I write this with the courage of a person who comes from a place where having an opinion is dangerous, where speaking your mind makes you a threat and where standing up for what you believe is seditious. I write this knowing that if it is read, someone somewhere may consider me a national threat. Having said this, while reading this piece, do not expect anything revolutionary. You will realize that the words I’ve written are not intended to have the same mobilizing effect that a certain vegetable merchant had on the masses as he set himself on fire. The only purpose behind my disclaimer is to put things into perspective, for you to understand that in some places a mere thought can have grave consequences. I have only recently become very open about voicing my opinions; it’s been a long but a gradually liberating process.
Have I ever talked to you about my pivot point theory? I have always believed that life revolves around split-second “aha-moments,” and that in the middle of an extraordinary experience you reach a point that influences the course of your life in unexpected ways. My pivot point was in 2011, and how cliché is it for me to consider the year of the Arab Spring as such? Personally, I experienced a sort of awakening; I allowed a revolution to run in me and fuel every thought I had kept hidden for so long. You may have seen people rise against dictators on the streets, chanting catchy slogans as countries crumbled down into chaos. However, what didn’t appear on your television sets was a profound wound that scarred my society and divided it into two. What you didn’t see was me struggling in a battle to reconcile between my family and my friends, who all of a sudden belonged to two separate divisions of society. Your CNN, BBC and France24 news anchors didn’t tell you that we no longer spoke of ourselves as citizens of a country but in the language of archenemies, and that we were having the infamous conversation of “us” versus “them.”
I felt the need to define my place in the midst of the turmoil of feeling torn between two parts I belonged to, but that no longer belonged to each other. Was I the “good us” that fit under the definition of a loyal national or was I foreign enough to be the “traitorous them”? These distinctions led me to reconnect with my heritage and trace my lineage in an attempt to reason with the absurdity of the situation. My reasoning eventually led me to diagnose myself with a chronic “out-of-place disorder”: one that was caused by the accent I carried in my Arabic and by the family name I didn’t carry officially but the one by which people knew me. It’s the way my thick black eyebrows are drawn on my face, amongst other facial features, that allowed people to systematically identify where I was from, and eventually led them to approach me in a language other than that of my mother tongue.
The year it all started, I had an interview for a scholarship; one that was precisely designed to distinguish between students who belonged to either the Us or the Them. Towards the end, my interviewer asked me if one of the reasons why I made mistakes in Arabic was my Persian background. I remember leaving the room not knowing whether to feel proud that I hold such a strong element of identity, or to feel disgraced for not having perfect enough Arabic to be addressed as an Arab.
You see, I was born Arab, I grew up being taught that I was a Bahraini girl and I was unable to recognize beyond that. However, I also grew up hearing my elder aunts and uncles speaking in a language that was foreign to my little ears. I grew up hearing my grandpapa talk about his sisters living in “Fars” in his broken Arabic. I even remember the day we went to pick him up from the port after school because he had gone on a visit to “Fars” by boat.
“Where is Fars? Have you ever been to Fars, Baba?,” I asked my father. My parents would then be put on the spot trying to explain why a part of our family was on the other side of the Persian/Arab Gulf. Voilà, I came to realize that a body of water also shares my identity crisis. As I grew, so too did my curiosity . “Mama, can you please teach me the language?” I would ask my mother on Friday afternoons as I would try to decrypt the language my aunts used to gossip in around a cup of tea. The answer was always negative. “Habebti, it will only affect your Arabic. Do you want to have broken Arabic like your aunts?” she would ask. Little did Mama know that years later, despite not teaching me the language, a stranger over an interview would be able to detect my identity through my linguistic imperfections.
You may wonder why speaking about my personal identity struggle is dangerous. Or even why my parents faced the difficulty in explaining who we were while instructing me on who I should be. You see, being of a Persian background links me to the not-so-friendly neighbour, Iran. Admitting this background therefore leads my national allegiance to be questioned. Did I mention how when Iran was brought up in front of Grandpapa, as a part of very common political discussions, he would ask us all to stop talking because he was afraid of being sent back to Iran? Why would we be sent there? Are we not Bahraini and Arab as my parents taught me we were? Why would we be sent out of our country to a country that I still haven’t clearly understood our connection to? Why, despite the tremendous effort my parents put into proving that we were nationals of this country, would we be exiled to a foreign land because of a mere thought? Mama always explained it as exaggerated fear and for a long time I accepted this justification.
However, as I grew older I realized that if you felt secure in your national identity, then the idea of exile wouldn’t haunt you, would it? Understanding this led me to question the idea of a homogenous society that is being imposed through power. You know, the homogenous national identity that included the citizens who belonged to the “Us” but excluded the “them,” which is in some ways “foreign.” I have found that the basis of creating such an identity of a unique culture, history and language is a method to keep societies under control. It is this very construction of national identities in a way that isolates aliens, the “them,” who don’t carry the exact same values, that led my parents to emphasise their belongingness within the accepted sphere. We were told to filter our ethnic and cultural identity in order to not be in conflict with the “interests and the security of the nation.” But can we all not be a part of a nation regardless of the distinctions that make us who we are? How much of me should I eliminate in order to fit within the parameters of a national? Very recently, I realized that no matter how much I contain myself, I will always remain under the imposed criteria of a second-class citizen. Two years ago, I interned at the most prestigious public institution in my country, where I was frankly told that though they would love to employ me, there was only a certain level that I’d be able to attain in my career because, amongst other reasons, I wasn’t from an Arab family.
I never blamed my parents for raising me in a certain way; they had my future and best interests in mind. “Do you prefer living in Iran where our relatives live in poor conditions as a forgotten [religious] minority?,” they would argue today as my curious childhood questions develop into adult frustration. I wonder sometimes, if they had known that their efforts to make us fit in with the “Us” would ultimately not be enough, would they have taught me the language of my grandparents? I’ll probably never know the answer to this question. So, if you ask me today as to who I am, the most honest answer I can give you is my name because I am unsure of the rest.
By Amal Abdulla
Credit for featured image: Amal Abdulla, author