Wednesday, May 05, 2004

In the Name of Identity

When I first moved to study in Canada I was fascinated by its diversity and multiculturalism. I still am. I loved asking people about their experience moving to and living in Canada. One common question I used to ask was: “Do you feel more Canadian or Indian/Arab/Latino/Russian/or whatever their ethnicity was?” I never got any definite answers and that's probably because my question is fundamentally flawed.

In his book, Amin Maalouf begins by expressing his concern over the political correctness or rather incorrectness of this question that I have been asking many people. He says: “How many times, since I left Lebanon in 1967 to live in France, have people asked me, with the best intentions in the world, whether I felt “more French” or “more Lebanese.” Questions like that bothered him because they require a choice to be made while he firmly believes that identity CANNOT be compartmentalized. “You can’t divide it up into halves or thirds or any other separate segments. I haven’t got several identities: I’ve got just one, made up of many components in a mixture that is unique just to me, just as other people’s identity is unique to them as individuals.” Amin Maalouf is Arab, French, Lebanese, Catholic, and a mixture of other “components” and he rejects to slice and dice himself up into multiple identities or to be put in situations that would require him to choose an either/or.

The book reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend from Bahrain some few years ago. Before getting into what he said however, I should mention to those who don't know that Bahrain, relative to its small size, is a very diverse place...there are Sunnis, Shias, Arabs, Ajams, etc.. This diversity naturally caused some friction not very long ago in Bahrain’s history. Accepting, understanding, and embracing the other.... be it at school, the streets, or the workplace took some time and is still an ongoing process.

Anyway, my friend is Bahraini from Iranian decent. Most Bahrainis like him, in addition to Arabic, speak Farsi or rather a very informal dialect of Farsi locally referred to as "Ijmi." To my surprise, he told me one day:"I am a person with no identity. I am not Bahraini and I doubt most Bahrainis consider me as one. Many members of my family don’t even understand or speak a word of Arabic. I am not Iranian either. I’ve never set foot in Iran nor do I have any family over there... I belong nowhere." He said that but I don’t know if he really meant it. It could have been just one of those moments of anger or depression or whatever. But that’s beside the point because it really made me think that there could be many other Bahrainis who feel the same way. In multicultural places like Canada, the US, UK, Australia, etc. this might not be an issue with most people. However, in a country like Bahrain and in a region like the Arab world, citizenship and affiliation seem to be an issue. Society in general puts a pressure on individuals to reduce their identity to one single affiliation. And that is wrong from both a religious and a social point of view because “it encourages people to adopt an attitude that is partial, sectarian, intolerant, and domineering.” People MUST feel at home in the place they live in. “When someone feels that his language is despised, his religion is ridiculed and his culture is disparaged, he is likely to react by flaunting the signs of his difference. On the other hand, when someone feels he has a place in the country where he has chosen to live, then he will behave in quite another manner.”


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