Astute readers and friends will have noticed I’m having a bit of a crisis of faith when it comes to all things writing, motivation and identity. Even more astute readers and friends may well have noticed that this is quite routine and ordinary for me as it happens pretty much every few months. My confidence seems to wax and wane with the seasons, and with it all sense of self and purpose.
So, yes, bear with me while I perpetually deconstruct and rebuild myself. If it gets boring I can throw in a few funny cat videos if you like.
I’ve had a lot of different conflicting thoughts buzzing around my head and generally getting in the way of things lately, but right now I’d like to address something that’s surfaced pretty recently. First, a little background.
If you know me, you know that I’m half-Palestinian. You may not have known this until you read my ‘Why I Don’t Like Fireworks‘ post. You may have known it because I’ve dropped it into conversation, or because you were over there with me. What you might not know is what my favourite Arabic food is, what my opinion of the music over there is, what it’s like living as a mixed-race person in each of the countries of your heritage, generally what Arabs and the Middle East are all about. This is because while I do tell people I’m half-Palestinian, I don’t generally go into details. I get a bit awkward and then the conversation moves on, usually after a couple of poor-taste terrorist jokes are made (usually by me; judge me as you will, but more on that in a bit).
I was born Suleman Fawzi Suleiman al-Kurd. We drop the ‘el’ for English because it’s hard enough for folk to handle ‘funny foreign names’ in English without having to worry about el vs al. I’m not even sure myself if they’re interchangable or not. Would my hospital records be found under A, E or K? No, best drop it. It’s not a huge change. ‘Al’ means ‘The’, so I’d only be going from ‘The Kurd’ to ‘a Kurd’. Not a huge difference at all, surely.
You may have noticed that there are two different spellings of the same name there. That’s because my dad forgot how to spell his father’s name when gifting me with it, then remembered when he got to the relevant bit on the form. I’m led to believe this is actually quite common, so don’t worry, Dad, it happens to the best of us.
You may also have noticed that I never go by Suleman. It’s on my driving license. It’s on my passport. It’s on my wedding certificate (Tonks couldn’t very well marry someone who apparently doesn’t exist, could she?). But it’s not on my lips or the lips of those around me. My family on my father’s side use it, because that’s my name and they can pronounce it. My mum refused to call me it. She called me Sam. My sister called my Sam. My father called me Sam. I call me Sam.
Sam’s just easier, isn’t it? It’s shorter, takes up less space on the forms. It’s nice and innocuous. Conjures up images of flatcaps and expensive flats alike. Not like a troublesome ‘funny foreign’ name like Suleman. Nobody even pronounces it correctly when they do use it; it’s closer to ‘Slaymaan’ than ‘Soolemun’, but I don’t correct anyone so I don’t really have the right to complain. Well, that’s lie, I do correct them. I say ‘Call me Sam.’
Ok, I think it’s time for a cat video. I did promise.
Lately, I’ve been trying to expand my horizons a little bit and keep an ever more open mind. I’ve been following wonderful outspoken feminists on Twitter and doing further reading into the issues therein. I’ve read about the Patriarchy, institutionalised oppression, TERFs, SWERFs, the prevelance of whitewashing in media, intersectionality, the fatosphere, all the little checks and balances in place to keep the little person down. I’ve kept my eyes open and noted how swiftly and vehemently people (usually cis het white males) rush in to defend the status quo whenever a dissenting opinion is voiced. I’ve learned the importance of shutting up and listening to those who are actually affected by issues that are little more just an academic debate to me.
It’s this effort to improve myself and check my privilege that has led to me wondering about my cultural heritage. Who am I? I mean, I know who I am, obviously. I’m Sam Kurd. I work in a call centre and have an awesome wife and want to be a writer. But who am I in the context of where I come from? I know I’m more than the sum of my cultural parts, but they are part of me whether I refuse to consider them or not.
