The moment the term “Arab Community” is raised in a conversation or is uttered through someone’s lips, I shudder. To me it is both a blessing and a curse, but a toxic bubble I needed so badly to escape from for countless years. For many the concept of community is supposed to embody a bubble of support, empowerment and a wealth of knowledge. For me it was the complete opposite. But I was soon able to find out that I wasn’t the only Arab feeling this way.
Growing up I knew there was a difference between me and the Arab community, which I’ll explain later. I don’t think I ever had the chance to know life outside the community until I reached 18 years of age. I was raised in the Midlands and the North of England for half my life. I grew up in quite a religious and devout household, where the church was the pillar to spiritual growth and with that came the community that subtly tangled me in a web which made me feel I belonged to them. My close friends could only be essentially from that community, and you could say I grew up very sheltered. Like I barely knew what drugs, porn or sex were until the age of 14. Being a deacon and going to mass every Sunday, made me nourish my innocence which would soon be lost.
It was the age of 15 when life became pivotal. I was essentially encouraged to move down south to the coast, because my father got promoted. I had to leave all my friends behind including my grating northern accent and my comfortable sheltered life. We moved to another church community in a different location just outside London. I tried so hard to fit in, but the toxicity was going to be way harder to digest than I thought. I took a deep breath and decided that I would experiment with my weight, perhaps I would be loved and accepted that way. But no, I was ridiculed. Another time I got a haircut with highlights to appear cool. I would never forget the day a group of boys burst out laughing when I came to church on a Sunday in highlights. Of course I was showered with homophobic abuse, but it didn’t stop there. The more I changed myself the more I was rebuked. Wearing coloured contacts was seen as unmanly and cringeworthy at the time. I was laughed at and told to take them out regularly because I was a freak, but again it doesn’t stop there. A sensible 3 weeks later the same boy that made fun of me then decided to copy me, and even worse was praised for it. The audacity, right? This kept happening in the proceeding months. Ugg boots for men, risky choice but I made it happen. Little did I know though how bad the backlash would be, with the same people spouting derogatory comments. But guess who mimicked the fashion statements a comfortable 1 month later? I was outraged by the hypocrisy, but then my eyes opened. This hypocrisy would then be visible as a key feature of the Arab community. It was very common in the community as they would lecture you on what is haram in their eyes and then commit it behind closed doors, such as drinking, dating and not following certain traditions.
I was never regarded as a true member of the Arab community; I was only known because of my family name. I felt like I didn’t represent them and vice versa. I knew that conservativism wasn’t for me and I wanted to explore what life had to offer. Why should I live a cautious life, in fear of judgement, and be so miserable living in a monotonous way when I was destined to do more? Be greater and achieve bigger things! I decided I needed to self-evaluate and truly ask myself what do I want? For me it was escaping the community, the stale thoughts, the artificial image and the dictation of thoughts.
University was a great way to show my true vibrant and extroverted self. Never in a million years did I expect to see such an array of diverse beautiful souls from the Muslim and Hindu community, to the LGBTQ community all the way to the African Caribbean community and beyond. I could be myself and still be loved for it and not brainwashed to change my appearance, my voice and most importantly my mindset. For me it was the best 3 years of my life, because no one could tell me what to do. Shortly after I graduated and moved back home, I found myself still involved in the community, but it became stale and unappetising after my freeing university experience. I am not going to lie, the same people that pretended to be my friend in the community are the same people that deterred me from the Arab community and worse of all my faith. Their attitude changed gradually when they saw that I could live my life without them. I questioned it all and I was desperate to escape such limited and toxic energy so I had to think of ways to liberate my thoughts and entire being.
Travel was a huge passion of mine and I knew nomad blood ran deep from my father and the rest of my extended family. After finishing university in London, I knew the next step was to get out and about. I eagerly started researching ways to get out from the community, by looking for placements and internships online. Bingo! I found one in Shanghai China, where I would spend 4 months of my life living like a true expat. Partying, exploration and learning new customs became a common theme which I loved. To this day I still stay in contact with a lot of these friends there as it was such a euphoric experience. The main thing is that I forgot my traditional upbringing and managed to let go and live freely there. Words cannot explain as to how momentous this chapter was in my life. “There were no boundaries, you could fly like a bird and be accepted for who you are rather than how someone expects you to be.” Another escape was moving to Dubai for a year even though this wasn’t the best choice as I expected it to be as climactic as Shanghai. The main point that we can learn here is I got to explore the world through my own eyes, rather than someone else’s rules and dictations.
Till this day I am followed and bombarded by the community to fit a certain mould and adhere to religious parameters. I know for a fact that I am seen as different, which I often get shunned for, but I also get appreciated by the wider majority for being me. I have become a lot more comfortable in my own skin, and have been able to explore my humour, passion and authentic self through many societies and online communities that have appreciated me. My advice to any third culture kids facing the same issues is, “stay true to yourself, create your own path and find your purpose.” Life is not worth living in someone else’s shadow.”
It is not with bitterness or vengeance that I write this piece, but more a reflection of how it has shaped me.
by Bassem Labib