The Arab Abroad: Snared in Roots

A man walks into a bar. The barman being a friend, he offers him A his secret drink. Unsatisfied with the beverage, the man pours in additional liquors to adapt it to his own taste. Does the initial drink still exist? Or has it disappeared to make way for the second one? If the drink were called Arab, conventional thought would have would have us convinced by the first answer. This is because we rely on the concept of أصل /origin to tell us about the true identity of things, in other words, our conventional framework of thought in terms of personal and collective identity is Arborescent : we look at the roots of the tree, and expect it to tell us the whole truth about what it really is.

Since ages undetermined, our specie has had a tendency to interpret reality using the ubiquitous metaphor of the tree. A quick glance at our myths and stories confirms that. Sin? We picked a fruit too many off the tree of knowledge. Morocco? A tree with its roots in Africa and its branches in Europe. In Sayed Keshua’s Second Person Singular , a character is heard ranting on about it, “What’s a man worth without his roots? It’s just like a tree, how can it grow without strong roots? It’s the same with kids, with nations.” Yet trees aren’t just used to denote a feeling of attachment and pride towards the past. For instance, John Stuart Mill uses the metaphor to argue for individuality as being one with development, as “human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.”

Such metaphors are not innocent. While they may be seen as an epistemological tool to understand human nature through relatable figures, they are often used to paint prescriptive statements with a veneer of naturality. As a young man born and raised in Lebanon, a common leitmotiv has it that all those who go abroad should at some point return to their roots. Atlas carried the world on his back. You will carry your country with you as you go. Spread a positive image of it. Learn from what the West has to offer. Then return. Make your country better.

With this burden I debarked as a young Arab into France at 17. My inevitable accent rendered any first contact doomed to start with a ubiquitous, yet permanently looming question, “where are you from?” At the time, I answered with an air of authentic confidence, “Lebanon!”, only hinting at my possession of a Belgian passport when seldomly asked about my blonde hair. The discussion would then turn into a quick touristic aperçu of the intricacies of life, hummus, religion and politics in Lebanon. What seemed challenging back then – having to condense your life’s experience in a few memorable phrases – quickly turned into an exasperating repetition of mechanical gimmicks. Why,you may ask? At one point, one realises that in the eyes of the innocent foreigner, you are not the complex swirling being you see yourself to be with your wide colorful array of fears, anxieties, doubts,, joys and passions.

Instead, you are but a mere emanation of the place where you were born. You have no contradictions, no inner struggle, no desire to break free from where you came from, no will to emancipate yourself from your conditions of existence, you are reduced to your essence, to your roots. The tree is cut in two, no longer are there branches that would reach for the sky. You then become but one mere Arab stump among many in a dead forest.

Addressing his young nephew in My Dungeon Shook, James Baldwin writes that “you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.” When confronted with the white man’s gaze, a dangerous dichotomy between acceptance and detachment produces itself from mental turmoil.

Acceptance means identifying yourself to the construction which the innocent foreigner projects. You then judge all novelty in relation to your roots. Your standard of evaluation becomes conformity with that perceived essence. Like a forger forcing himself to imitate an original, you force the traits. You cook Arab, you strengthen your accent, you start perfuming yourself with عود , even though your fellow countrymen regard it as a nasty خلیجي thing to do. It is the foreigner’s gaze that counts. You have to prove him that you really are an authentic emanation of your roots.. You become petulant with your Arabity. You spread it like too much Nutella on a piece of bread. You end up killing your individuality on the altar of Arabity.

The second path we call detachment . It entails distancing oneself from all things Arab, as a way to disprove your imaginary caucasian interlocutor, to tell him “I too can be as you are.” In the host country’s vulgate, this is often termed as assimilation. You start counting your centimes like the French do, you lower your voice in public to avoid being heard with your accent, and you might even start wearing french petit-bourgeois bordeaux colored pants. This option is equally destructive, for you have not led the lives that others have had. You do not come as a plain white canvas, and it is in vain that you try to discard your life’s work so far, for memory does not provide you for the possibility to start from a blank slate. Even if it were a realistic possibility, it would still be a vain option, for the ideal which it aspires to seems futile and self-harming. Like the first path, it is only imitation.

