mesh of all the different dialects – something noticeably different to what the natives from our countries would speak, but something that had that beauty of what defining as an Arab is about.

That was my world growing up. That was my ‘normal’. And I loved it. I felt it made me more Egyptian and simultaneously more Arab. The two were not mutually exclusive. But when I left that setting and traveled around the region, it seemed that the majority of Arabs in their respective countries, living with a majority that was exactly like them did not see the benefits of the picture I presented. It was always a struggle to explain. It was always a long talk to say why I take so much pride in saying not only that I’m Egyptian, but that I’m Arab.

And I believe that given the difficult times the region is going through in recent years, many more of these people now are starting to understand the benefits of returning that long-lost “Arab” label, a label with a lot more positive connotations that we believe, and a label that we should grow to love, cultivate and take control of defining it the way we want to the rest of the world, instead of being on the receiving end and letting it be defined in the worst possible ways as a reaction to minority groups that by far do not present even a fraction of our stories. I think as much as our current times challenge our identity because of extremism, as much as I think we also have great tools at hand to re-frame our identity…now more so than previous times possibly.

The male role model

 

As I continue to embrace adulthood more & more as an Egyptian woman, who has spent most of her life in the Middle East and continues to internalize the extent of gender adversities women continue to face in this region (& all over the world), I am forever indebted for the male role model I have had growing up – my father. Any seemingly inquisitive, curious, growth mindset I may have developed has been encouraged, and strongly endorsed by him. He always pushed me towards questioning everything, reading more, asking questions on any topic and being ready every weekend for a new debate with him, where I have to examine my assumptions and be willing to continuously deconstruct & rebuild my opinion on any given topic. He always pushed me to voice my opinions and dig deeper into what’s driving these opinions. He always made sure my voice was heard on the table, even from my early teen years & amid gatherings of much older men. He has given me numerous situations to allow me to become independent financially, emotionally and most importantly develop frameworks that can continue to attempt to resist herd mentality thinking.

Being in Europe for my birthday this year was a reminder of some of my most privileged and happiest moments with the family growing up. Europe has been intertwined in my memories with family trips in which I was taught to shop in different supermarkets, learn to take over from my dad and drive us around on our road trips, read maps (years before any form of navigation stemmed), deal with foreign banking transactions & airport issues from a very young age, experience different cultures, start conversations with complete strangers and most importantly deal with the unknowns that come with hitting an open road & leaving oneself to be open for whatever experiences meet you along the way. As my Dad would always say along the road trip especially at times when drive it’s raining or snowing hard and it’s pitch black outside and we’re lost:

“Missing our exit isn’t the end of the world. There is always a plan B so long as we understand the map & know the general direction of where we want to get. If we miss this turn, we will take the next one- it’s a slight detour, but who knows what we may see on that route. And if we’re too tired or it’s too dark on the way we can always pull aside & spend a night in one of the guest houses/ motels/ lodges on the way. It’s never too late- because we can always adapt our plan.”

My experiences on those trips is that there are times to press hard on the gas pedal and get done with most of the distance, but there is equal important to stepping out of the road occasionally to rest & re-energize. Moreover, it’s important to not only get comfortable with detours, but actually fully embrace them. The detours have mostly led to some of our most memorable experiences, best laughs and distinct experiences – at times, they were even more fun than the overly planned times.

This is definitely the mindset I aspire to adhere to in the coming phase of my life. Set a general direction, get comfortable with the uncertainties along the way,& be open to fully adapting to all the little experiences or detours along the way. It’s never too late for a continuously evolving life plan. To more years of adulthood

The yearning for the West

I was caught in a heated conversation with a few individuals, who I shall refrain from naming their nationalities (to avoid a typical stereotype), but who I can say have clearly not spent sufficient time in the Middle East, or have even made an effort to remain well informed about current affairs here! These individuals were arguing with me that yes there are huge issues in Syria, and yes there are people fleeing for safety etc, but that Arabs in general love to jump on the opportunity to get a Western passport whenever possible as it is their means to a “better quality of life”, and that they’re “sure” there are lot of people sabotaging the system or left the country earlier when they really didn’t need to.

