I understand people's curiosity when they see me. I'm ethnic, in a headscarf and have an unmistakable British accent. In the UK, these things don't mean a lot. There are plenty of women who look and speak like me. But when I travel to different countries, this combination seems to pique people's curiosity. Maybe I'm a bit paranoid, but when I get asked where I come from, I always sense a different conversation happening under the surface:
Exhibit A (Wants to know where you're from-'really' from)
These individuals will either give you a follow-up question like: Oh, but where are you originally from? Or nod looking curious but unconvinced. This question is also usually reserved for coloured people. But someone really needs to try it with a white person. It would be hilarious:
Me: Oh you come from England? But where do you originally come from? Germany? Finland?
Me: I'm just saying... because you kind of have a Scandinavian nose.
Exhibit B (Surprised and impressed you sound white and can't believe where you're from)
What's so special about my British accent? Good question. Well, it seems that in the Arab world, my accent gives me a level of white privileged by association. It's bizarre, I know.
Anyway, this is how I feel most of the time when people ask me where I come from:
Seriously, I wish people would be more specific. I have several different answers for 'where you come from', depending on what the person is really trying to ask.
Are you asking where I ethnically come from?
Are you asking where I was born and brought up?
Are you asking about the country I'm living in?
Are you asking about my nationality?
Or are you asking me how I personally identify myself?
'Where do you come from' may seem like a basic question to most. But in reality, it's a very complicated one to answer for individuals, like myself, who live in between two or more identities. The question compels us to define our identities and label ourselves when there may not be any straight answers to give.
I for one, have no straight answers to give.
My parents are from Saudi but I was born and raised in London. So what does that make me? A Londoner? A Saudi? Both? More often than not, I feel neither, stuck in an identity limbo, never feeling like I truly belong anywhere. Several identities tug me in different directions. It's a truly fragmenting experience.
Then getting a genetic test and finding out I have DNA from most places in the world, didn't exactly help either...
So where do I come from? Everywhere apparently.
But this isn't the important question. The important question is where you feel like you come from. If you were to push me, my answer would be: London with a splash of Safwa (my town in Saudi). My regional identities seem to eclipse my national affiliations. Which makes sense, because really, identity stems from our own understanding of who we are. It transcends borders and constructs like 'the nation'. But identity is also socially acquired; and I think this is the root cause of my identity limbo.
Growing up in London, I was always told that my family would eventually move 'back home' to Saudi. Of course, the implication then was that the UK wasn't our 'real' home. As a child, I believed this because my identity was formed by labels imposed on me. When I became more independent I realized that I had outgrown these. I'd visit Saudi every year and each year it felt less and less like home.
I had similar issues when I'd travel around the UK. Away from the multicultural hotpot that is London, I felt very Arab, very coloured, very Muslim. Walking in a predominately white English town, it was hard to forget that splash of Safwa in me, that other side to my identity. I'd always feel foreign, out of place and defensive of my identity as a Londoner. Like I just wished I had some label that said: I come from London. I belong here.
I don't know if there's any way of escaping this identity limbo, or if I should even try to move beyond it. There's definitely a comfort in having a clear, solid identity. Maybe the reason why I hate being asked where I come from so much is because it reminds me of the fact that I belong to several cultures and societies. And the thing is, when you belong everywhere you kind of belong nowhere at the same time.