Today I have time travelled.
Reading Chia Sua Chong’s post A rose by any other name has taken me back to my personal experiences in the United Arab Emirates. It has also been an inspiration to achieve my third goal for Shelly Sanchez’s 30 Goals Challenge : Tell your Story 🙂image from Flickr by John ‘K’ under CC BY NC-ND 2.0
The first time my family and I moved to Abu Dhabi I was 6 years old, entering 1st of Primary Ed. On the first day of school I had this conversation with several of my classmates:
X: Hi! What’s your name?
Me: Laila Khairat Gómez
(dad and mom’s surname as is done in Spain)
X: Where are you from?
X: But your name is arabic.
Me: Well, my dad is from Egypt and my mom is from Spain.
X: So you are Egyptian
X: Is your father a muslim?
X: So you are Egyptian and a muslim
Even at such a young age all these questions and explicit deductions of whom I was or had to be felt wrong. I was looking forward to a new school, new classmates and new friends. I assumed I would be playing around during break time as I had always done but instead I got interrogated again and again and by the time the bell rang I hadn’t smiled once.
Soon I learnt that in Abu Dhabi, you could belong to one of three existing social groups:
a) natives from arab speaking countries; they shared the language, cultural customs and religious beliefs
b) foreigners; both parents had to be from the western part of the world with a western mentality and lifestyle
c) the in-betweens or misfits; everyone else (including me, my sisters and all the Indians, Pakistanis, Turkish, Indonesians, Ethiopians, etc. )
There wasn’t really much choice.CC BY 2.O
Why would 6 year olds care about such things? Didn’t they prefer exchanging glittery stickers or playing hide and seek? Well, yes they did, but first the boundaries had to be set and nothing or no one even slightly different had to be allowed in.
I empathise with Chia Sua because as a result of this, happening year after year, at about the age of 10 I decided to do something about it. From then on, my name was Laila Gómez, and I was from Spain. I knew I still wouldn’t be part of the “foreigners” but I sure didn’t want to be part of the “native arabs” because they were imposing on me a language, a religion, a dress code and a cultural norm which I had to immerse into if I wanted to be accepted instead of criticised and look down on.
As time passed, I came to realise that all those children were just reproducing the attitude and ideas they had learnt from adults. Those were the questions their own parents would ask them back home when they’d share they had a new classmate and their behaviour was basically what they knew was expected from them. Even after knowing this, it still surprised me as it sure was internalised and came across as their own judgment.To rebel, Chia Sua decided to embrace her culture and language. In my case, I did so by holding strongly to my Spanish half and consciously decided to stop growing as a member of the Arabic culture (at least publicly). This meant:
- No more studying Arabic (I didn’t want to understand their gossiping and preferred to use English to communicate. English seemed the neutral option, the language that helped create bridges, the language I used with my misfit friends.)
- No more listening to Arabic music or at least not the popular one. (Didn’t want to have hobbies and likes in common with those who decided to block us out.)
- No more discovery of the muslim religion. (I was quite sure by then that many of the prejudices rooted from it.)
We lived there for 10 years and this never changed, no matter the age or the school. Nevertheless, when I look back some of my memories also include: Singing my heart out to Sezen Aksu’s songs, one of my Turkish friend’s favourite singer 🙂 Acting out and dancing like a Bollywood star with my Indian friends 🙂 Eating some of the delicious Naan bread my friend’s mom would make specially for us 🙂The way I saw it back then: Why can’t we all just sing, dance or eat together? Who cares if we are different? Isn’t that more fun anyway? The way I see it now: I couldn’t be part of something but as a consequence I was part of many others I would have probably missed out otherwise.
At the age of 16 I moved back to Spain. The first day at the American School of Madrid, with students from about 70 different nationalities, where being different was common, the introductions and first conversations flipped 180 degrees:
X: Hi! What’s your name?
Me: Laila Gómez
X: Laila? Like the Eric Clapton song! Nice!
X: Where are you from?
Me: My mother is Spanish and my father is Egyptian
X: Really? How cool!
X: So, you speak Spanish then….here most of us speak “Spanglish” (smile)
Me: (smile) Yes, of course
X: Great! You won’t be missing out then 🙂 And Arabic?
Me: not really… I can read it and write it but I don’t speak it fluently
X: Wow! Could you write my name in Arabic?
I’ll admit it saddens me a bit to have missed out on the opportunity to learn and master another language, my father’s language. But like I said, I feel I gained a lot from being a misfit, specially due to cultural and diversity issues. Some gifts of having been a misfit:
- Learning to build the strength to go against all odds
- Turning a negative situation into something positive
- Discovering the beauty of real friendship
- Getting goosebumps at airports, international day at school and language exchange programmes.
The greatest gift of all : UNDERSTANDING THE IMPORTANCE AND VALUE OF AVOIDING PREJUDICE BY ALL MEANS 🙂 As adults and teachers, it is our responsibility to educate the young generations and teach them the values of respect, acceptance, empathy and equality.
P.S : My name is Laila Khairat Gómez 🙂 I am currently studying Arabic, love dancing and listening to Arabic music and enjoy delicious desserts like Baklawa and Konafa.
Sezen Aksu: image from culturas-beraber.blogspot.com
Bollywood drawing; image from Flickr by TMAB2003 under CC BY ND 2.0 Naan bread; image from Shestheorientexpress.deviantart.com