Any my question to these individuals was: how many Syrians do you know and have you ever visited Syria previously? And their answer was “no” to both and to be honest I got very angry because I am tired of people making sweeping assumptions about other nations, ethnic backgrounds, races etc without spending the time or effort to even understand how people of that background think even! We’re so caught up in bundling everyone in this “Other” category, yet we pride ourselves that we’re living in times where everything is ‘globalized’!

My answer to this group was had you been to Syria or interacted with Syrians throughout your life you would have realized that they are one of the most proud nationalities you will ever come across. Syrians have always struck me as taking so much pride in their nation – even to this day with all the atrocities taking place back home…they would speak in a heartbroken tone over the state their beloved country has come to. Syrians took pride in everything that was Syrian made and in every little spot in the country.

If you ever spoke with a Syrian you would see how much their eyes light up when they tell you that this jam, or dish, or even tomato is a produce from some part of the country. They would take pride in talking about their grandma’s cooking, and that countryside home they would always visit. They would take pride to talk about people’s simplicity and their desire to lead quiet, family-oriented lives enjoying having their children and their grand kids around them as much as possible. They took pride in their TV shows, and their history and their historical sites. They simply took such pride in saying “I am Syrian”. When I visited I felt you could hardly meet people more attached to their land and their homes than Syrians.

So to suggest that many Syrian refugees are just ‘jumping’ on the opportunity to a “better quality of life” in some cases is a highly misinformed and pretentious comment to make in my opinion! For the overwhelming majority of Syrians, I am convinced they would have never thought of leaving their homes, memories, and their attachment and pride in their land if it wasn’t genuinely a matter of life and death!! Moreover, where is this guarantee of a ‘better quality of life?’ If they even make it to the other side alive, it is only the beginning of one life of hardship where they are just grateful for still being alive!! To belittle the Syrian refugee crisis to a matter that is not purely around survival is completely unacceptable in my opinion.

I think this made me realize that sometimes it is important to disconnect from social media, from the generalizations and terminologies and stereotypes pushed at us 24/7; an inundation of news and views that leave us with insomuch as seconds to attempt to formulate an ‘independent’ opinion.

Step back to reality and meet people on the ground and form your own views. Put a face to the names and titles. Put a story to the numbers. Allow yourself to feel for another human being. Allow yourself to understand their fears, hopes and aspirations. That’s the meaning of ‘being connected’ in my opinion – being connected isn’t just about being plugged online following everything everywhere when your thoughts are so insular!! It is a shame that despite all the technological advancements and platforms to connect with people – nothing will fix viewpoints like this apart from the real everyday interactions that ironically enough we are having fewer and fewer of!!

A yearning for the simple times

I really miss moments of moderation and simplicity of thought in everyday life.

I miss the days where people can just simply eat and drink without having to preface their food or drinking options with several descriptive words of what diet they are following, what foods they’re cutting out, what latest dietary trends are out there and feeling a need to convert everyone on the table to said food choices. I miss the days where people can just workout without having to sound excessive and without having to feel like if you’re not part of the crossfit community (or similar other communities) then whatever you’re doing doesn’t count & can be easily discarded. Same would hold for fashion statements, and travel options among many other ‘life choices’.

I wonder if our parents when they first had us spent so much time analyzing every move and every bite and every choice a toddler makes like I observe many young parents doing nowadays. I don’t have kids of my own so it would be difficult to judge this one – but I believe there is an evident rise in what has come to be termed as “helicopter parents”, parents who are continuously (& many times subconsciously) attempting to over-engineer their kids’ life to ensure them some ‘ideal’ form of success that they themselves may never achieve.

I wonder if a group of people can sit now and discuss a topic without being tempted to pull out a phone and Google the topic of discussion, or their set viewpoint to pull out an article from somewhere that can instantly support their argument (been guilty of such behavior myself). I find that it is very rare to come across ‘free’ or raw thoughts that have been generated by the individuals themselves (even if said thought/opinion may have wrong elements that can be corrected later). The pressure feels so high now in discussions to instantly try to prove a point of view wrong or right through pulling any data, article or random research here or there without cultivating independent critical thinking.

