Reflecting 20 years on: A journey to self after losing it in British-Arab labels post 9/11
For many children of ethnic backgrounds, growing up and trying to navigate their cultural values with their British identity was, at times, difficult and confusing. Trying to understand who you are, especially in your teenage years, will always be a tough and perplexing rollercoaster, but throw in intolerance and negative connotations to one's religion and ethnicity, this journey of self becomes even more strenuous. British-Palestinian journalist and writer Diana Alghoul reflects on this very identity expedition, sharing her experience with The New Arab about growing up in London at a time when being Arab and Muslim meant being constantly scrutinised:
For much of our childhood, growing up as British and Arab in the 90s meant living in a bubble of Spice Girls and Ragheb Alama and our families adding seasonings on baked beans on toast.
Some days, our identity blended perfectly, such as when we found ourselves at the centre of attention at school as non-Arab children were eager to learn Arabic profanities, whereas other times there was a clear disconnect when children would point at the “weird stuff” in our packed lunch, which they now know as hummus, a plant-based staple.
On September 11 2001, I woke up excited to eat slices of cake after school, as it was my sister’s 8th birthday. The day started off as a normal Tuesday morning. It wasn’t until after our lunch break at school, we found out something terrible happened inside the United States. Teachers were in shock, the older children were talking about the event, but as younger children, we found ourselves absorbing the adrenaline rush of everyone else who understood the gravity of such a tragedy taking place in the most powerful country in the world.
"By then, we had understood that something terrible had happened and its effect had trickled down to us. We saw hijab-clad family friends decide to wear hats instead, or even take off their scarves altogether, along with being instructed to stick to English in public"
As the days unfolded, my sister and I found our parents were hyper-vigilant about the way in which we identified ourselves. By then, we had understood that something terrible had happened and its effect had trickled down to us. We saw hijab-clad family friends decide to wear hats instead, or even take off their scarves altogether, along with being instructed to stick to English in public.
One evening, after returning from school, my parents sat my siblings and I down and told us that “at home, we can speak Arabic and we are Muslim. At school, it's safer to keep your ethnicity and religion to yourself.”
Let me have a ham and cheese sandwich then is what I initially thought, but didn’t dare to say, out of fear of enduring yet another lecture on how we don’t eat pig products. Not only were we being instructed to hide who we were for our safety, but we still had to explain our 'different' packed lunches to our peers at the same time.
Despite my sarcastic urge, something in my gut told me to be quiet and listen. Was it childlike sensitivity to energy, or a woman’s intuition that needed to come out a few years too early to warn me that they’re right? Regardless, I felt the energetic weight of their words, which was terrifying.
At around a similar time, the news of the Second Intifada gained more traction. At school, people were learning about it from the BBC, but at home, we also had access to Al Jazeera, which was still in its infancy a global Arabic-language news network.
"Not only were we being instructed to hide who we were for our safety, but we still had to explain our 'different' packed lunches to our peers at the same time"
Until then, my Palestinian identity was wrapped into my Arab and Muslim self, which was sheltered from identity politics due to my parents’ avoidant strategy. As I grew into a teenager, parts of my identity became more scrutinised in the public realm, which made me realise that ignoring the problem will not make it go away.
Matters got even more sensitive when the 7/7 bombings took place. Being from London and having one parent work in the centre of the city, I was of many school children who were plagued with anxiety as to whether our parents were okay or not.
"Yet, I remember wondering if I even had a right to grieve because the attack was perpetrated by people who identified as Muslim"
Photos of a bus that resembled one that so many of us took to school, or to the local shopping centre when we found ways to sneak out of the building, being destroyed by the explosion scarred us all. Yet, I remember wondering if I even had a right to grieve because the attack was perpetrated by people who identified as Muslim.
The guilt and shame that was etched in my mind from the age of 9 resurfaced with vengeance, but with an added layer of grief – feelings that are almost impossible for teenagers to identify, let alone process.
Discussions on Palestine became “debates on peace in the Middle East”, but there was always a part of me that feared drawing extra attention to myself when discussing these topics, so I naturally withdrew and told myself that my opinions stem from emotive irrationality, having roots from the region, as opposed to solid facts. Little did I realise that my opinions were backed by facts and my feelings are valid.
Social media in its earliest days was my escape. I remember coming home from school and hiding behind a fan page of my favourite band at the time, My Chemical Romance. All of the labels that society put on me suddenly disappeared and I was merely judged based on whether I was a fan of the band from 2006, or back when they released their first album in 2002.
A brief moment of relief took place in 2008 when Muntadher Al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist, threw his shoe at then US President George Bush. For Arabs and non-Arabs alike, his move was seen as outlandishly brave, but for Arabs, it was also a slap in the face to the War on Terror that ended up terrorising civilians inside affected countries, but our sense of self in the diaspora.
Going to the Arab world for holiday cemented my British identity in many other ways. I remember preparing my iPod Nano with the Norf Weezy rap, an ode to North West London, along with many other English-language songs. Arabic, which was only heard at home, became the norm for a few weeks and English was only heard in my head or in chatter with my siblings.
Just as I found an escape from identity politics inside my earphones in the UK, I found comfort in a home inside another home as I scrolled through my carefully curated anti-homesickness playlist when I was in the Middle East.
Despite all of this, contrary to the internalised fear and shame, there were many who sympathised with how much British Arabs dealt with their identity. It’s easy to say that having empathetic people around me meant the complexities of battling multiple identities were imaginative, but it’s also easy to ignore the systemic circumstances in the background that created the internal push and pull in the first place.
"Just as I found an escape from identity politics inside my earphones in the UK, I found comfort in a home inside another home as I scrolled through my carefully curated anti-homesickness playlist when I was in the Middle East"
Finding self beyond selves
The remedy? Everyone’s journey is different, but for me, it was finding a sense of self beyond labels.
This is completely separate from bypassing the reality of having multiple identities. Having labels imposed on us from childhood is part of the human experience, but for the most part, British Arabs who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s were in a unique situation of the labels being politicised from a space of inherited fear.
As an adult, I see a home in both worlds – neither of which are perfect. Rather than dwelling on the imperfections of each society, I rejoice in the comfort of not needing perfection to find peace, happiness and self-love.
Understanding the implications of identity politics is empowering as a self-defence mechanism, but identifying with the implications lead us to live in fear, shame and guilt and traps us in a destructive pattern of overthinking instead of living in the everlasting journey of finding a way to ourselves in each passing moment.
My early struggles with identity taught me that you can either chase perfection in a situation or find unconditional love in it. The latter, no matter how hard it can be at times, makes life worth living.
Ironically, as an adult, I have more so-called labels than I did as a child. Not only am I British and Arab, but I'm a journalist, writer, yogi, reiki healer and even Afrobeats aficionado. The more we grow, the more the list grows. Not only is this okay, but it's also beautiful.
Unlike my childhood self, I don't see these identities as boxes to conform to, rather as different aspects of life that I've adopted.
To me, identities are now micro-homes in the everchanging home that is planet Earth and micro-Diana's in the evergrowing feminine being that is Diana.
Looking back, it’s hard to separate growing up as a British Arab from being a teenager. Had I been 29 instead of 9 when 9/11 took place, my sense of self may have already been established and I would have just erred on a side of caution in some social situations.
However, had I not experienced the confusion I did, the quest to find myself may not have come to be and I would not be the 29-year-old I am today.
Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab and a spiritual blogger.
This article is part of a special series called Arabs in the UK: An exciting new project that sheds light on the Arab population in the United Kingdom and aims to showcase their continuing contributions to communities. Follow here to read more articles from this series: