Middle East is home, I know this now

Posted on January 5, 2012


Mosque in Middle East

I recall my upbringing being quite a strict and diligent to the traditional ways they’d brought with them from my mother’s Jordan and father’s Eritrea respectively. A common trait despite the mix of East Africa and the Middle East was essentially two things – Arabic and Islam. And they were going to drill those into I and my younger brother by any means and cost necessary. Often well beyond their means.

My parents were, and still are quite conservative Muslims. Pray five times a day, observe the holy month of Ramadan, pay Zakat (an obligatory charitable donation), you name it. It was important, particularly for my dad to embed us into an Islamic way of thinking, almost alien to me growing up in a very white, lower middle class area of West London.

So much so, that my dad bless him, tried to enrol me into the Saudi royalty-run King Fahad Academy (http://www.thekfa.org.uk/cms/) on numerous occasions and was unsuccessful. And what with the annual fee of £3000 being the asking price of my fate in the afterlife, it was a price seemingly worth paying, if only for the fact that he applied three separate times and failed every time.

Not to be deterred, the other option on the table was Saturday school. First, Islam classes at Regent’s Park Mosque, teaching us Quran, Hadith, every finer detail of the religion, even the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed of where, when he was born right down to what age he passed. He was 63.

At the age of six, my first trip to Egypt during the Christmas season was a cultural shift to put it quite mildly, and for a very lad to not really know exactly how my bearings were set, I asked my relatives when I arrived shortly at their house whether they had BBC1 or not. I cringe to the point where my forehead shrivels as I type this.

But Cairo was a place where I felt indifferent to my surroundings. Just because there were pyramids, camels, a sphinx and lots of desert, it didn’t mean that I was in the least bit intrigued. My photos may look like I’m having the time of my life, but the only things I cared about at that age were watching cartoons and teasing my baby brother.

Later on, aged around nine, without even being told with any advance notice, (I may well have been told this on a Friday evening) I was to go for Saturday Arabic lessons at a primary school, but run by a Syrian contingent on that day. The thought of going there was almost akin to having my civil liberties being stripped from me. To say they were strict would be the understatement of 2011.

I only had to smirk in class at times and I’d get a glare with eyes so wide from the teacher it would feel like I’m being smacked physically. I therefore did what made total sense to me back then, which was to be the class joker. That didn’t get me very far apart from standing outside the class every so often or a clip around the ear.

On the second visit to Cairo, in 2000, it felt as though the Cairo I knew was gone. Yes, the city was still there alright, but the introduction of American shopping malls replacing the souks, Starbucks usurping the shisha cafe’s and the ghastly Friends sitcom had somehow made not so much an indelible mark but a stamp of authority. One major change was a small communication device used to modulate digital information between a phone line and a computer, otherwise known as a Modem. Suddenly the Internet brought the region and indeed the world closer together, even if it meant that it was mostly spent on Yahoo, ICQ or Chat Rooms.

A big downside to all of the above was the widespread use of English, as my cousins all attended an international school, whose first language wasn’t Arabic. My whole premise for my trips back to my so-called ‘roots’ were to improve my language skills and from me becoming too English according to my folks, as well as my Egyptian-based relatives.

I’d however felt as though my opinion on the matter amongst my peers in the Middle East. As far as they were concerned, as long as music videos of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson were available on tap, the lure of anything else was met with a fleeting indifference.

But with a world that’s as connected and unifying with the BBC having a dedicated site for instance, Al-Jazeera TV being a mouthpiece for the region and Arabs alike with devoted English and Arabic separate channels, there really is no excuse for me to not keep abreast of what’s going on ‘back home’. And what with there being uproar and the scent of a jasmine revolution in the air, it’d be pretty difficult of me to think of an alibi.

Try to also have some knowledge as to where your forefathers and ancestry descend. Granted, we’re now more or less a global village where everybody’s welcome, but for the sake of knowing who you are goes, it definitely helps to follow the lineage of your family name. And for the sake of my parents, not being too British.

Posted in: Islam, Middle East