Sherif N’ the Bedouins

Five years ago in a Qatari public school, I was walking into my first class of middle school. New building, new teachers, new system, but the same students I was raised with. As is custom, I walked in and gave a blanket greeting before taking the last empty seat. It was special that time, though.

My classmates got a slightly different greeting than they expected. Sure, I used the usual “peace be upon you” that my generation of Arab Muslims was raised to use, but not the way they knew it. The speech they heard was light and smooth, almost cheeky compared to the hardness of their peninsular dialect.

What they heard, for the first time for many of them, is a kid in their class speaking a foreign dialect.

As a stranger among the citizens of a society as chauvinistic as Qatar, there was an immense amount of pressure on me and people like me to conform to the dominant culture. And unlike Subcontinental or Sub-Saharan African immigrants who lived in relative isolation and mostly within diaspora communities that shared the same language (or English), Arab immigrants operated in the larger Arabic-speaking network dominated by the native Qataris, allowing them the chance to assimilate but also exposing them to the intimidation associated with that.

Maybe you’ve already guessed, but before the day that I decided to greet my class in Egyptian, I spoke their dialect all the time (well, except at home). And so did everyone else; because nobody really had a choice. Bullying, in whatever forms these kids could discover, was a serious problem; and as a kid, how much of it you get was largely determined by your social status, which was mostly determined by race, nationality, and bloodline. As immigrants, we had the worst of each; and nationals of certain countries, like the dark-skinned Sudan, had it worse than others. Sometimes a neutral adjective would be used as a pejorative (“Sa’idi” and “Battani” are my personal favorites), as if ethnicity or national origin was something to be ashamed of.

Needless to say, this led to shame and self-hatred. I remember in primary school once sitting with myself and trying to figure out a way to assimilate completely, to immerse myself and others fully in the illusion that I am in fact a Qatari; It shouldn’t be too hard, given I’m brown like them and can speak their dialect like I’m one of them. It didn’t work, because my name is Sherif, and Qataris never name their kids that. Some of my friends were more successful. I looked down on them for it, but inevitably, also envied them for it.

I’m not entirely sure what exactly it was that prompted me to take the decision to get real that day, but it was bound to happen. I was growing more confident of myself then, and my tongue, as well as my spirits, were getting tired of it. I made that decision with a lot of uncertainty, and I was often teased for it – just as expected. But the teasing subsided, and the satisfaction of newfound liberation lingered.

Today I remember it as one of the best decisions I’ve ever taken in my life, and one of the things I’m most proud of. One thing I’m equally proud of is that I was the first immigrant that I know of in my grade to speak his own dialect, and that by the end of the year, about half of the immigrants in my grade had followed suit. And maybe I’m giving myself too much credit here, but I like to think that I was the inspiration for them too.

In the end, Sherif and the crew still had to wear the Qatari Thawb, because it became the school uniform. But that was okay.

We had already won.


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.