x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

You can't go home again

Hadeel al Shalchi finds that returning to the Middle East of her childhood is far from simple.

Landing at the Abu Dhabi airport for the first time in 14 years felt a bit like arriving home for the summer after eight glorious months away at university. Even though there's the daunting reality of having to be under the watchful gaze of your parents again, the familiarity of the surroundings can be warm. Or really humid, in this case. The glass doors slid open, and a suction of hot air hit my skin. Suddenly, I'm ten and can't open the car door because the handle is scorching. I'm thirteen, with frizzy hair and braces, eating ice cream at this really cool new place called Baskin Robbins. I'm six, in shorts and long pigtails, scoffing down dinner quickly to run out to the Ruwais Ladies' Park, where all my friends are waiting for me. But now, as I struggle to push a trolley carrying two years worth of life outside of Canada into the heat, I'm really twenty-eight with a mild cultural identity crisis. I'm suddenly forced to face coming full circle to a place where I grew up, which had obviously changed as much as I had since leaving fourteen years ago.

My family's story is typical of many Arab expat oil workers. I was born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents. We moved to the Emirates when I was two, and lived for the first five years in Ruwais, an industrial town an hour from Abu Dhabi. Eventually, my father moved up the ladder and we moved to Abu Dhabi. Here, we were taught by Britons, played with Palestinians and Syrians, sat in class with Americans and ate Indian food at my parents' best friends' flat. Like many Iraqi families, we never visited the country I was supposedly from. We holidayed in Kuwait, where my mother's family still lived, or in the UK, where my father had studied. And then one day, we were giving away my stereo and tween novels and moving to a country I'd never given much thought. All I knew was that I didn't have to prepare for the dreaded A-levels then worrying my peers in Abu Dhabi.

It felt like a great deal. Unlike many immigrant kids, I had a good first year in Canada. I fitted into my high school, made some great friends who are still my best friends today, and who helped accept me as a new Canadian. In Canada, I was introduced to words like citizenship, vote, social consciousness, home. It was a place I understood I could grow old in, as opposed to a place where I lived because of my dad's job. But like many immigrant families to the West, there was still a struggle in the family to keep an Arab and Islamic identity. We were shocked to meet people who asked us if we had fridges or cars in the Middle East. My first presentation for French class was about Abu Dhabi, using a bunch of glossy posters my mother had dragged with us on the plane. I realise now they were of buildings which don't exist anymore. Learning to find ourselves as Arab-Canadians was a daily struggle.

Coming back to the Arab world has opened a new can of worms that I wasn't ready to face. In Canada, I learnt to be empowered despite my status as an immigrant and embrace my new home country. Even though I was ecstatic to fit in physically and religiously in this part of the world, I quickly realised I had not joined the majority - I am a part of an even tinier minority, a Western Arab expat. People in this part of the world have such an umbilical connection to their countries that many of them can't understand how another Arab - me, in this case - could not feel the same ties to their homeland. And an Iraqi! After all the country has gone through! What a shame.

When I moved to Egypt in 2006, I was made to feel like a traitor for being loyal to Canada - a non-Muslim country, a non-Arab country, a country I really only spent twelve years in. So where did my loyalties lie, and where did I find myself? In Canada, a few years ago, the media reported a phenomenon called "reverse immigration". And I witnessed this among my friends; Canadians of Arab and Muslim heritage were selling their homes in the suburbs and moving to the Middle East to raise their families. For many of these reverse-immigrants, the Emirates were first on the list of possible destinations, promising low taxes and a romanticised life marrying East and West in harmony: you could buy your furniture at Ikea and still send your kids to Quran school! What more could you want, really?

These would-be reverse-immigrants were born and raised in the West; some spoke Arabic poorly if at all; and perhaps they had mostly heard about the Gulf in the media, or from their parents and relatives. But they all seemed to share a sense that returning to a place like the Emirates - a country in the Arab world - would make it easier to practice their culture and faith. This notion has always puzzled me, because while I was raised in the UAE, I found that it was only in the West that I was forced to reflect seriously on what it meant to be a Muslim or an Arab. So it goes with any minority; you're forced to face the question of who you are, why you are different, and how you fit in within the majority. What many of these reverse-immigrants had in common, however, was that they all came back home to Canada. Many had become shocked that Islam was not monolithic here, that Muslims littered, that some accepted bribes.

For many Muslim women in the West - myself included - the decision to wear the hijab was an ideological one, made late in life. To wear a headscarf in the West is to risk discrimination and exclusion - to live covered up in a society that often judges the worth of a woman by the shape of her body. It was an important decision for me, and one, I think, I could have only made in Canada. In Cairo, I was hardly unique in my hijab, but I wondered if it was a very different decision to wear the hijab because everyone was doing it - as seemed to be the case with many women I met there - than it had been to wear it in defiance of the attitude of the majority.

Those Western Arabs who seek a better life in the Middle East or the Gulf, and return home disappointed, fail to understand that this part of the world is still populated by humans, and humans err. The Gulf is not a movie where people speak classical Arabic on the street while schools teach every child the values of the Quran. This part of the world has warmth, energy, history, and beauty, but corruption, drugs and crime still exist - and Arabs sometimes participate in such vices, just as they do in the West. And so these families return. They buy their homes back, they send their kids to public schools, they teach them French, and send them to Arabic Sunday school. Above all, they do not find themselves in the Arab world - just as I did not.

When I arrived at the airport in Ottawa last Christmas after having been away for a year, it felt like I was coming back from a holiday weekend with the family complete with large dinners, cousins and aunts I hadn't seen in a long time, and nagging from parents about prospective husbands. And even though that time was necessary for my soul and for memories, it was nice to be back to the peaceful quiet my own home provided.

halshalchi@thenational.ae