An Iraqi Arab woman, Baan Al-Hakim, wearing the kufiya, photo taken by the author
© Aya Al-Hakim
An Iraqi Arab woman, Baan Al-Hakim, wearing the kufiya, photo taken by the author
Last updated: October 18, 2015
As an Arab-Canadian, I’m still searching for home

"I began to question my Arab identity"

Banner Icon As an immigrant, one tries to become part of a new place. But what place?, asks Aya Al-Hakim in this thought-provoking reflection.

Our mother tongue is what connects us to a lost unity and a future one.

It has been five years since I came to Canada and became a citizen. Within these five years, my Arabic became exclusively the language of the household. Occasionally, I spoke the language with fellow Arabs, but English dominated.

I rarely wrote in Arabic and no longer gave it much thought. I was too busy trying to refine my English writing skills into a bullet form, sharp enough to hit the desired aim. And the aim was simple: to be part of a place.

My Arab cultural identity was taken for granted. Just like Canadians take for granted the values of “freedom” and “equality for all.” But there is always the risk that both of these things fall into a crisis.  

CULTURAL IDENTITY CRISIS

The rights, freedoms and laws that Canada offers and protects, creates a nation that embraces, not only the diversity of cultures, but also of various passions, thoughts and traditions, without the presence of fear.

It made me understand that I was a privileged Arab who no longer shared the same fears or concerns of the people living in the Middle East. With that I began to question my Arab identity. What does it mean to be an Arab living in the West? Can I be part of two worlds and to what extent?

Going through an identity crisis results in an ongoing questioning. It is the process of reflecting on the shattered pieces of memory, an abandoned language and understanding of one’s ancestors and history.

In university, I learned a lot about European and North American thought, history and art. Anything that was labeled as “indigenous” or “eastern” in nature was seen as a small section of a bigger narrative that was predominately western and white.

In the process of questioning, I started to wonder why was it that my heritage with its vast literature and customs, and that of many others, remained so absent in the education system. So I read as much as I could to fill in the gap.

Unless specific courses relating to a culture or region were taken, a euro-centric world-view dominated and it still does to this day. Some professors point that out, but they carry on their course, changing nothing, as if a disclaimer is enough.

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IMMIGRANT

It is important not to fall into a state of self-pity and powerlessness. As one Arab proverb states, “Those whose hands are in the fire are different from those whose hands are in the water."

The proverb suggests that the reality of someone who’s experiencing a struggle is much different than that of someone who’s not. But that difference should be confronted and talked about, not left to feed into a growing frustration or confusion.

I’m an Arab (Iraqi)-Canadian. My identity is made up of worlds so huge that it is easy to get lost in it.

I realized that I couldn’t become a creator in this world without reclaiming the spirit of my roots. In the same way that Canada cannot advance to be a more just nation without reclaiming the dignity and prosperity of indigenous people.

As an immigrant, one tries to become part of a new place. But what place? There is no place.

There is no place in a country, which uses the values of freedom and justice to promise the people that they can do and be whatever that makes them happy, and yet, does not invest with the same energy on the importance of pursuing the root causes of people’s struggles, out of fear that it would give birth to a community of distinctiveness that deviates and inspires deviation from the poisoned ground of “we are all equal,” which often expresses itself in the attitude of underestimating or turning a blind eye on the many colors of diversity.

In order to create a place of belonging that embraces one’s roots, a healing of the self is necessary.

I had to get rid of the ‘embarrassment’ I felt as I wore the sibha and the hatta or kufiya around my neck. It surprised me to find that I felt insecure about expressing my culture and beliefs in an outward fashion. An insecurity that some might share, which stems out of seeing the “other” as something less – a threat – and internalizing it.

In reclaiming my cultural identity, a desire to learn about the struggles of other people, coming from various backgrounds, blossomed. A renewed spiritual resilience and a thirst for knowledge pushed towards a need to connect with others.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t found a collective, who share a common ambition to create a community, where creativity and the exchange of ideas are encouraged.

LANGUAGE AND THE CREATIVE CIRCLE

As I got closer and closer to my roots, I spontaneously felt the need to speak and write in my mother tongue on a greater scale.

It hit me one day that Arabic is the language of the Quran. A sacred language that carries the spirit of a rich Islamic civilization that doesn’t only embrace Arabs, but other ethnic groups, such as the Turks and Persians, whom brought different kinds of wisdom and understanding to the Muslim spirit.

In Islamic art, the circle is the “perfect expression of justice-equality in all directions” and as the Sufis believe, it also acknowledges the essence of desire, power and knowledge. 

An understanding of the circle is a movement towards the creation of communities. It means to be constantly part of an erupting wellspring of creativity that, for me, is thriving in a new land, speaking of new words and continuing the stories of people, the desperate and war-torn. To seek dialogue with others, who are also trying to find a place of belonging. And that is victory.


This piece also appeared on Aya's HuffPost blog

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