This post is a kind of response to Shudha’s But Home Does Feel Like Home.
It’s also just over 850 words long, so there’s a tl;dr is at the bottom.
Three weeks after coming back to Doha from one year in St. Louis, I’ve gradually resigned back into the Egyptian-Qatari routine. And even though this hybrid “third-culture” is the culture I was born and raised into and pretty much the only one I’d ever known, it still feels far from where I belong.
Not sure if most other third culture kids have this problem, or it was just me who was born into the wrong environment. Since I was a kid I never really liked where Qatar, mainly because I wasn’t allowed to officially call it home, and I was pressured not to.
Story time, children! Time to learn about Sherif’s angsty childhood!
Along with the other Egyptians, Levantines, and the rest of the Diaspora Crew I was put through a lot of bullying as a kid. Obviously a big part of that is being alien – foreign kids were bullied regardless of their other traits. And even though I belonged to the “Arabic” culture group, I was always asked to “go back to Egypt” among other xenophobic microaggressions. Without further graphic description of the kinds of other psychological wedgies I’ve received, being excluded from Qatari society meant that I couldn’t call it home even if I wanted to (which I don’t.)
My other home, Egypt, is a land I have few ties with besides ancestry. I have family there, that’s where my parents come from, and it’s also probably the easiest country for me to enter seeing how my passport says “Arab Republic of Egypt”. But the recent events in Egypt, combined by my own recent shift in mentality showed that neither a birthplace nor an ancestral homeland is necessarily a reliable place to call home.
In Egypt, the conflict between the reactionary Islamists and the traditionalist Militarists affirmed that there isn’t really a place for a difference in opinion, especially if you think in a certain (unpopular) direction. As a secular liberal, I’ve noticed quite a few instances of this being proven. While Islam and Christianity coexist with a degree of relative peace in Egypt, other religions (and irreligion) face a lot of hostility. Egyptian Baha’is, for example, got into a lot of trouble a few years back when they asked for their right to have their religion displayed on their ID cards (Egyptian ID cards have a compulsory “Religion” field which shows either Islam, Christianity or Judaism. No other options.) Similarly, the recently-surging Egyptian atheists are being treated like mental patients, being invited to talk shows where the host (sometimes accompanied by an “expert”) condescendingly talks to the atheist and tries to invalidate their beliefs with the superiority of Islam. If I were to be put in such a situation where I’m tried for an unpopular opinion, I would give up all claims to Egypt being my home. That’s just me, though, I’m the only person I know with such a slim emotional investment in their ancestral homeland.
What had helped me get a better grasp of this is living for a year in a wildly different culture. While I knew it was temporary, for a teenaged boy a year is enough time to be settled into a place in a way that you acquire its habits and, if supported by the locals, more or less assimilate into it. That was the case with St Louis. Being the most accepting place I’ve been to so far, St Louis is probably best among my total of three options to call home if I had to name one.
Acceptance into the culture of countries like Egypt or Qatar, i.e. any country with a more or less homogenous population or a certain dominant culture, is conditional on an individual’s conformity into the accepted set of habits. Deviation is forbidden and punishable by social exclusion at best. St Louis, while definitely having its own set of social and legal dos and don’ts, is quite open and encourages creativity and difference (so long as you don’t do certain things such as wear cropped pants as a man, even though I find this one ridiculous as well). The kind of home you’re stuck with, unless you choose to leave it, depends almost exclusively on a set of coincidences you have no control over, namely your ancestry, your place of birth, and your options. What you do have control over, however, are your thoughts and actions which can earn you respect from your coincidental home, or banishment from it.
Alas, until a real change happens in either me or this city, the Arab world should mean to me a HQ rather than my home.
If I get the chance, I’m going to write a second part to this post about globalization and post-nationalism.
tl;dr: Qatar is harsh and Egypt is narrowminded, and St Louis made me conscious of all that. A place that doesn’t respect you isn’t a home. In case of a lack of home matching the above criteria, your provisional home is where your suitcases are.