Both paths are equally unsatisfactory. Both are reliant on the Westerner’s view of what is most personal and intimate to you, your identity. Neither acceptance or detachment actually challenge or go beyond the gaze of the other. In both cases, you not only fit yourself into the mold that is thrown upon you by the other, but you extend it, letting it take over.

Perhaps this has to do with the very nature of nationality and ethnicity in the first place. In the common tongue, we constantly define ourselves using such categories. However, when one says “I am Arab”, or “I am Egyptian” or “I am Algerian”, what does it really mean in relation to your identity? The very expression “where are you from?”, denotes rootedness. Yet it says nothing abouthow much of what you are now is due to the environment of your birth. The obsession with the أصل /origin completely baffles the individual’s potential to break from that background. In fact, the very relevance of roots in a context of emigration lies in the extent to which you can grow to be detached from your place of birth. If you really are the tree they say you are, then you have no way of doing so. Then, you will always remain bound to the ground where your seed was sown.

The increasingly rough conditions of living in our home countries make many fellow Arabs idealise emigration, which is often accompanied by a will to break free from their current . Many then come to see – through an integration and appropriation of the colonial lens – their culture as responsible for their misery, and their experience as inferior to that of Europeans and Americans.

You may not want to be bound by old stones,
to live for suns that have long set,
for seas whose waves now fade into wrinkles.
You may not want to be thrown into the mould,
fit only for bones which have not thrived,
but only sought to restore the colors of days old.
Yet will you leave as foreign dreams
the scent of jasmine and the orange trees,
the murmur of the waves in the sunset,
as they sing a slow requiem
for the red sun rolling into his sea grave?
Will you also forget about the scent of thyme and wild mint,
of the feeling of freedom as you roll down the yellow hills that have made
your youth?
How long will you hold the floodgates
by which you barr your past,
before it comes streaming in like torrents of smells, sounds and feels?
How long will your let your mind write while the heart bleeds?

To be an Arab and to live abroad is to carry a burden. A burden to return, to help, to contribute, to add your stone to the edifice of your forefathers. And it is one which we cannot escape from, for it is in the shape of your grandmother’s smile, in the glimmering sweat on your father’s forehead, in the helping hand of a brother, in the face of all those whose lives we would like ease. Perhaps for those whose ancestors have since long been buried abroad, for those who have no memories of childhood in our countries, the choice is easier, for their burden is lessened. The Arab of tomorrow, if he lives abroad as I do, will have to live with it.

Yet in the past we have tried to reunite experiences as different as sun and moon under one name, and we have made of this name nation, roots, and home. The arabist tyrants of the past have taken for themselves the role of God, that of shaping clay to mould a new Arab, erasing all impurities which didn’t fit into the model they had set to themselves. Despite their efforts, there has not been one Arab in the past, there is none now and there should not be just one Arab of the future. It is not only that we do not all come from the same seed, it is perhaps more simply that we are not trees in the first place.

For we are as spiders
we have no home beyond
the links that bind us to others.

The allegory of the tree is helpful in so far that it can relate who you are in terms of a narrative , with a beginning and a continuation, through a phenomenon of growth. Yet the tree cannot comprehend who you are now. It can only tell you where you came from, and according to that, attempt to tell you where you will go .

If the concept of Arabity even exists, it is better identified as a component amongst others within the individual, like an island is a part of an archipelago. This conception of identity is liberating, for it tells you that elements such as Arabity do not just come in one size. As the master of your little island kingdom, you may choose what you make out of this element, you can choose to expand it, to flood it, or to shape it in any way that you desire. Your options are open, yet as we have pointed out before, they are not all of equal wisdom.

Ultimately, this conception not only allows for a closer grasp of reality, which the allegory of roots obscures. It takes into account that conventional categories such as Arabity are not fixed, immutable and final, asr their very shape varies from individual to individual, and according to their articulation in time and space. This conceptual approach, if it can appear to be obscure at first, allows for self-determination of one’s identity, in the limit of what is realistically determinable by one’s own hands. It also provides a rampart against essentialist notions of identity, mobilised both by our tyrants at home, and those who would seek to reduce us abroad.