This nostalgia for moderation would be 10x amplified if I start thinking of the political and religious spheres. Discussions in these areas have lost the simple decorum of exchanging viewpoints, listening, taking sometime to consider the opposite viewpoint and then debate it back and forth. Such traits have been diminished to the minimal and replaced by a great desire for each person and each side to prove themselves correct.

It makes me wonder – in many discussions we sit and talk about religious and political extremism and wonder how people can be so extreme in their beliefs and little do we notice that many of us have already become extreme in our daily habits, hobbies and discussions – we just gloss over this form of extremism since it clearly doesn’t have the same level of ramifications as political or religious extremism. But what disturbs me is that with this extreme mindset develops a strongly judgmental nature to anything that is different – anything that doesn’t conform to what each one has deemed to be their way or choice of living.

What’s ironic is that the reason I believe people nowadays have become so vocal about their interests, hobbies, food and travel choices is precisely as a reaction to a previously homogeneously marketed world that stifled variety and differences. Yet somehow in picking for our own choices we don’t realize that we are already in the process of drowning out the differences.

Granted the above reflections pertain to more privileged socioeconomic circles of any given society.

Milan inspired reflections on the square

In my opinion, one of the quintessential experiences of most European cities that I have gravitated towards for years, (even just as a tourist) is that of the European square / plaza; it’s that central town square or market place that many literary and history books credit for being a main contributor to the development of democracy & representational self-government throughout Europe, a characteristic of European cities for over 2,000 years.

In reading more about the significance of these squares I came across the following passages which particularly resonated with me:

..”The sense of inclusion”, the feeling that one is a member of the neighborhood, or of the city, is subtly reinforced by the square’s visual enclosure. Being “inside” the square, surrounded by continuous building walls, with the sky as a ceiling, makes one feel temporarily “at home”, and nurtures the citizen’s sense of belonging.”

….The European square is a place for dialogue and discussion, meetings and greetings, for shared experiences and forming bonds. What do people talk about in squares? No subject is taboo! Mainly they exchange stories about their lives and experiences; details about family, work, state of health, plans and hopes. This significant conversation and dialogue the ultimate expression of life in the city” (Mumford) creates community. As Wendell Berry observes, “community exists only when people know each others’ stories”.

“The European square fosters sociability, that is, interaction for its own sake, to give pleasure to each other, not to enhance one’s status or position, but to increase each other’s sense of well-being. Sociability may involve gossiping, bantering, storytelling, joking, flirtation, intermixed with seriousness, concern for the other and expressions of support, even love.”

These readings & these experiences remind me of how much I miss spending time in such squares back in the Middle East. I consider how the squares of the old Arab cities have been almost eradicated and destroyed or left to the natural urban decay of centuries. I think of how new cities completely lack these random forums of interaction and creativity and sociability ..& it makes me wonder if this was a random urban planning mishap or an intentional move to quench that evolvement of what the European squares have come to symbolize over hundreds of years.

In Egypt, we had our brief glimpse of attempting to revive this concept. Tahrir Square for my generation at least was meant to symbolize change and maybe some day grow into this. But that didn’t last long. I think of all the other squares in history that have been wiped out of history books with all their potential, especially when juxtaposed against the beauty of those that have survived and are here to stay for future generations.

For the time being, the present takes me to enjoying this particular one, the grandeur of Milan’s dome, passageways, restaurants, hustle and bustle with hundreds of people crossing paths at different stages in their lives – the lovers, the heartbroken, the healthy, the sick, the dying old and the exuberant young from all different ethnicities and walks of life, enjoying a laugh, an exchange of thoughts in different global languages yet all sharing the same fresh air, the possibilities of blue skies and the freedoms of the low flying pigeons who can’t seem to ever step away from the buzz of these places. It seems quite befitting to experience this while listening to one of my favorites, Ed Sheeran’s love ballad, Perfect:

“Well, I found a woman, stronger than anyone I know
She shares my dreams, I hope that someday I’ll share her home
I found a love to carry more than just my secrets
To carry love, to carry children of our own

We are still kids but we’re so in love
Fighting against all odds
I know we’ll be alright this time…”

Minority labels

Some days I wake up and feel very exhausted about defending the labels I define myself with in life: being a woman, being Muslim, and being Arab among other things. Everyday can seem like a struggle in defending my thoughts and my ideal of how I interpret and wish to live with each label. In light of extremist behavior that attacks any of these terms I find myself very fired up and angry with mixed views – angry at the culprits, anguished for the victims, angry at the ‘Other’ for not understanding the true roots of the problem, and very angry at the majority representing that specific label (be it a gender, a religion or a region) for their silenced views.

