Thursday, December 30, 2010

Multiculturalism and Me

This a short-and-sweet "introductory" piece I wrote that may be published somewhere. That might work out or not, but I figured it shouldn't matter if I posted it here for people's feedback :)

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It's true that coming from a multicultural background, as I do, makes you feel sometimes that you have no real place to call home. You don't fully belong to any one country, and there always seem to be pesky hyphens in however you self-identify. Saudi, American, Palestinian… I don't know which to ascribe to myself. More often than not, my answer to the question "Where are you from?" depends on who I'm talking to and where.

I live in an Arab country, Saudi Arabia, and I was born in an Arab country, Egypt; but my pale skin and somewhat accented Arabic never fail to arouse the curiosity of strangers, and the answer "Oh, I'm from Saudi" doesn't satisfy. (Unfortunately for me, Arabs are notoriously curious.) On occasion I have given a painfully condensed tale of my tangled lineage to people I've never met before and never will again in tram stations, in hospitals, and even on the street sometimes.

In America, it's my headscarf that gets the attention. I'm not automatically assumed to be foreign, but once it's established that I don't actually live in the States, the question "Where are you from?" tends to make me a nervous wreck. I always answer as breezily as I can, and I've never gotten what you'd call a bad reaction – usually people are quite nice and inquisitive about it – but Saudi Arabia, to put it lightly, is not often seen to be a very nice place to come from!

However, I'm not complaining. I always think the advantages of being multicultural far outweigh the disadvantages.

For one, it gives you a kind of 'oomph' factor. Once you've gotten over the "She's gotta be oppressed" hurdle from Americans, I usually get reactions like "Wow, that's near Dubai, right?" (For all the good publicity it's given to the Middle East, I personally owe the UAE). Stereotypes must be shattered in the meantime: it's kind of funny and sad at once that there are things I have to say like "No, I don't live in a tent," "No, I don't ride a camel to school," "YES, I go to school, girls are allowed!" But I am glad to say them.

In Saudi Arabia and most Arab countries, contrary to popular opinion, being an American is actually a source of wide-eyed amazement, even envy. The technological advancement of Western countries (Western soap operas aired on Arab TV must also get their proper due here) is mostly seen as something to be aspired for and looked up to. People love American culture and the only problem I usually get is the incessant questions that follow, things like "Ooh, you've actually been there? What's it like? Speak some English for us!"

Which brings me to the second advantage of bring multicultural: I love that I'm bilingual.

Witnessing the struggles of my fellow classmates in English class has given me a renewed appreciation for my parents' efforts to make me proficient in both Arabic and English. In this age of globalization – the age of English! – it's an invaluable tool to have, and guess what? I got it for free, along with countless other children from multicultural families who have had to learn both of their mother tongues.

Finally, it gives you a singular vantage point: two of them. Based on your own experience, you learn that there is more than one side to every conflict; that your opinion might not necessarily be the right one; that there is much to gain and little to lose from befriending your neighbor.
And that, in my opinion, is basically the essential conclusion of the Age of Globalization right there.


  1. Thanks for posting that article. I find it purely fascinating to hear or read the perspectives of people from other cultures. And it's especially interesting when someone such as yourself, coming from a family in which more than one cultural background is represented, speaks of how that multicultural upbringing affects his/her perspective. I admit to envying your bilingual proficiency. :grin:

  2. Thank you for the kind comment! :D

  3. Your sister told me about your blog today (i.e. ADVERTISED your blog today :P) so I decided to check it out. Great piece mashallah, can't wait to read more ;) "Speak some English for us"? Really?? LOL

  4. Haha, thank you Laraine! I should thank her too ;)
    And yes, really. Though admittedly that happened far more often in Abha than here, where people are more likely than not to speak English better than me :P

  5. wow M, this is really nice!! I know I know I havent been a good friend for not reading this earlier and i regret it. I'm looking forward to read more of your posts.