My first recollection of realizing that I was “different” was in the 4th grade. My father learned that I was taking part in a class play. During part of the play we were re-enacting a 1970s American beer commercial. It was tons of fun. It involved an imaginary bull bursting into a bar. My father rushed into my school in a rage, took me by my hand, removed me in front of my friends from where we were rehearsing, and led me to my teacher. He had a talk with the teacher and later that evening had a talk with me at home. We are Muslims. We do not drink alcohol. We do not pretend we are drinking alcohol. Period.
In high school, my father insisted that I stop wearing pants and that, instead, I wear skirts with long socks. I was also only allowed to pull my long hair back into a pony tail. This was how my father imposed modesty on a 14-year-old girl growing up in American society. It was a little strange for me in the beginning. I was something of a tomboy as a girl. But I was generally fine with it. I was different. That was the way things were. I was comfortable in my own skin the way I was or at least the way I was told to be at that age. I was fine. All my friends in school were fine about it. Except, that is, for the greasers, or at least that’s what I think the other kids called them. I’ve never figured out what that word means, but they were different too. They were generally from a rural upbringing and from less fortunate families. They were less educated and many of them smoked and probably did a lot of other stuff. The greasers didn’t like me. I was too “different” for them. I distinctly remember coming into school one snowy morning, taking off my hood, and a greaser put his empty soda can in my hood while saying with a sarcastic tone, “Hi, religious girl.” I just rolled my eyes. It caused me no anxiety whatsoever. They were different. I was different. Who cares? There are more important things to focus our energies on in life. So I did.
When I settled in Egypt to go to university at the age of 17, I became the “American girl”. My Egyptian accent was not yet perfected and everyone could tell I was different. I spoke differently. My personality was different. I was more confident and independent than my colleagues were used to seeing from people our age. I also wore my hijab differently than the other girls. I was never into perfecting the head-scarf wrap. I couldn’t bother taking the time necessary to figure it out. So I just wrapped a plain-colored cotton scarf around my head. It was easy and it didn’t take any time. I was different. Who cares?
I eventually decided to wear the face veil. My father was adamantly against it. So were some of my friends. I didn’t care. It was something I wanted to do so I was going to do it. I was convinced in my heart that wearing the face veil was the right thing for me at the time. I was different. What’s the big deal?
After eight years of wearing the face veil, I decided for a variety of reasons that it was no longer the right thing for me. I eventually took it off. I became different again. It wasn’t a big deal.
I then modified the way I clothed from wearing hip-long scarves and wide flowing dresses to wearing shorter scarves and shirts over jeans. I became different again. And eventually, I took off the hijab and became different once more.
I was never only different in the way I dressed. My whole mannerism was always different from one clique or another. I never perfectly blended in with any one group. But no matter how different I ever was, there have always been people who accept me the way I am. And there have always been people who have not.
Over the past few years I’ve been spoken of by some as the Muslim conservative and by others as the Muslim liberal. I never properly fit in. Ever. But I always have “people”.
I’m different. I always have been. Who cares? I never have.
There’s a part of me that needs to be part of a group; something I never felt as a teenager but I feel now as a full-grown adult. I suppose that despite my differentness, I have felt for a part of my adult life that I belonged to “a group” beyond the borders of my always-loving friends and family. I did as “the group” did. I held similar values to theirs. We believed in similar ways. I could relate to “the group”. I felt generally accepted by them.
But now – again – I am different. And without requiring much evidence of it, “the group” does not accept me for who I am. And it bothers me.
“The group” is not my family and friends. With my family and friends I am not part of a group. I just am. I do not need to feel that I belong to them or them to me. Our relationship is so much deeper than belonging. It is being.
Just because I can be with my family and friends does not negate an inner desire to belong to a group or to be accepted by one. At the same time, experience has taught me to be wary of “groups” and “group” mentality. It is this group mentality that is causing me to be different again. In my heart, I still belong to “the group”. But I understand “the group” to be different from what it currently understands itself to be. I cannot accept the group for who they are and many of them cannot accept me for who I have become.
And so I am different. Longing for “the group”. But will “the group” ever be?
From a totally different starting point, and with totally different human experiences, I feel very much like you.
We are all aliens, in a way 😉
There is perhaps a price for ‘belonging’ to a group that shouldn’t be paid. Established groups may lose sight of why we hunger for such fellowship, it seems. Then there are the aliens among us; the ones who by their nobility and selflessness inspire us and make us want to be part of their world.
