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Monthly Archives: March 2010

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Identity vs. Nationality vs. Ethnicity

Being half Pakistani, half white, raised in America and living in the UAE, I’ve long ago learned that when people ask me where I’m from, they don’t want to hear ‘Chicago.’ They want to know why I look like an Arab, sound like an American and hang out with a brown guy who bears striking resemblance to my Turkish-looking children. So I have no problem presenting my pedigree at the drop of the hat, because I know that there is no short and accurate answer. I’m Muslim, I was raised in America, but have also lived in Pakistan for eight years, my mother is American, my father is Pakistani. My father is Muslim, my mother is Mormon. No, they are not divorced.

“Ah, yes yes,” people nod, as things start to make sense. Then the next question comes:

“And your husband, he is local?” When people here say local, they mean local Emirati, and they ask because any foreign Muslim woman wearing a black abaya must to be married to her local counterpart in the white kandoora, right? (salt and pepper, yin and yang?)

“Actually,” I say, “My husband is Pakistani.”


“Yes…” I try to explain, because the brown guy in the Blogger t-shirt with the standard Midwestern accent who says things like Hey, howyadoin? does not fit inside of the box traditionally reserved for Bakistani. “Well, his parents are from Pakistan, but he was born in Kuwait. And raised in Oman. And went to school in the UAE, and college in the US. And, he’s never lived in Pakistan, but I’m sure he’s visited a few times.”

People nod uncertainly. “So I mean, he’s Pakistani, but he’s not really very Pakistani? I mean, I’m more Urdu-literate than he is! But he looks brown, so his Urdu comes off better than mine, and his accent is better too.” And then people start to get that polite look of panic in their eyes that is usually accompanied by a sudden urge to rush home and see if they left the iron plugged in.

I think it’s easier for me to explain myself than it is for HF, because I at least was born in, and brought up in, the country of my nationality. He was born in country A, raised in countries B and C, educated in country D, and has a passport from (but has never lived in) country E. And in this country, your salary and your renumeration package is directly connected to your nationality.

[Yes, it’s racist, idiotic, and unfair. No, I can’t do anything about it. The Mighty Whities (US, UK, Australian, and South African Nationals) get top dollars, top benefits, and more prominent positions. The rest of us are on a much, much lower pay scale, with much fewer benefits. Why? Because if you, Brown Guy #237, don’t like it, there are 67,409 other Brown Guys standing in line behind you who are willing to work for what it a humungous salary back home, though a paltry one according to the expenses of Dubai. If White Guy #1 doesn’t like his job, however will we replace him? Do you have any idea how hard it is to coax a white guy out here? Quick, meet his demands! His accent makes our company sound posh!]

The office, who is legally obliged to give employees tickets “home” once a year, wants to give HF tickets to a home he’s never lived in, because his passport is Pakistani. So, to get tickets back to the “home” he actually has family in, he says he’s American. But then he has to deal with people on both sides of the fence who say things like: “American? You’re not an American, you’re a Pakistani national!” And if he says he’s Pakistani, people say things like, “Oh, where from?” and he says “I don’t know, I’ve never lived there….” So where did you live before this? “Umm, Virginia?”

In some ways this is very typical of Dubai. Yesterday we went to the barbeque of another “Pakistani” family, born in Saudi, raised in Connecticut and moved to Dubai last year. We had steak and barbecued chicken, we played Scrabble and we’ve invited them over some time after next week. We’ll make sushi.

Chai, a dear friend of mine, once told me a story about her young brother, Ismo. Ismo, then seven or eight, brought a friend over from school to play. Chai overheard the following conversation.

“Hey, what are you? Are you Muslim?”
“Muslim? I don’t know.”
“Well, do you eat rice?”
“Then you’re Muslim.”

I often remember that story when people ask me what “I am.” This is a different question from ‘where are you from’ or ‘what is your nationality.’ This is not a question of ethnicity or nationality, this is a question of identity. They want to know what my culture is. Do I make Nihari? Yes. Does that make me a Pakistani? I don’t know, do Pakistanis traditionally bake gingerbread men for Ramadan?