This is an uncomfortable confession, but I’ve always considered myself to be more English than Arab. This, of course, makes no sense. I have one Arab parent (my father) and one English parent (my mother). I spent most of the formative years of my life living in Kuwait, Jordan and Palestine, surrounded by my father’s family and learning Arabic far too slowly for it to be of much use to me now. And yet, I present myself more or less as white English. Strangers have guessed at an Italian or Spanish heritage in conversation, but my ‘good genes’ mean I can pretty much ‘pass’ for white.
I was bullied as a child. Not as badly as most of my friends, but badly enough. Mine was psychological more than physical. I was excluded and othered because of my English blood. I drew further into myself with each cry of ‘kafir’ (heathen), with each instance of someone telling me my mother was ‘The Enemy’. I only allowed myself one friend at a time until near the end of high school when I finally bloomed socially. I have memories of lashing out and not being much fun to be around anyway. Call it a defence mechanism, call me a little prick, whichever you choose. Either way, I felt victimised and it didn’t feel good.
One day, I came across a song which I internalised and took to heart – Sting’s ‘Englishman in New York’. Rightly or wrongly, I saw it as the battle cry of man who was beset on all sides by unfairness and those who were not like him and who bore it all with dignity and grace (“It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile”, after all). I adopted this song, and tried to see my otherness as something to be perversely proud of.
I became a snob of the highest order, something I’m not proud of. I was oh-so-much better than the ignorant folk who kept putting me down. Only one friend? Pah, I only need one friend. I have books (written in ENGLISH, thank you very much) and my Amiga computer (from ENGLAND, thank you very muwhat? We bought it in Kuwait? Oh.), so I didn’t need people who would push me and laugh at my tears of frustration. I was perfectly fine being English and alone, thank you.
This has gotten a bit grim. Here’s another cat video.
Would things have been different if I’d been brought up in England, as I longed for on many a lonely night? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I can only speculate. Bullying aside, I DID have a good childhood. I had a loving family, and a good education (occasional speedbump aside). I never fell in with drugs or drink or gangs or violence. Even in Palestine I managed to avoid the conflict almost entirely (save for a few hairy instances). But witnessing my mother’s dismay as she returned to Loughborough and found it transformed from the sleepy town she’d loved to a den of drug-riddled chavs and yoofs, I’m not so sure things would have been that much better.
There’s one thing that I don’t want people to take away from this blogpost. I don’t want people to read this and think ‘poor little half-white boy, trapped among the savages.’ NO. BAD. STOP THAT. My personal experience of bullying was just that, my personal experience. I met many mixed race kids who got along just fine with the full-Arab kids there. I got on just fine with a handful of full-Arab kids as I grew up, and a whole bunch of them in the last years of High School. This wasn’t at all about them. It was about me. I mishandled the entire situation, went in with a poor attitude and got very little out of it. I should have embraced my culture, both sides, wholeheartedly and with a beaming smile. Fuck the haters, I’m Anglo-Arab and proud. But I didn’t. I closed myself off and tried to slam the door on an entire culture. And that’s wrong, so very wrong.
Now I’m here in England, have been since 2001. I’m pretty much immersed in the culture after the initial shock (“What? Bacon is sold EVERYWHERE?”). But I still feel awkward about my heritage, especially post-September-11th. Now I’ve gone from ‘Your mother is The Enemy’ to ‘Your father is The Enemy’. Brown isn’t a popular colour to be, so my ‘good genes’ are standing me in good stead. If I acknowledge my heritage in conversation, I feel compelled to join in with the good-natured ribbing and the jokes about jhads and fatwas and terrorism. And that’s wrong. No matter how I paint it, that’s not right. I’m participating in the demonising of, well, myself. That ain’t healthy.
This will hurt my father as he reads this, as it will hurt my family on his side. I am sorry. It hurts me too, many years too late. I don’t know who I am any more, and I don’t know how to fix it. But I know I’ve done myself a disservice by favouring one side of myself over another. I can only keep my mind open and consider daily who I am, where I come from, and what it means to be me.