x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Where you belong is not as simple as where you're born

In this day and age, the number of people who identify themselves as hailing from a "third culture" is growing, increasingly in the Gulf.

One of the most perplexing questions that I am asked is: "Where are you from?" Having been born in the US to Qatari parents, and raised between the two countries, the answer to this question can take a long time to explain. Societal expectations of how I should dress and behave translate to life-altering decisions, such as which career options I should or shouldn't pursue and who my significant other can or cannot be. This has little to do with my gender because this is one of the minute areas in the Arab Gulf where gender doesn't make a difference.

In this day and age, the number of people who identify themselves as hailing from a "third culture" is growing, increasingly in the Gulf. For westerners, the question is easily answered by naming the place one was born, or lived the largest number of years. The answer is much more difficult to pinpoint in a tribal society such as the Gulf, where identity and loyalty come down to one distinctive factor: ancestry.

Tribes are an institution that has served a pivotal function in society for generations. A family may have resided in, say, Bahrain or Qatar for decades and even possess a valid passport, yet do not identify with the culture or the people. Nor are they accepted as true citizens of the country. From someone's family name, society can surmise not only the origin and social standing of that person, but also form an array of predictions about his or her life. Like a fortune teller peering into a shiny crystal ball promising to tell the future, just a few letters strung together in a name can reveal a person's destiny - from who they can marry to the limits imposed on any particular career.

Considering the demographic make-up of the Gulf, where citizens make up only 50 per cent of the entire GCC population, perhaps tribes serve a function by preserving the sanctity of the history of Gulf society. It is no surprise, then, that particular tribes are strongly revered based on their defence of the rulers of the Gulf countries, while others will be tainted with the betrayal of their ancestors for fighting on the losing side as long as memory is preserved.

As globalisation has taken the reins, the identity of Gulf Arabs is threatened even more. English replaces Arabic in the classroom, which results in new forms of colloquial Arabic adopted by the youth, with Arabic and English phrases intermingled playfully. As predominantly illiterate older generations pass on, they take their memories of history with them to the grave. Gone are their traditional forms of clothing, unique language and colourful anecdotes with traces of history intertwined between the phrases.

It is no surprise, then, that despite my years in "the Land of the Free", my sense of reality is still heavily moulded by my Gulf Arab lineage, which I take pride in and yet battle with simultaneously. Taking risks towards independence while drawing lines to confine those risks from threatening the reputation of my relatives continents away; balancing my acceptance of characteristics ascribed to me at birth with those I have earned since; leading my life spontaneously in America, all the while knowing that every decision I take on a whim must be defended on a regular basis by my immediate family thousands of miles away. Cousins, neighbours, friends, and foes are all owed an explanation of my actions for the simple reason that I belong - to my immediate family, tribe, society and, finally, country.

Yes, I belong. To Qatar, to the US, I belong. The difference between the two is that I have a responsibility to impress the former and am accepted unconditionally as an individual by the latter. Most suppose that it would be easier to relinquish all traces of the past and conform to American society, one that accepts you as a refugee of your past, and prides itself on diversity. While that is tempting, I find it would be more difficult to suppress the history coursing through my veins.

Tofol al Nasr is a former executive in the Qatari oil industry who is now studying public policy at George Mason University in the United States