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.

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.

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.

The modern male marriage mindset

I have had a few interesting conversations with several accomplished men lately regarding their thoughts on marriage and choosing a partner. And some commonalities in the conversation have propelled another one of my #randomramblings. This is by no means a criticism as I highly value the opinions of these men.

Many of these men have expressed that they are very much attracted to smart, accomplished women however they are hesitant getting married to such a woman – not for the typical stereotype of that they’re intimidated or whatever because in many of these cases they actually enjoy the mental stimulation- but rather because the men highly value family, family life and child- rearing. They think to themselves if am a driven accomplished man the likelihood is that I’ll be part of a demanding work environment entailing longer work hours, frequent travels, so if I get married to a woman leading a similar lifestyle – how will our family be properly established and how will it continue to fare?

And my response or thoughts on that are its not wrong to set your priorities and say you highly value family life, but I don’t understand why the men project their binary bias on the women they describe – that if she is accomplished and giving over-the-top attention to her career now, it will always be like that and she’ll always prioritize work over family? Does the woman actually openly express that her career will be above everything else? Does the woman say she doesn’t believe in more time dedicated to child-rearing?

I wonder if the men have asked what maybe really driving these accomplished woman? Is it the relentless pursuit of prestigious jobs and titles ? Is it a path towards serving a bigger goal? Is it to prove something or break stereotypes? Is it an emotional fulfillment for a sense of meaning? Or something else?
Maybe a single accomplished woman is allocating her time a certain way now but wouldn’t it make sense that a smart woman will also be aware that in the presence of a partner many things would require some form of recalibration and compromise from both sides?

I just feel like there are so many questions for the man to ask the woman directly if he is really interested without ruling out potential partners on such quick assumptions.

In general, and this is probably both ways I am baffled by the number and quickness of assumptions we (the fast shrinking list of single friends I have:)) make about somebody who may interest us as a potential life partner. We seem to run ahead with our biases and set assumptions without even asking the person. It is ironic because for many of these people they are very educated, well exposed and even well versed in human psychology to recognize that for a person to succeed and maximize potential one should train themselves to control their sub-conscious bias and learn from their surrounding as opposed to quickly projecting their ideas.

We seem to forget that everyone, including ourselves, is continuously growing and evolving with the life experiences presented to us and with that growth, it is inevitable that views on certain life matters will change and so will priorities.

Because there is so much change I believe more of the focus should be shifted to evaluating a person’s core values, but such is only my humble opinion.