Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 October 2019

When it comes to identity, how you define yourself matters more than how the world sees you

Growing up as an Emirati and going to a private school in Dubai with students from more than 40 different countries, it always felt like we had a shared culture

The launch of Al Bayt Mitwahid, an initiative celebrating the unity of the UAE. Saeed Al Neyadi / Ministry of Presidential Affairs
The launch of Al Bayt Mitwahid, an initiative celebrating the unity of the UAE. Saeed Al Neyadi / Ministry of Presidential Affairs

How do we define our identity? This is a question with many possibilities and no definite answer. Are we defined by genetics, ancestral geography, religious beliefs or ideology? What about our passports? Do they shape our circumstances and sense of belonging, and the reason we become who we are? Can an identity be something we shape, or is it beyond our control?

If I was asked to describe Pablo Picasso, I would not think twice before saying he was an artist. The fact he was Spanish or Catholic would not precede that fact. But does that mean our skills and talents embody the essence of who we truly are, over and above our religion or our country of birth?

In our physical world and day-to-day interactions, we are most frequently asked to identify ourselves by our names, nationalities and what we do for a living. If we then changed those names, nationalities and jobs, would that obliterate our identities in the eyes of the world?

Of course not. A deeper-rooted identity is found in our lineage and in our genes; in generations of culture and tradition. In Arabic literature, Kahlil Gibran talked about how we worship those who have died until we become them, alluding to our attachment to the ways of the past. Goethe Prize winner and Syrian poet Adonis explores the subject of inherited identities versus chosen identities, suggesting that in our part of the world it is often the former that defines us.

The idea that identities can be chosen does not even occur to many of us who have been brought up to never question where we come from, and who deeply identify with the environment in which we have been raised. Those who go on a journey of self-exploration seeking individuality still have many of the traits, behaviours and ideas they were born with in their compound identity. It would take a lifetime to peel away all the layers.

Are genes alone responsible for shaping our identities? Alamy (stock photo)
Are genes alone responsible for shaping our identities? Alamy (stock photo)

The significance of one's roots to identity is not limited to the Arab world. In the book The Little Prince, when the titular prince asks where all the people are, author Antoine de Saint-Exupery describes the state of human beings from the perspective of a plant in the desert. “The wind blows them about. They don't have roots, which causes them a lot of problems.” This statement resonates more strongly today than ever before. In a time of mass tourism and immigration, unlimited access to information and at a peak of cultural interactivity and globalisation, how do we identify ourselves?

Growing up as an Emirati and going to a private school in Dubai, with students from more than 40 different countries, it always felt like we had a shared culture

Those who are frequent readers read for many different reasons. Burying yourself in a book or watching a movie or TV show can be an escape from the world around us. I have always read to learn about myself. I find myself in the stories and ideas of others.

Often I learn more about who I am by process of elimination; I read books that force me to think deeply and find my own standpoint.

I would find it difficult to interact with the world around me if I did not know where I stood in my beliefs, my values and my ideas. We all search for meaning and purpose in life but if we don’t know ourselves, how can we know which direction to go in?

I believe all human beings need to know and feel secure in their identities, and that involves questioning it, reconfirming it – and knowing that how you define yourself matters more than how the world sees you.

Thousands of books have tackled the subject of identity throughout history, without being able to come up with a conclusive definition. I could not attempt to do so in one article but I will leave you with a small example. Growing up as an Emirati and going to a private school in Dubai, with students from more than 40 different countries, it always felt like we had a shared culture. I know many of my schoolfriends would say they were from Dubai, even if their passports gave another answer.

So the new Golden Card permanent residency scheme in the UAE is a very welcome development. It means that our country will remain a global hub for generations to come and it is official confirmation of what many long-term residents have felt in their hearts.

It is imperative that we protect and nourish all the wonderful parts of our Emirati identity, with our strong family and community values. We must also remember that as Emiratis, we are among the most hospitable people in the world and embracing others is deeply rooted in tribal culture. Tolerance and peaceful coexistence are at the heart of our nation and it is a sense of pride for us to have so many people from all over the world call the UAE home.

Ahlam Bolooki is festival director for Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Updated: June 23, 2019 04:39 PM

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