I don’t fit in any box. Trust me, I tried! White? Not quite. Christian? No longer. Jewish? Some say it’s very likely. Muslim? Yes, but no matter how many decades I’ve practiced, I’m still, and always will be “new.” Native? Only if you know me, apparently! Swiss? Yes, of course, but you’d never guess! Canadian? Certainly! As long as you take all my other identities into account, too! Gypsy? Roma, please, and yes, I’ll take it! Arab? Not quite, but I do dabble a lot in Arabic (Libyan) culture, because of my husband and kids.
When I fill out my kids’ identity forms for school, they ask me to tick the boxes: Aboriginal? Yes, ok, which kind? Status, non-status, on or off reserve, which band? African (black)? Yes and no. Middle Eastern? What does that even mean? Does it mean Arab? Does it mean western Asian? Well then… maybe? Maybe not? European ancestry? Yes, sure, do I have to provide details? Other? Is this where I try to fix the other check marks?
Imagine a box that includes all this, where the colors don’t clash but create a harmonious blend, a beautiful swirl of different hues and shades, a box with endless connections to other boxes.
Can I check all boxes? May I blend all colors, please? I promise I won’t make a mess!
I’m not just one of the labels, and just because I can attach more tags to myself, doesn’t mean I feel any one of them less than another. I didn’t come in pieces, glued together by a master mosaicist. Where is my Native side? Where’s my Muslim? Where’s my Swiss? Oh… and my Canadian side? I can’t locate them in my body, mind or soul indistinctly from one another. I feel completely Mi’kmaq, completely Swiss, completely Canadian, completely Muslim. Just like when you have kids, you can love each one completely, without taking any love away from any one of them. I am a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, a friend to people from all backgrounds and faiths. I am all those, and none of them is distinct from the other. They all make up who I am, all blended, without concrete delineations.
Someone once called me an apple (red on the outside and white on the inside), others just assume I’m a “foreigner” (no matter what country I’m in, even if I hold a valid passport for that place). Many people call me a new Muslim, despite the fact that I’ve been Muslim for longer than I had been Christian. Some look at me and stick an Arab label on me. The first couple of years of being Muslim I made my own scarves and adapted store-bought clothes to conform to hijab requirements (long, wide and not see-through), I was stopped more than a couple of times and asked what order of nuns I belonged to. I once spent an extra twenty minutes on the metro in Toronto with a nun, who was curious about my habit. We both ended up missing our stops, because we were both interested in continuing our conversation.
When people ask me where I’m from, I smile… where do I start? Would you like to go for a coffee, so we can establish which link you’re really trying to get to? Once I remember being stopped, in Montreal, at a bus station, by an older gentleman with a thick accent. I wore a hijab, and at that time the war in the former Yugoslavia was still unresolved, many people thought I was Bosnian, maybe that’s what he wanted to find out, but that wasn’t what he asked. He asked where I was from. When people ask that, I don’t know if they’re asking where I was born, what culture I adopt predominantly, what language I speak at home, what passport I hold, where my father was born… you get the picture. To me that’s as vague a question as you can ask. Not wanting to start a lengthy conversation with an elder, I simply replied that I was Canadian. He laughed, and said he was Canadian too, but where was I REALLY from? So I told him I was born in PEI. PEI? What’s that? It’s a province in the east of Canada, Prince Edward Island, or PEI for short. Ok, you’re playing difficult, he says with a hint of impatience in his voice. Where were your parents born? My mom was born in the USA, but she’s not American, my father was born in Switzerland. Now I was really starting to feel that this stranger was getting a little too much information from me (as you obviously are!!!). What culture do you practice? Now that’s a tough one! I practice a lot of cultures! I could tell he was getting a bit exasperated, no matter how hard he pushed, like two magnets repelling each other, I was slipping away from his pinpoint precision boxing strategies. Finally he came right out and said it: What’s that thing on your head? This is called a hijab. Yeah, whatever, why do you wear it? Oh, well that’s easy! I’m a Muslim! Well, yeah, I knew that, but why? Now I had to chuckle… Why not? I studied the religion, and I liked it, so I adopted it! Ah ha! You’re one of those! He seemed very satisfied with himself, he was able to box me in: the box of traitors who choose the infidel over their ancestors, everything else quietly dissipated to the sidelines. This is where you belong: you’re a traitor. Well… a traitor to what? To whom? I don’t even know you or what you stand for, how could I possibly betray you? The bus came, it wasn’t my number, he got on, and as he left he glanced at me and pointed his finger at me: I got you, you slippery one! OK, if you say so.