Does HF eat Pakistani food? Yes, does that make him Pakistani? Not any more than eating sushi makes him Japanese, and we roll our sushi at home. I don’t think that the food you eat determines ‘what you are,’ nor does the way you behave neatly define what your culture is. Do I respect my elders? Yes. Is that an exclusively Asian thing? Nope. Was I an obnoxious teenager? Oh yes. Is that an exclusively ‘American’ thing? Unfortunately, no.

I long ago realized I was too brown for the whites and too white for the browns. My first language is English but I have a funny foreign name. My Urdu is awful but my father is Pakistani. My passport is American but my wardrobe alone scares the bjeezus out of most Americans. (My accent may be as American as apple pie, but my abaya most certainly isn’t.) So what am I? What is the determining factor for one’s identity, if it is not nationality or ethnicity? Vague ideas of what is ‘culture’ differ on a regional or ethnic level, and are the passing whims of popularity and general accepted social norms. You can argue that certain things make you American, but a hundred years ago, those same behaviours would be shocking, outrageous, and very un-American. (June is Gay Pride month in the US) They’re not standards, they’re just a sign of the times.

Even if I were to choose to be American, and to abide by the generally accepted principals of what being ‘American’ means, there are no principals of American-ness. Having a passport alone doesn’t make me an ‘American,’ it only makes me an American national. I could choose to be Pakistani, but again, there’s no documented process. My father is Pakistani, and he identifies with the culture and was born within the borders of the country, but guess what- he’s an American national too. Being born in a certain country doesn’t mean they’ll teach you the secret handshake either- HF was born in Kuwait, and he is most definitely not a Kuwaiti, even when he does wear a kandoora. Ethnicity alone doesn’t convey identity either, because I’m not an Irishwoman any more than my mother is. Without an agreed-upon standard determining the requirements of identity, the only thing left to fall back on is choice.

I did not choose to be born in America, any more than I chose to have a Pakistani father and an American mother. My ethnicity was set before I was even born, and my nationality can be changed if I decide to say… apply for Canadian immigration. My identity is the only thing I exert any control over. I choose to be Muslim, I identify with Muslims of all colors and countries, because we have an agreed standard of Muslim-ness. If you believe in Allah, and His Messenger, and the Qur’an, and you try to follow it- you’re Muslim. These elements of belief are all matters of choice as well, and someone can easily choose to NOT be Muslim if they wanted to, and that choice alone would be sufficient for them to no longer be considered part of the Ummah anymore.

The food I cook is not determined by what my ancestors cooked, but by what is halal. The clothes I wear are not any specific national dress, they are pieces of cloth arranged in such a way that they fulfill the Islamic requirements for modesty; abaya, shalwar qameez, or skirt or whatever. I don’t dance at Mehndhi parties just because ‘I’m Pakistani’ or go to prom just because ‘I’m American.’ I do, however, pray salah, fast, give zakah and wear a hijab because ‘I’m Muslim.’ My traditions and rituals are not specific to any tribe or cultural legacy, they are a follow-through on the Qur’an and the consensus of the scholars on the Sunnah, and I would be an arrogant idiot to say everything I did was 100% Islamic, but I can honestly say that the only defining culture I have is what has been given to me of Islam.

So what am I? Culturally, and consciously, I’m a Muslim. Alhamdulillah. My nationality is American, and my ethnicity is Irish-Pakistani. I’m married to a lovely man whose ethnicity and nationality are Pakistani, but whose upbringing is as crisscrossed as international flight patterns. He’s a Muslim too. My children are also Muslim, and InshaAllah, may they live in the state of Islam and not die except in a state of submission. They are American nationals born in the UAE who are ethnically 25% Irish, though they have never been to Ireland, and 75% Pakistani, though they have never been to Pakistan. Allah is the Lord of the East and the West, and the whole earth is a place of worship. Who knows where my children will live when they grow up, or how many strangers they’ll scare away when asked what they are?

Oh, and I think you left your iron on.

A dose of Awesomeness for the day

First, there is the Story of Bottled Water, which is not only adorably illustrated, but well scripted, and well-needed information about the bottled water industry.  Abez gives it three thumbs up, and is going to buy Reusable Bottles for All, made out of BPA-free plastic, of course.

Hip, hip?  Hooray!

And then there’s the second bit of awesomeness- in addition to the Neturei Karta, and the JVP, Dr.Norman Finkelstein has joined the list of people who make my day by proving that seeing the truth about the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a matter of humanity, and that crimes committed in the name of the Holocaust are not justified, but further darkened by the flimsy excuse of injustices past.

