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.