Post mumtaz jeden Miss N. Great read. Really got me hooked once I started. Will include link to your blog in my own effort this weekend, with your permission. I am from Ireland but living in the ME for last 5 years. Presently in Saudi. Also feeling different! Well done again.
I’ll bet you feel different! An Irishman living in Saudi Arabia is as different as it gets. 🙂 Please feel free to include a link on your blog. Thanks, Micheal.
Shukran Jaz! Have lived in KSA for last 18 months. Have had some very interesting encounters to put it mildly. Eg – http://michealdebarra.com/2013/11/08/two-tribes/
Take care Miss N. Keep up the great writing.
Thanks for giving me the idea for this weeks post. And for giving me my title! Just for you: http://michealdebarra.com/2013/11/22/not-an-alien/ Thanks again Miss N!
Salam Alaykum Nadia,
Group instinct is a natural human trait. You relate to something and you form a group. Joining a group you conform to their standards.
If the group doesn’t accept you its so easy to find a group that will.
This doesn’t make you alien. Different is really not conforming to what society expects of you and are we not all in this boat? The Muslim Brotherhood members more than anyone else. I cannot recall a moment in my totally unremarkable life when I was not different and when I didn’t conform to the social norm and I have ever been OK with that because basically I’m at peace with me and I know what I want from life and if people accept me well and good if they don’t thats OK too.
I think thats the first step knowing you and believing that so long as you are at peace with yourself and with God what does it matter what he next person thinks about you.
Remember the old song from college days?
غرباء ولغير الله لا نحمي اللواء
غرباء وارتضيناها شعار للحياة
Strangers and we do kot raise any flag but Gods
Strangers and we accept it as a symbol for life
Take care Nadia sail your ship my friend and may you land safely on shore at the last.
“We don’t fit in here, we don’t fit in there…we just have to start our own country”, that’s what a friend of mine said as we commiserated about not fitting in in the land of our parent’s heritage or in their adopted new land. She was the half-Egyptian half-Irish girl born and brought up in London. I was the Egyptian girl brought up in the US and England. We both had gone back to Egypt under the romantic notion that we would fit in in the land of our heritage…and maybe get to meet our prince charming. Within just a few months those notions were wiped out in the face of the stark reality that we were not in fact completely fit into that culture either. Fast forward over 10 years later and back in London and in the US respectively, it seems we’ve accepted and celebrated our 3rd culture identity. I can’t speak for her, but I am so comfortable in my “alien-ness”, I don’t fit 100% anywhere and you know what, in this day and age, that’s a blessing. I feel happiest when I am surrounded by a richly diverse multi-cultural group who are brought together by a common purpose or set of values whether it’s worship or doing good through community service or activism, or just plain celebrating our shared humanity. I feel suffocated when I am in groups of people who are from the same background, e.g. Egyptians hanging out together because they are Egyptians. I’ve found that the best group for me is not defined by cultural identity, it is defined by all the good virtues of humanity: love, warmth, acceptance, kindness. You’ll find those people everywhere. You really hit the jackpot when you find a group that is multi-cultural and diverse and doesn’t want to pigeon-hole you into one culture vs another.
Being as different as you are, is a curse and a blessing. A curse because you will always have difficulties to belong to one group, one camp or any one collective of people, you will always be sitting between the two proverbial chairs not really comfortable on any. If it is of any consolation please known that there are a lot of people like you out there, more than you know.
The blessing is, that being who you are will at least ensure that you will never be a part of a mob influenced to tear down one thing or another just because it is different because luckily, for you everything is different.
I remember not long ago I had a similar exchange with a friend who had posted on Facebook how the Egyptians have changed after the revolution and that she felt she did not belong anymore. Fact is we (graduates of the German school as the attendees of other foreign schools in Egypt I am sure) never belonged; we have always been a minority, not because we were privileged in any way. When we attended the DEO in the 60’s it was neither a privileged nor a prestigious school in Egypt, it was however the choice of parents who became affiliated with the German culture, mostly through their postgraduate studies in Germany, the only country Egyptians were allowed to go to in the aftermath of 1957 war with Britain and France.
Well WE were still lucky in the scene that we at least had a group as long as we were growing up, and still of course within that group there were variances depending on the home front interaction and individual susceptibility to different thought and ideas.
Anyway the reason I started writing this was simply to recommend a work of fiction I enjoyed long ago, which by the way is perfect for cold winter days in Leeds and I am sure you would like, it is a bit long winded but it IS a good read, The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kay, I am sure you will find a bit of yourself in the main character. Heads up!!!