A young Jewish woman plays the Holocaust card at one of Dr. Finkelstein’s lectures at the University of Waterloo- watch this video for his response; the intellectual equivalent of a can of wh00p#$$,  pardon my French.

Nablus Now

Nablus Now

In Auschwitz it dripped
In Nablus now it drips
From flesh it freshly flowed
As in Nablus now it rips

In Auschwitz she cried
In Nablus now she cries
Hated hands held her and hers
As in Nablus where she lies

In Auschwitz they moaned
In Nablus now they moan
Hear the hunger haunting them
As Nablus orphans groan

In Auschwitz he fell
In Nablus now he falls
Bullets bounce from boy to brain
In Nablus off the walls

In Auschwitz they died
In Nablus now we die
And you call this land Holy Land?
In Nablus, we call it Auschwitz

No more monkeys jumping on the bed!

One little Iman jumping on the bed
She fell off and bumped her head!
Momma called the doctor and the doctor said:
Take her to the ER, she might need stitches.

As life imitates art (or vice-versa?) Iman smashed her head against the corner of a dressing table while jumping on Momma’s bed and initiated herself into the world of the Mortal Wound. And what a dramatic initiation it was- twenty minutes of crying and bleeding profusely and refusing to hold still, blood on her clothes and on her face as she tried to make the pain go away by vigorously rubbing at it. (Note: this doesn’t work)

We did eventually get the bleeding to stop, and then packed her into the car and off to the emergency room in Abu Dhabi. We were seen right away, Alhamdulillah, and were asked only once- “So ma’am, what is the prob- oh. Richard, dressing for the baby please!” Iman was in a fairly good mood, the pain having subsided, and we even went through a few rounds of ‘Five little monkeys jumping on the bed,’ to the amusement of the ER staff. Iman bobbed up and down and tapped on her own head for emphasis, and appropriately shook her head and held out a very stern finger at the final line. But then the fun was over because it was time to actually do something about the hole in her forehead.

In case you’ve ever wondered what the Iman:Normal Human ratio of intensity is, I think it’s three to one. That’s how many people it takes to hold her down so that one nurse can push the edges of the wound together while another paints it with glue, fans it dry, paints it again, fans some more, and then lays down steri-strips, and then clear plastic bandage to background shrieking of “No! Wait! All Done! No No No! Mommaa!”

When it was all done and Iman’s hands were finally freed, she made an angry grab at the bandages on her forehead. Ouch! she cried out in genuine surprise. She frowned, sniffled, thought for a moment, and then tried again. Ouch! *pout*. Cindy and I were trying desperately to not laugh out loud, and we waited to see whether she would do it again. She did. Ouch! *pout* We gave her a glass of water and some tic-tacs, and with both hands full, she stopped taking swipes at herself.

She fell asleep in the car on the way home, woke up in the morning happy, and seems to have forgotten about last night’s trauma. Today Cindy and I moved the furniture around in the bedroom, and the new arrangement is awkward, but at least there is nothing forehead puncturing in the vicinity of the bed. Alhamdulillah, we were blessed that Iman did not get the corner of the dresser in her eye, and I’m not going to risk it.

No more monkeys jumping on the bed!

There’s a monster under my bed, but don’t worry, I think it’s just me.

For the most part, I consider myself a fairly well put together person. Alhamdulillah, I’m not easily given to panic or woe-is-me-ism. Lately though, I find myself being ambushed by sudden, overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and futility. Am I depressed? Not nearly as much as I was last month or so. I think I’m just emotionally vulnerable. And here I am blogging about it, because sometimes the only way to conquer the monster under your bed is to put your head under there with a flashlight and see that it’s only an old pair of bunny slippers.

I haven’t been able to drag the monster out of the dark yet (and to date, I’ve never owned a pair of bunny slippers) but the first step towards a solution is admitting that there is a problem. So I am. And here it is. I, Abez, deliberate Muslim and earnest (if not part-time) seeker of The Straight Path, suddenly find myself face-down in a pot hole when I thought I had been doing a jaunty two-step on the road to spiritual completion and peace. We all hit speed-bumps, but sometimes I feel like someone has laid out a trip wire. And thumb tacks.

