Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

I share Mohamed Hadid’s dilemma in how to pass on cultural heritage

When he said how important it was to instil a sense of cultural identity in his children Gigi, Bella and Anwar, his words resonated with all of us

Gigi Hadid said “I’m as Palestinian as I am Dutch”. REUTERS
Gigi Hadid said “I’m as Palestinian as I am Dutch”. REUTERS

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished,” wrote black historian and author Carter Woodson in 1933, “lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

Woodson’s work on the importance of connection to the past earned him the title “the father of black history”. It speaks to the yearning that many parents have for their children to carry forward their name and legacy. This longing is heightened for migrants, who want their children to know who they are and where they came from.

This week Mohamed Hadid, the Palestinian father of sibling models Gigi, Bella and Anwar – whose mother is Dutch – articulated this struggle in a speech he gave at Harvard 2019, an Arab conference in the US. Born in Nazareth and now living in Bel Air, Los Angeles, he opined: "One of my dreams is to have my kids carry the name Palestine with them everywhere they go, because it seems like we are losing that name as we go on. We want to make sure my family always carries that on."

Mr Hadid only spent his first few months in Palestine. His father was expelled when Israel was created but always impressed upon his children their Palestinian roots. The family moved to Damascus, Beirut and Tunis and eventually, when Mohamed was 14 and still forming his own identity, the family migrated to the US.

Today, global migration is on an unprecedented scale. Whether for reasons beyond their control or by choice to seek new opportunities, an estimated 258 million people left their homeland in 2017, according to the UN. The immediate need to provide for one’s family and earn a living often eclipses a much more deep-rooted issue: what happens to your culture, heritage and identity when you leave your native country?

Mr Hadid says his parents “always embedded in us that we are Palestinians, we’ll always be Palestinians”. As most migrants will tell you, one could substitute almost any nationality for “Palestinian” in that context.

The need to provide for one’s family and earn a living often eclipses a deep-rooted issue: what happens to your culture, heritage and identity when you leave your native country?

Migrants might arrive in new lands with dreams of eventually returning home after they have “made it” but often, there comes a point when that dream disappears and the destination becomes the new homeland.

Many migrants don’t admit the paradox of making choices that lead to their cultural identity diminishing, or that such changes are inevitable.

I struggle with those very identity issues. I straddle worlds, from my Tanzanian parents’ experiences of living in another place and culture, to my children, who only know Britain, the country where we live now. My parents still identify themselves by the place where they were born, despite having left more than half a century ago. I identify as British, the place where I was born and have lived and to which I owe much of my culture and identity.

While I share the stories, language, food and communal culture of my parents, my own children enjoy only snatches of them. As the bridge between those cultures, I feel I have laid the foundations for a clear identity so that my children don’t have to face the same challenges that I did. Yet the paradox is that I find myself wondering if I’ve somehow shortchanged them.

The young Hadids are emblematic of this contradiction. When Gigi Hadid appeared on the cover of the inaugural edition of Vogue Arabia, she was accused of not being Arab enough. She responded by saying: “I’m as Palestinian as I am Dutch.”

Children will never share the same world view as their parents. Inevitably, there is a sense of loss in trading cultures. But there is also much to gain from cultural understanding across borders and continents. That has been going on since time immemorial and I can only hope we are equipping our children for tomorrow’s world.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: April 11, 2019 06:26 PM