x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

If Catherine Zeta-Jones is Arab, I'm a Welshman

Just when you think you've heard it all, a gossip item drops into one of the Saudi internet chatrooms triggering heated discussions and even conspiracy theories. "The actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has Saudi roots," is the latest rumour.

Just when you think you've heard it all, a gossip item drops into one of the Saudi internet chatrooms triggering heated discussions and even conspiracy theories. "The actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has Saudi roots," is the latest rumour. And not just any Saudi roots, but traced back to the Enezi, one of the most important Arabian peninsula tribes. "Now every other Saudi person is going to claim to be related to her," said one of my Saudi friends who is always on the lookout for a new conspiracy theory. His latest is that because Catherine's husband, Michael Douglas, is Jewish, the whole story will "disappear".

Of course, it could "disappear" because it's nonsense. Catherine is widely known for being as Welsh as a male-voice choir, with no Arab roots. So while some of my friends are adamant about claiming links to  Catherine (I don't blame them; she is rather beautiful), others were  doubtful: this isn't the first time that rumours  of "Arabian kinship" have surfaced about a celebrity. If I had a dirham for every time I've heard someone say: "Did you know that Mr or Ms X was originally Arab?" I would be a millionaire. The artist formerly known as Prince, for instance, was said to have Saudi roots. "Come on, he looks so Saudi," was a common statement made about him by Saudis back in the 1990s.

I found it interesting how ready so many people were to believe these rumours, and spread them as fact. There are, of course, personalities whose Arab roots are not in dispute, such as the actress Salma Hayek (Lebanese), the former White House budget director and now Indiana governor Mitch Daniels (Syrian) and the singer Shakira (Lebanese). Perhaps it is only this part of the world that is still obsessed with knowing the roots of people and things, and often, in a group gathering, the issue of "origin" comes up at least once in a  conversation - from the major contributions of Muslims in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, optics, chemistry, biology, poetry, calligraphy and architecture to discussions of how people "these days" are trying  to deny the links because of the more recent negative connotations associated with the Middle East and its instability.

While the tradition is now fading, drawing up family trees was one of the responsibilities of senior men in families. They had to make sure the tree was updated and all the heirs were included - the male heirs, anyway. Only recently have some added the female members of the family. I added myself and other female members of our family as the family tree was coming to an end with the lack of male heirs.

However, for many of my friends the family tree is not important any more. If anything, it should be forgotten. "What some find exotic, others find an embarrassment," says one of my friends who has Yemeni roots but insists with the rest of her family that she is purely American. "It is not because we are ashamed of it, it is because other Arabs still judge you on where you are from originally and stereotype you," she says.

I have done it myself, when I refused to say which part of the Middle East my father is from as I know I will be viewed stereotypically, particularly if I am in a group setting. I even tested it once, when I said he was of Saudi origin and I got a whole barrage of statements from "Ah, you look so Saudi" to "I knew an Abdullah bin Ghazal, are you related to him?" and "Is your father in oil or construction?" Of course, I have no Saudi roots, but I just said that to see how far people would go in their assumptions.

One of the most interesting "origins" moments was during the annual pilgrimage season of Haj, when in a small crammed car of five pilgrims, including myself, one of the pilgrims volunteered the story of his origin and how his now Mecca-based family came from India 100 or so years ago. And while the rest of the pilgrims in the car were also from Mecca, their roots went back to Egypt, China and Russia. Because of the annual Haj, Mecca turned into a melting pot of people from across the Muslim world who settled in Mecca or in the other cities of the Hijaz province.

It was one of those great moments where your origin didn't seem to matter as much as the unifying goal of pilgrimage, and what you were doing with yourself and your life. However, that car moment passed. After the Haj we all met up in a coffee shop in Jeddah, and one of the first things one of them said was: "Ya, Lebanese-Syrian hajeh, how are you?" I couldn't help but laugh as we reverted to our innate tendency to distinguish between ourselves based on our roots. It didn't matter that most of the people in that gathering were Saudis, with one Canadian citizen: we were the Indian, the Chinese, the Russian, the Egyptian and, well, the Lebanese-Syrian.