The Contradictions of What It Is to Be an Arab Living Abroad

We have a single word in Arabic for what it is to reside in a country other than one’s own. In English, expatriation might be the word that is used. I can’t say I’ve ever heard any of my non-Arab friends living abroad using “expatriation” to describe their state of being. We hear people refer to expats all the time. But that’s pretty much it in my experience. In Arabic, the word we use is “ghorbah”. If I were to look for a single word in English to translate it to, it would be “estrangement”. We Arabs use this term ALL THE TIME.

Ghorbah implies a state of being away from one’s roots. It’s a negative term that describes the hole that is left in our very hearts when we live away from our home countries. It means we will forever be strangers wherever we are in the world unless we are where we were born. It’s the antithesis of belonging.

I’m not sure what it is. We complain about our home countries incessantly. Let’s be honest, we have a lot that is worthy of complaining. People in our countries talk about moving abroad ALL THE TIME. They want a better life for themselves and their children. They’re sick of the backwardness. They’re fed up with the corruption. They can no longer tolerate the regime. Yet the second we set foot in that other country, we begin complaining about our “ghorbah” or estrangement from home. We start romanticizing everything we left behind. Well, almost everything. And we nitpick at our new countries of residence and detail everything that’s wrong about them.

It must be in the genes. We all do it. Maybe it’s a sickness we take with us from our home countries. Or perhaps we’ve been conditioned into thinking that our countries are the greatest that ever existed even when we’re running away from the very thought of them.

When I first started settling in the UK, I immediately began complaining about its healthcare system. I’m still very dissatisfied with it. Coming from the frenzy that is Cairo, I was completely out of my element in one of England’s northern (and comparatively much smaller) cities. Where was the excitement? Why were there no people on the streets at night? Why did the shops close so early? Now, it’s grown on me. Back in Cairo for a visit, the background noises that I barely noticed before drum incessantly into my head, seemingly on a mission to drive me crazy. In the depths of night, even if the street dogs stop barking and no one is holding a loud conversation somewhere, the city produces a never-ending odd, hollow hum. I find myself missing the complete peace and quiet of northern England.

During the first two years, I found myself yearning for certain Egyptian and Arab foods and drinks. Eventually, I found shops that sold the ingredients I needed to make whatever it was I yearned for. Recently, I discovered that even in my northern town there are enough restaurants (Greek, Persian, Moroccan, and Lebanese) that serve the foods I miss most.

The weather was a challenge (and still is sometimes). I was accustomed to year-round sun and warmth. But I’ve learned that rain, wind, and cold weather shouldn’t hold you back from being active. Extremely hot weather, like it can be in Egypt in summer, can. So I’ve learned to accept the weather and hope for a warm holiday instead every now and then.

The complete and utter lack of a social life is my biggest challenge so far. Back home in Egypt, I’ve never even tried to count how many really good friends I have. When I go to Egypt for visits, I’m completely overwhelmed with visits and invitations. I’m literally treated like royalty. In the UK, there’s nothing. Brits are nice people. Don’t get me wrong. They are also probably more accommodating and accepting of “others” than people in other countries. But I can’t for the life of me figure out how to make friends in the UK. It’s not something that happens naturally for me the way it always has in Egypt. Even so, I’ve learned to fill my life in the UK with activities and work. I have a nice, comfortable routine. I also have my little perks of excitement. And I keep in touch with my friends through social media. It’s not perfect. But it’s all right.

My ghorbah in the UK is becoming less ghorbah and more home. That doesn’t mean I’ll just stop complaining about my life in it. I can’t. It’s in the genes/ a sickness I’ll never get rid of/ conditioning that’s been built into me. But as conditions (political especially) continue to worsen in Egypt, I find myself yearning more for the stability and security I find in the UK. I love that I can run on the street in the UK without being harassed because I’m a woman. I love that I don’t have to watch what I say about British politicians for fear of being thrown in jail. I love that I can drive through a city or the country without going through countless police checkpoints. I love that I can actually generally trust the police to help me in a situation if needed rather than being a main source of fear and intimidation. I love that I know if I get conned by someone in the UK, there’s a system I can resort to for justice.

I recognize now that I’m in that intermediate stage of still missing my home country but starting to feel more settled in my new host country. I love that it doesn’t freak the heck out of me that I could possibly call my host country my own one day.

P.S: If, in a few days time, I write another blog post dissing the UK and romanticizing Egypt, please refer back to this post and my explanation of ghorbah. It is very possible that the only reason I’m feeling this way today is that I’m going back home to the UK tomorrow after a 17-day visit to Egypt.

 

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4 comments

  1. What we learned, emotionally, as opposed to rationally, in childhood, stays with us throughout our lives.

    throughout december, in my own country, québec, i felt strange. there was no snow. it was unusually warm, and humid, and cold… i felt as if i was a stranger, like in britain, or northern france

    and then, two days after christmas, the first snow, then a day later, 40 cm : home

    as we say in french : « c’est toujours plus vert dans le pré du voisin ». roughly translated in english : ” grass is always greener on the neighbour’s yard ”

    there’s nothing like home, with all its warts and all

  2. 7 years of living in “Ghorbah ” in the Netherlands I’ll just tell you things get better..I went through the same stages and by year 3 and 4 I was making friends and definitely years after that we had a full social life. not overwhelming like Cairo but good enough. Hang in there 🙂

  3. I’m not aware of any equivalent word for Chinese. But then my fluency has deteroriated. However, I would have heard it by now since my parents are immigrants.

    Sounds like UK is your country now. I realize that your heart occasionally is somewhere else occasionally.

    As for making friends, it takes time. And the older you get, the harder it might become because people have their own families, chums and certain time. I’ve lived in 3 different provinces in Canada and Canada is huge so distances are profoundly huge.

    I haven’t checked your blog deeply to see if you blog much about Egypt…but understand that this may be the wrong time in life to do it comfortably.

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