Yes, I know, the straight path is bumpy and uphill. It’s supposed to be that way. The easy path is the wrong one. It’s the one with the smooth, fluid, downhill descent into the pleasure of distraction. I could read books all day, I could numb reality with non-stop nonsense, I could fall face-first into the gooey decadence of self-indulgence and then I wouldn’t have to think about anything that stressed me out, because I wouldn’t have to *think*. And if I didn’t think, I wouldn’t worry.

It would seem that I worry a lot. I worry about Khalid, his future, his teeth, that funny rash on his back, whether his pants are too tight, his shoes too small, his hair too long… And Iman- SubhanAllah- I spend hours worrying about her, but not as a mutually exclusive activity. I worry about her while doing other things- like when brushing her hair- how can I teach her to do hijab with passion and eagerness and the certainty that you can only have when the decision comes from both the mind and the heart? Will she be intelligent? Will she be a compassionate person? If she’s not, how can I teach her? Will she pray? Will she resent me for trying to make her?

And then I worry about random people. I only have to step into the waiting room of my doctor’s office to have my mind suddenly awash with hopelessness- all these people waiting around me are worried too, they all need help, they all have something wrong, some things major, some things minor, all of them painful, many of them debilitating. Will they find purpose through their trials? Or will they think they were ok until they hit a speed bump, stepped on a thumb tack and then fell face first into a pot hole, where they then rolled over and found me laying next to them?

On a side-note, the view from the pot hole can be amazing. If you just turn over, you can see the stars. But maybe this isn’t the side-note, maybe this is the whole point. Maybe I lose track of the destination while plodding along, staring at nothing but my feet. Maybe I need to get knocked to the ground so I can turn to the sky. I don’t know if this is entirely true, but I do know that I am never closer to Allah than I am when in pain, in fear, and in need. And in the closeness is a sweetness that you can’t find anywhere else, and that closeness is the direct result of desperation.

I know I am suppose to stand up, thank Allah for the lesson, and keep on climbing, but sometimes I feel like my legs are giving out on me, or that there’s no way I’ll ever make it to the top. I lose hope, though Alhamdulillah, I have yet to lose purpose.

Correction: I refuse to lose purpose. I will not lose purpose. Even if I’m laying in the dirt without the will to get up again, I will still know why I’m there and what direction I’m going to go in once I can find my feet. I need to remember, and God, please help me remember, that if fate gives me a black eye it’s because Allah ordered it. And there is good in it, provided I am willing to see it and that I am humble enough to admit that I deserved it, and Lord knows I have enough sins to warrant some expiation. God give me the strength to admit that Allah knows best, and that losing hope in anything good ever lasting for too long is losing hope in Allah’s Mercy, His divine will, and His greater purpose in all things.

I can’t blame anyone but myself, even though sometimes my fits of hopelessness feel almost out of my control. One minute I’m ok, next minute I’m thinking about how hard all the day-laborers and construction workers have it, how they don’t see their families for years at a time and earn less money a year than most people earn in a month. And I’m thinking that it’s just not fair.

Aha! I lose hope because it’s not fair. To them. Or to me.

Oh boy. I didn’t know my spiritual angst was still a teenager. I bet if my discord had tiny feet, it would be stomping them right now. I’m pretty sure I haven’t whined ‘It’s not fair!’ since I was a baby-faced teenager arguing over how my brother got to stay out late on the weekends but I always had to be home before dinner. At some point I grew up and learned things like:

  • God is just, but people can be cruel and small
  • This world is just a big board game with live pieces
  • Allah will even out all the imbalances on the Day of Judgment, so all ‘unfairness’ is just temporary
  • Setbacks, handicaps, physical flaws, mental deficiencies are a function of the hand you are dealt in a game we all play. And no one has all the aces anyway

And I also learned things like:

  • Allah has promised to not test anyone more than they can bear
  • All pain, worry, illness, stress, etc- when handled with patience and faith, simply erase previous sins in addition to make you stronger
  • Allah has promised refuge to those who seek refuge in Him
  • And if you go to Him walking, He comes to you at speed

So now I need to add some new lessons. And it may be a statement of the obvious, but I think it helps round off the previous lessons nicely. Here it is:

  • Trying to be righteous is hard work
  • When they said uphill, they really meant it
  • Spiritual struggle can be quite a … struggle

By Abez, The End.