Worlds

30 Apr

This was originally posted at Gender Across Borders and can be found here complete with old photographs. It’s my little contribution to a cool series of writing, This AND That, which features ‘stories from women whose identities have crossed paths along the lines of gender, culture, ethnicity and nationality’.

I knew which worlds I belonged to from the start.

When I was four years old, having just moved to the United Arab Emirates from my birthplace of Kuwait, I approached a couple in a restaurant. ‘You’re from the Philippines’ I said, pointing to the lady, ‘and you’re from here’, I said to her partner in the traditional white dishdasha. He smiled broadly, and playfully asked, ‘And you, little one, where are you from?’  I am noos-noos. Arabic for half-half.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I was much more than half anything. That the English part from my mother was as complex as my Mauritanian background, inherited from my father. That I could have been Senegalese and not Mauritanian if my father had been born on the other side of the Senegal river, where his Halpulaar community is from, had colonialists not arbitrarily split the countries in two.

I cultivated what I learned in the French education system; Voltaire and civil liberties alongside verlan Parisian slang. I accepted that I belonged to the waves of the Indian Ocean, it taught me how to swim and fight for breath.

As a teenager I lost myself, in literature and in my imagination. I was both black and white, slave and slave master, woman and man, oppressed and oppressor. I was a metisse in the French Caribbean, a mulatto in Brazil, a half-caste in Britain. As my perception evolved, I found myself to be claimed by various nationalities depending on where I was in the world- Indian, Cambodian, Moroccan, Venezuelan, Egyptian- a whole host of countries completely removed from my genetic pool. If I followed the old-school of thought which states that you should see yourself as society sees you, I would be utterly and totally confused. Because in this crazy 21st century of ours, where borders and travels become much more fluid, there is not one society. There are many societies to follow, many religions to practice, many languages to learn. Many songs to sing; this is our blessing and our curse.

I see myself in both my grandmothers, one Mauritanian and one English. They are a part of me, and as much of me as each other. I am not discounting the vast differences in their upbringing and way of life, but there was a lot of sameness, too. They both married, bore children, suffered miscarriages, lost husbands. My grandmothers took risks and loved. Joy and sorrow, passion and reason. They both lived.

When you come from different worlds, and when these worlds come together, this forces a visceral awareness of others. At the age of four, my awareness was just beginning, but it has continued to unlock many more conversations and connections since then. I have spoken with female labourers in India, smiled at women toting babies on their backs in Ghana, and walked beside abaya-clad Emirati women in luxurious shopping malls. The basic joy of human contact has intensified my belief; parallel universes interconnecting with our own. I knew which worlds I belonged to from the start.

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4 Responses to “Worlds”

  1. annabelvita May 10, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    I couldn’t comment on this but I read it on the tube and loved it a lot. you’re such a good writer that it makes me a bit mad sometimes. ❤ xx

    • z May 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

      I’m glad I could provide some tube entertainment! miss you lots. please tell me you’ll be in London the weekend of the 11th of June? xx

  2. MsAfropolitan May 16, 2011 at 4:20 am #

    Such a beautiful piece. the reference to your grandmothers’ similarities is warming as is the poetic language that explains the humanity beneath all our labels. thanks!

    ps enjoy your travels 🙂 (read it on GAB)

    • z May 16, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

      thank you! the similarities are beautiful to me, and they make up the main argument in my war against labels. 🙂

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