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.


Abez is a 50% white, 50% Pakistani, and 100% Muslim. She is also chronically ill and terminally awesome. She is the ever-lovin Momma of: - Khalid, a special little boy with autism - Iman, a special little girl with especially big hair -Musfira, an especially devious baby Spoiler, Abez is also Zeba Khan on

  1. Owl

    Funny, I hardly claim Irish. I go with British – since that encompasses the UK, Irish and Scottish origins of mom’s family. But then…. there’s the German side. So did I just make a mess of your attempt at simplifying what we is? Yes? SCORE!

  2. Abez

    Does British mean from anywhere in Great Britain? I think we might want to ask someone about that. I go with the Irish because I think it’s the answer that best explains the question of the freckles.

    And you’re right, I did marginalize our German heritage, didn’t I? I should probably go back and put that in, except it’s already complicated enough! Fie! And yay, my own sister actually reads my blog! 😀 How do you define yourself, Owlie-pie?

  3. Uncle Veirdo

    Shot out to HF, wave, nod/salute and howyadoin’? For I too was born and raised in country A, had schooling from country B and originally from country C. Country A kicked me out and considers me poor; greasy and smelly, country B thinks I am a jungle savage or demonic monster out to blow them up and country C thinks I am a full blown traitor. Thanks for the lovin’ y’all. The question of ethnicity was an issue to me when I was younger and wanted to just fit in and not be a “minority” (read: mutant freak). Ironically, growing up anywhere else does make you a freak in your country of origin. Now that I am a bit older and more mature, I realized the issue of ethnicity and fitting in is a luxury compared to other issues like say bare survival. So don’t care anymore and thus all good. People truly are all equal and sadly/ironically I was shown this in how they are all equally racists. Thank GOD Islam is there to keep me sane.
    In a lighter note, I appreciate the stares I get from my friends when my song list changes from playing qawwali to blue grass. How I can understand everything A, B and C people say without them knowing I understand. How I can look like A, B, and C people like a chameleon. Heck, I even get mistaken for D people. (Note: saying to a Mexican “yo no habla espanol” in perfect Mexican accent is kind of like showing em the finger, try to do it gringo style).
    -Uncle Veirdo.

  4. Carol

    This is such a charming and well written entry I sent the link to my Anthropology of Religions Professor. It perfectly adresses key class themes of religion, ethnicity and identity. Kudos and why the hell don’t you have a newspaper column yet. BTW, that poem about Palestine was so moving. You have such talent, and a heart to match. You can bring awareness without bitterness and cause people to feel suffering of others. May God move them spread the word as you do.

  5. Carol

    Oh, reread your ABC’s of HF’s life: I believe he was educated in country Dand has a passport from country D? I think that should be an E.

  6. Abez

    Aww, Momma, you’re so sweet 🙂 >>>hugs<<< and why the heck aren't you blogging anymore, hunh? You complain that I don't write but you stopped too! And oops! You're right, his passport is from country E, lemme fix that. Poor HF, he's even more complicated than initially blogged about :p Uncle Veirdo: "I realized the issue of ethnicity and fitting in is a luxury compared to other issues like say bare survival. So don’t care anymore and thus all good." You came to the same conclusion that I did: that it really doesn't matter anyway. Except for me, it was more a matter of I don't belong anywhere anyway, so I don't need to fit in anywhere. Except Jannah, InshaAllah. Problem solved. 🙂

  7. Saeed

    Since we’re all discussing the ABC’s of our lives, here’s mine:
    I was born in country A, did most of my schooling in country B (some in A, couple in country E), attended University in countries C & D, and am now back in country E. You may say its simpler coz I’m a national of country E anyway. Oh, & my parents are from countries E & F.
    But since I’ve only shifted base to E fairly recently (in my twenties), I’m not a regular E-ian (in terms of thought processes/morality etc). Oh, & I don’t speak the language of the state. Which makes me an outsider in the country of my nationality/heritage. So I’m still a minority. Have always been.

    Hope the kiddos are well?

  8. Zainab

    I LOVEEEEE this entry!! And it’s my first too :D.

