It’s something that I have always been told.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, the world has given me message after message that let’s me know that I’m not a part of this private party. That I wasn’t invited. That my presence is not welcome, and it’s making everyone uncomfortable.
Sometimes the messages are subtle. It’s a nervous glance on the tube, or it’s clutching their partner’s hand tighter as you walk past. It’s often a smirk barely hidden beneath hands. More often than not, it’s blatant and loud. It might be the headlines that morning, or someone shouting at you across the street that you’re a ‘white paki’. Whatever that means. Often, when people don’t belong in certain situations or cultural circles, there is the safety blanket of your own culture to fall back on. At least there, you’ll laugh at the insults, glory in the richness of your traditions, and together ease the burden of being ‘othered’, by other people. But it’s when you don’t have that safety blanket that things really get tricky and suddenly, your heart and soul can take a real beating.
I have the misfortune, or advantage, to be othered in every aspect of my life. There’s not a single cultural circle I operate in that I fully and absolutely belong to. I’m half Egyptian, half Irish. I was born in the desert and brought to England a babe in arms. Newcastle to be specific. The wind blowing off the freezing North Sea is as far removed as you could possibly get from the hot breeze of the Sahara. When I was six, my mother remarried, a Pakistani man, and he became my father. His world became mine, and I was introduced to a whole new culture that I would later claim as my own.
So when people ask me where I’m from, it’s a really difficult question to answer. I’m Egyptian but I’m also Irish. I’m Pakistani too. A Brit. Raised on the streets of Newcastle and that means there’s a whole lot of Geordie in me. I live in London now, and this city is what I call home. I’m from everywhere and I think I belong to all those cultures, but they would tell you different.
Back home in Cairo, my family will laugh at my ‘foreign’ ways. My grammar is still appalling when I speak Arabic and there are many things about home that I just don’t know. My British passport will forever be a barrier between us.
Back home in Newcastle, they ask me where I’m from. They shout at me and my mother as we walk down the street, and tell us we should go back to our own country.
When I go home to Ireland, there’s even more I don’t understand. They look at me with shock and surprise when I tell them I don’t drink.
I’ve never been to Pakistan, but their culture is alive and rich right here in Britain. I know the difference between Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan. I grew up watching them. I still get nostalgic when people talk about the film kutch kutch hota hai and my favorite food is curries, from back home. But I don’t speak the language and they still need to explain things to me. People don’t always like to explain things. It gets irritating, and that irritation is another way of letting you know that you might just be at the wrong party.
At home in London the shadow of my religion hangs over me and reminds people how different I am. This is a city that remembers 7/7 too vividly to forget that I’m Muslim.
No matter which way you turn, you’re a stranger on somebodies land. As I’ve got older, it’s something I notice more. Childlike innocence isn’t programmed to pick up on subtle forms of racism, but adulthood definitely does. And this isn’t something we normally talk about because we want to believe that we’re accepting, open and transparent. We don’t like the idea that we might not be. But my experience tells me we’re not. My experience tells me we’ve got a lot of work to do.
So perhaps it’s time we made way for a new type of person. As our borders diminish and technology makes our world smaller, our cultures are becoming more diluted. Those of us who belong to multiple societies now have a vision of the world that transcends a singular point of cultural reference.
But honestly, I’m not even sure how we do this. I don’t have a neat answer to wrap this all up. What I do know, is that as humans we fundamentally want to belong to places. It forms our identity and tells people who we are. So when you feel othered, with no place to call home, it kind of hurts. A lot. Feeling like you don’t belong is a really painful sensation. That sensation will drive people to do stupid things. Rash things. Unsafe things. Things they will later regret.
So instead of a conclusion, perhaps this is more a call to arms. To stand with me. By my side. In front of me or behind. To change our worlds by opening them up to one another. We’ve held our cultures too close to our chest for too long now. I’m tired of being told that I don’t belong in the places my heart calls home.