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 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!!

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…”