We continuously blame extremist minorities for taking away the liberties and freedoms and shaking up the status quo of the middle. But I often ask where is this middle? Why does this middle seldom have a voice? Why does this middle feel strongly for events but shy away from voicing it? Where does that fear stem from even though that middle is usually the best protectorate and ambassador for such definitions? It is always so easy to blame the ‘Other’, to fall on that sexy concept of ‘conspiracy theories’ that we’ll live and die trying to unravel. It is always easy to blame societal constructs around the history and behavior of minority groups anywhere in the world, but that in no means should validate or silence us from speaking up against outrageous events like those that happened in Paris, or previously in Australia, Canada, Pakistan and the list goes on and on. Nor should we take away from the suffering and pain of any one event by putting it on a relative scale with an even more atrocious event. So for those people saying there are people dying in Palestinians and Syrians dying every day. Yes I fully agree. But nothing stops me from feeling for that too. Death will always be death – hard and painful and scary for all those close to the individual and for all those who give themselves a moment to internalize someone else’s story. In my opinion, there is no ‘relativity’ when it comes to human loss – especially intentional and deliberated human loss.

It is time we start internalizing our problems and stop shifting the blame. It takes two parties to perpetuate a problem, and if we are really aspire to do anything differently (in our personal spheres or on a larger scale) in our societies maybe we should try to give all the tools necessary for the voices of the middle to be heard and debated. In this world we live in that seems to be an aspirational hope that may be difficult to achieve, but I hope to always strive for it. I am tired of polarized views. I am tired of extremism in ideologies – be it on gender, race, political views, religious views. People’s struggles are one and the same. We are human before we put on whatever external cloth of ideology we choose to abide by in our lives. That is the only truth I think we can all agree upon.

Societies are mental constructs that have no physical existence. We keep blaming ‘different societies’ but societies in my opinion are nothing but a sum of voices, views, and actions that all add up to this elusive term that we try and grapple with. In that equation each individual voice can add or subtract from it. I hope the people in the middle can add to it, one by one instead of leaving a few with loud voices take away everything we have.

Conversation on women in the work place

Informal conversation with a lovely senior female executive…

Me: “What do you wish to see happen for women in the workplace before your retire?”

Woman: “You know I don’t think I’ll give the typical response of saying more women in the workplace or more women at the top. I think those hopes are talked about enough in the media nowadays. I’d say my real desire is to see women stick together and support each other more. I wish to see the day when more women will realize the value that comes from truly helping other female colleagues – juniors, peers or seniors. I want when I recruit younger women and they’re told their direct boss will be a female, that they are excited by that as opposed to being apprehensive in many situations. When we respect and help each other for real – it is easier to then command that respect from men and society in general. We can’t continue to judge and undermine each other a lot of the times, and then turn around and say to the guys – ‘hey you gotta show us respect’. Obviously am not talking about all women…but there tends to be quite a few that fall into that category unfortunately.”

And after a longer debate on this point:

Me: “What’s your best advice to me?”

Woman: “Don’t ever be that kind of woman I am talking about. Trust me – most women don’t realize this until a much older age – nothing is stronger than a woman who surrounds herself with smart, successful women who genuinely mentally and emotionally support each other. When you grow up and face many of life’s problems…work and even personal – you’ll realize that support is crucial to your well-being. Unfortunately too many women at a younger age are seeking validation from men – be it within their families, with their partners or work. I mean I understand that. I was in your shoes too. But as the years pass you realize you spent too much time on that and somehow took for granted building strong ties with the good women who come into your life, whether its friends or co-workers.”