Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Clash of Identities

image courtesy of

I reach SOAS this morning ready for another failed attempt at making sense of “reading week” – which is a class-free week for us to catch up with our readings- there at the notorious SOAS steps students gathered with banners and painted faces to march together to the parliament house and protest the cuts on education proposed by the “coalition” government.

I stood there with awe and admiration, such naiveté towards the mere concept of expression, and democracy. I stood there contemplating whether to stand too close to “them” or sit a few steps away so that I guarantee a safe distance. I spent a couple of minutes trying to grasp what power was holding me back from marching with them and joining my voice to theirs, and the bigger question posed itself: What am I scared of?

All my life, I blamed governments and police officers for the lack of civil action and democracy, and I knew that the moment I changed geographies, that this rebellious righteous person inside of me will finally get her say, and will become a well-bannered person when the occasion rises. Yet here I was, on foreign lands, with several rights I never enjoyed walking away to situate myself and my bag on a bench nearby.

In this very cold morning and while everyone was preparing for the march, I regretted not attending “how to overcome the culture shock of being in London” seminar that was offered during orientation week. You see, I am not shocked by the alcohol, the hippies, the punks or even the porn industry in Soho; I am deeply shaken by this overwhelming sense of freedom that all of a sudden was thrown at me. I am not prepared to say what I think is “right”, nor am I ready to let go of my worst inhibitions and I don’t think I will be in the very near future.

This “cultural” shock is evident in every class I take, every assignment I prepare for and every cup of coffee I have with fellow students. You see me not sure whether I should whisper the word “corrupted government” or say it in a loud clear voice, I also constantly catch myself replacing words with politically-correct synonymous –just in case-. Who am I afraid of? I don’t know.

What are my red lines in this city? I don’t know

Who is the president I shouldn’t talk about here? I don’t know

What country am I accountable for? I don’t know

Am I now an Iraqi living in Dubai, studying in London? Or am I an Iraqi living in London? I don’t know

Am an Iraqi when I was born in Dubai, and lived there all my life? Apparently not

Am I an Emirati, given that I was born in the UAE and raised there all my life? Apparently not

So many questions that I cannot find answers for in any of the recommended readings, and books I read on a weekly basis. Neither Hunnigton, nor even Marx has the answers to this “clash of identities.”

It is a sad reality to know that the authoritarian regime that you feared all your life lies within you. With every piece of bread and every sip of water in my life I was also fed fear and cowardice. I am now comfortable with myself because I know that this “phase” is momentary, and soon I will be back to my old settings where I can exercise my right of pretending that I am the victim of authoritarian regimes, I am the “third” world, and that I am indeed just a product of colonization and imperialism, denying that I ever had the chance to challenge those notions, and break-free.


Mohammad said...

ahhhh, i feeeeeeeeeeel you big time. We are programmed to say and not to say certain things here. when we go abroad, it takes time to realize and digest freedom.

btw, you are an Iraqi who lived in Dubai, and now live in London.

Maryam Wissam said...

Thank you M for the clarification, I shall now take your word for it, I am an Iraqi who lived in Dubai, and now lives in London.

And I am glad it rang a bell, or two.

YaZ said...

Oh Mariam.. how I love your writings.. I love how you describe a feeling, a thought or a situation U say what I think and can't write..

I am move able to switch between both mode back and forth but since Sep 11th I feel eve "there" I do not share the same freedom as "they" do because it will haunt me back and bite me in the ass when I least expect it...

And what Zaher said is exactly what I believe describes me .. An Iraqi who lived in many places but grew up in the UAE and now temporary live in Canada ..

God it's never a one simple answer with us

La Penseuse said...

Mariam, I study at SOAS and I'm going through the same thing. Identity crisis perhaps?

We should meet some time.

Maryam Wissam said...

Yaz, I feel you, and yes it is never a simple answer with us, this is the sad situation that we face as diaspora.
thank you for your beautiful words..

..La Penseuse, Yes let's meet up soon, perhaps on the infamous SOAS steps..

Unknown said...

"It is a sad reality to know that the authoritarian regime that you feared all your life lies within you"...can i post this on my fb page...i think your writing has captured some of my feelings too:)

Maryam Wissam said...

post away my friend..You have the author's permission..