Homing

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.

Breakdown of the Arabics

Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with an estimated 290 million speakers across the board.

Except not really.

Arabic language is in reality more like a collective of languages, spoken in different ways in different parts of the Arab world. Like Germanic or Slavic languages, Arabic languages come in a variety of shapes and colors while retaining some core characteristics, such as sounding pretty much the same to foreigners.

ImageVarieties of Arabic in and around the middle east. Click for full size.

Historically (well, until 630 AD or so,) Arabic language and its mostly similar tribal dialects were limited to the Arabian peninsula, expanding and evolving within it. Non-Arabs in the middle east spoke their own indigenous languages; for example, North African Berber nomads spoke Berber languages. Until the Spread of Islam, that is, after which Arabic gradually replaced the indigenous language as the main language for governance and everyday life on the land, a process accelerated by Arabian (Bedouin) nomads migrating out of the Arabian peninsula and into North Africa, Mesopotamia and the Levant.

In non-Arabian areas ruled by Arabian chiefs, creoles of Arabic and the local language formed, creating what is today known as Arabic dialects, but like the relationship between Haitian Creole and French, distant dialects of Arabic are not very mutually intelligible. Having developed separately out of different combinations of languages, Arabic dialects have different vocabularies and accents (that are not necessarily mutually intelligible), each dialect effectively being a language in its own right. Some dialects are simple enough to be easily understood by non-native speakers, though (Egyptian and Levantine, for example), and geographically proximate dialects tend to have a lot in common.

The explanation for lumping such radically different creoles in the same pack is largely sociopolitical. Classical Arabic is a variety of Arabic that is no longer spoken at home but is understood by most educated Arabs (think Old English if it was taught in schools), and is the one used in writing the Qur’an, the Islamic holy scripture, back in the 7th century. The Qur’an played a great role in maintaining the status of Classical Arabic, which would have gone extinct if the Qur’an hadn’t existed. The study of Arabic language developed and became popular (even with non-Arabic speakers), and this preserved the status of Classical Arabic and contributed to its reputation with Arabs (or, speakers of Arabic creoles).

The other reason is Arab nationalism. As a response to colonial exploitation, Arabic peoples eventually came to see “Arabism” as a uniting banner (compare to this, or this). Needless to say, Arabic language rather than culture was the main uniting aspect. Pan-Arabism gained a respectable amount of traction in the 50s, becoming the state ideologue of quite a few Arab states, and eventually inspiring its “same but different” sister ideology: Pan-Islamism. Both are mainstream across the Arab world today, to varying levels across different communities.

All research credit goes to Wikipedia. Please let me know if there are any mistakes in this post.

My (Real) Intro to Blogging

Blogging to me has always been something like updating iTunes or starting a diet, i.e. more “something I should probably do at some point” than a set goal. Even though I’ve blogged before, it’s always been more of a chore than something I want to do (probably because then I only did it because I had to). Now that I’m blogging from my own free will (and the advice of a bro who’s also a blogger (brogger?) ), and that I actually wrote this post, I’m going to write in this blog everything too long for the average Facebook user’s attention span, which is about 2.5 lines.

I could dedicate this blog to experience as an exchange student during the last year, my musings on the situation in Egypt, random geek news or my ADD, but I’d rather not define it quite yet. I don’t want to end up defining myself by what I write in my blog, and I’d rather let it define itself over time with what’s relevant while I overcome my irrational hatred of writing.

Or not, and just let it grow into a disorganized morass. Like my Facebook wall, but actually kind of coherent.