'I stand alone in the evening shadows atop a hill overlooking downtown Amman. From this vantage point I see a skyline pitted with the green neon light of mosques whilst from the busy streets below rise the sounds of an Arab city on the move. Then I sense a lull in this stream of sounds from which emerges the sound of the meuzzin calling the faithful to prayer. Deep inside something stirred. I sensed that I had arrived and this was a moment to cherish.'
It had been a long journey, one of joy, pain and struggle. I was born 34 years ago into a mixed race English-Arab/Iraqi marriage. A father with the name Mohammed and a mother named Shirley seemed the most natural thing in the world to me.
By the age of eleven my father had died and we moved to a small coastal town in Kent. For the next 12 or so years my 'difference' became a long silence. My Arab name became an uncomfortable tag outside the family home. I was 'asked' if I called could be called Jo by my peers at school, teachers followed suit. I became a wholly English boy – football loving and all that. I suppose the people around me were more comfortable with it like this. My English relatives rarely spoke about my father and no contact was made with his family in Iraq. It was indeed a time of great silence.
But within, the differences remained. I'm not wholly sure why – perhaps it was being uncomfortable about telling my English mates that my dad's name was Mohammed or hearing people tell me that I tanned easily, or listening to school kids talk about immigrants, repatriation and the 'NF'. Whatever the reason, I always felt different, slightly apart from my peers.
I suppose I spent most of my late teens and early twenties wanting to be Italian or Spanish. Who really wants to be an Arab? Can you think of any positive Arab role models portrayed in the media? Arab meant fanatical religionist, Arab meant terrorist, Arab meant rich oil sheikhs buying up Mayfair, Arab meant not to be trusted and keep at arms length. Not that anyone said such a thing to me personally but none the less, these felt as true to me as night follows day.
Over the next five years things started to change, almost imperceptibly but real enough. Living in London and importantly being in contact with 'people of colour' opened doors within and without me. I remember clearly when an African/Caribbean woman asked why I chose to call myself 'Jo' when I had another real name. I couldn't answer the question but my heart new the answer. Slowly I opened my own Pandora's Box but an unexpected event changed things.
In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and for the next six months the media unleashed it's full force on the new enemy, the 'new' demons: Iraq. I find it impossible to convey my experiences of these times. I was dazed and shocked – it seemed too unthinkable Britain would be fighting a war with Iraq. I'll never forget the loneliness and sadness I felt when I heard a new report of the first 'Allied' bombardment of Baghdad – my father's home city and where I presumed my relatives still lived. The aftermath left me very disillusioned, angry and sad. I'm not sure how or why but from within this experience arose a defiance that I would no longer be the 'British' person 'they wanted' but that I would start to be my own version.
I began learning Arabic, sought more information about the region and family details. It was a struggle – as all the while I was confronting a fear that all these negative stereotypes I had come to internalise about Arabs might be true. It was also a struggle because I didn't fit any neat categories such as 'black', 'white' or 'Asian' I disliked being the 'other' category but it came closest to my truth. My next big step was to visit an Arab country. I hesitated and fretted but knew I would have to go. Politics prevented a trip to Iraq so I headed to it's Arab neighbour – Jordan – and found myself being both enriched and healed in the process. To be with Arabs was an end in itself, to hear Arab sounds, faces, symbols – it was a priceless experience.
What have I come to learn on my journey thus far? That I am someone who is only part English and that part of me resonates with a sense of 'other'; 'being non-western'. That moreover I have struggled to create space for me to be just this, my own type of Britishness. A Britishness that is inclusive of my Arab heritage, my relationship with this other world which for me to be British is to have a sense of difference. Today I value this space dearly and I truly thank all the brothers and sisters who have helped. Without this space this story of mine could not be told and so it is one that I feel must be protected and nurtured.
I hope that one day, like Kageha, I will journey 'home', to Iraq. I cannot begin to express what it would mean to me to see for the first time aunts, cousins, and possibly my grandmother. But today wars and politics prevent this so I will continue to wait hoping I too will be welcomed home – "Insh'Allah" as is said in Arabic.
Jawad Al Nawab (© Copyright 1997 Al Nawad)
People in Harmony News Letter Issue 16 August 1997