Like my mom, and my older sister, I’ve developed a thick skin. Labels don’t stick that easily, but when they do, they don’t bother me much, because they’re your labels, not mine. If you take the time to get to know me, you’ll know what person I am, what values I hold, what is important to me, and you might find that even if you share none of my background, you still have an awful lot in common with me. You’d be surprised how many times I got that look, that snide remark, not to mention the times I was greeted with glaring eyes and gaping mouths at interviews and in my classes because potential employers and Professors/students weren’t expecting to see a woman in a headscarf attached to my name.
I remember being spat at the day of the Oklahoma bombing. It had happened once before, as a child, because I wouldn’t give this mean bully the time of day earlier during mass, he passed me with his bike and spat at me. What a whimp! He had to catch me unawares, alone, backed by his even meaner brother both riding on the same bike, to get back at me for my indifference. But I didn’t flinch. I didn’t flinch as a ten year old walking alone on the street, and I didn’t flinch now. You won’t get me to stoop. You won’t get me to admit that you got to me. You had one shot, and you missed it (or at least you might have thought you did, since you didn’t stop to check, you coward). Muslims didn’t do it, but we were paying for it. On the day of 9/11 I was walking to a Departmental meeting at the university, and two Natives (my people!) yelled at me to go back where I came from. I cried in my head… I am where I came from, where are you? Why are you slouched on the sidewalk giving away your pride and stooping with the worst of them? You should be up here, with me, fighting for your dignity!
Nowadays, whenever I go to the grocery store and I’m not greeted with wide smiles and courteous service I can’t help wonder if some self-proclaimed Muslim half-wit did something. That’s right, at first I may wonder if they’re having a bad day, then, if there’s more than one, that’s the first thought. Well, I don’t hold you responsible for the genocide of my people, I won’t hold you responsible for the subjugation of nations going about their business, so I won’t accept your attempts at denigrating me because of something someone else did. I just won’t. That’s your label, not mine.
What I hold on to most ardently, however, are the helpers, the people who didn’t stumble along with the prevailing ignorance and stood up alongside me. The man who offered to hold my baby for take-off and landing when the crew refused to accept my car-seat (which I had cleared with their administration twice). The women who donned the headscarf throughout university campuses in solidarity with Muslim women, so we wouldn’t feel the need to renege on the headcovering. The Canadian looking kid on the bus who told the story as loudly as he could muster, about how he was born in a Lebanese hospital, so that made him Lebanese at heart, even though he was there only for a few years while his parents worked there, secretly sending positive vibes of protection and support my way. The shopkeeper who stood up for me when the locals came in complaining about this foreigner walking around like she belongs here (ie: me, while I was back home in Switzerland with my kids due to the war in Libya). She’d say yes, she does belong here! This is her culture! She’s Swiss, and she’s a darn good one at that! I’m not just repeating what she claimed she said, I actually heard her speak those words, and when she saw me enter, she invited me into the conversation, and that’s when the walls came tumbling down. The inspector who went against all advice to the contrary and allowed my kids to start school two months before the academic year ended. The teachers who embraced my kids as little heroes, allowing them to express themselves in every way imaginable, without punishing them for not doing as everyone else did. The busy moms who offered to take one of my kids to soccer or hockey practice, so I wouldn’t have to log all four kids on the bus. The Doctor who went way out of her way to help me procure a grant to maintain the Caterpillar Café, because she believed in it, and she believed in me. All those who helped me get my papers in order, so I wouldn’t have to suffer any more indignation. The Coordinators who asked me to train volunteers, not just be one of them. The Director who handed me full control of a research project because she believed my connections and diversity especially suited the task, despite roars from other board members. The Principal who welcomed me and my family as a part of her school-family and swung open any door I was curious to see behind. The women who ensured our sons would become friends because they recognized similar parenting values.
They are the heroes, who dare to stick their necks out, because they believe there’s more to it than meets the eye, they are willing to give the human a chance, they don’t automatically assume that different is bad, and they are willing to take the risk, because although they might have fear, they aren’t vanquished by it, they face it, head on, and are enriched by it. My ffamily. No matter what, no matter where… my family. Natascha. Tamara. Rafa. Valerie. Leyla. Doris. Sojana. Pilar. Sabina. Rania. Manuela. Marianne. Jean. Mirjam. Femke. Elizabeth. Brenda. Tatjana. Paula. Karen. And so many more. These people, except the plane and bus passengers, are still in my life today, and they continue to be awesome, living their lives with bravery and honesty, like we all should strive to do. These are the ones who know who I am, because I am them, and they are me, in so many beautiful ways, forever intertwined.