    And the reason I loved it is because I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently. I couldn’t understand how to identify myself when someone asks “where are you from?” What do I say? I was born in the US, raised in the US, educated in the US, but my mom is Indian so we grew up speaking Urdu and wearing shalwar kameez and eating biryani and my dad is Burmese but I have no idea what kinda clothes Burmese people wear, but the food sure is yummy…

    The Islamic school I went to was loaded with Arabs so sometimes I feel like I could be Arab… hmm… But then in the end I decide. I’m nothing. I’m not from a specific country. I’m not from a specific culture. I don’t identify with ANY culture. I’m a fusion of every culture I’ve immersed in. And like you mentioned, more than anything else, I’m a Muslim :).

    Love your blog, btw!

  9. Owl

    Course I read your blog Cowpie. Pshaw.

    As to how I identify myself: depends on who’s asking. 😉 You know me, I like to be difficult.

    The simplest thing to say is – American of South/Central Asian and Anglo extraction.

  10. Sammy

    Abez, I think I’m in love with you. I hit upon your blog while I was reading about seeking refuge from the snooze button and I couldn’t stop reading what you had to write!

    You have a wonderful blog here, MashaAllah! 🙂

  11. thanaya asgher

    dear abez(how to pronounce ur name dear???)i loved this piece about multiple identities… really i , too, have so many reltives who live in the UK or the US and further get hitched across oceans… im sure they all land in a similar situation as yours! but what i envy about you and these relatives of mine is the fact that you remain only muslims at the end of the day…. your only identity is that you are a muslim…. you all are united under that one banner! just as tough as it might be to explain your identity to others, just feel pride in being a muslim, and only a muslim at the end of the day! keep up the writing, love ur blog sister!

  12. Abez

    Thanaya: It’s Uh, like duh, and bez, like fez. Uh-bez.

    And why do you envy your relatives? Even if you were born, raised, educated, and buried in Country B, your nationality is still worth zilch on the Day of Judgment. Your only real identity is Muslim, and the only reason you would have to envy your relatives is if they were Muslim and you weren’t. 😉

  13. Emma Apple

    MashaAllah I LOVE this entry!!!

    I don’t have the same diversity in my identity as you do (by the way mashaAllah!) but this is a topic I’ve thought about OFTEN growing up and as a parent!

    I’m white, don’t *really* know what sort of white but I’m 6th (or 7th) generation New Zealander. Native (though not indigenous) New Zealanders are Maori (like polynesian) we grew up very in touch with the Maori culture so we consider ourselves Pakeha (maori word for white people claimed by many white kiwi’s as a classification for us specifically)

    I always had a problem with the identity thing, we belonged, but didn’t REALLY belong to NZ. Add in Aspergers and all the social issues. I didn’t feel like I belonged/was part of/was accepted as anything (accept with my family and some close family friends) until I was Muslim. But that too was only temporary when I realized all the same social ailments and nationalistic divisions existed within much of the ummah as well.

    I married an Arab, my kids are half arab and half white and I’ve often said that they won’t be accepted by either, possibly disproportionately hated by one “race” and disproportionately respected by the other. I’d like to hope they (we) could just be Muslim and that would be enough to be accepted as “one of” but it’s not so.

    In the end, we make our own identity and what other people decide about it is of no consequence. Our national identity is Muslim, our culture is Islam and as you say, that’s all that will matter when it all really matters.

  14. Sadiyya Nesar

    I love this post!

    I am Pakistani but I was born and raised in Hong Kong when it was colonized by Britian. Now its given back to China. I did not go to the local schools so I am not considered Hong Kongese either. I went to an international school and have an American and slightly British accent but in spite of that I am not considered Westernized because of my Islam. Hong Kong is considered a place where East meets West but in spite of that I never did fit anywhere thus giving me somewhat of a cultural identity crises. Islam seemed to diminish everything away Alhumdulilah.

    This article was well put MashaAllah. I guess there are people who dont consider us abled and others who dont consider us disabled because of how we can walk, huh? 🙂 Ahh, isnt it fun to confuse people 😀

  15. Sadiyya Nesar

    Haha, yes its a way of educating people but sometimes it can be amusing when a person gets confused after not trying to accept the ambiguity in our states.
    On campus I usually use the electrical wheelchair but before I leave for home I park it then wait for the car while standing. People who have seen me around campus would first walk pass me with their coffee cups unaware of what they saw (me standing) but then it’d hit them that they’d continue to walk but also look back at me by the time they eventually smash themselves into something and find their coffee cups on the floor. Honestly people seeing me stand after on the wheelchair scares the heck out of people. I feel guilty sometimes but at the same time I try not to laugh :’D I am glad Allah caused us to think of ourselves and also cause others to think

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