Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Our identity crisis

Last week, we had a team lunch at work. I've realized lately that I don't really like one of my colleagues. Other than him not being very helpful at work, he's not just a conservative Muslim, but one who's a little annoying. He's still boycotting everything American, and I can actually see the dismay on his face when he hears that Diet Pepsi can of mine pops open. And he keeps giving me those religious books and tapes (not really sure what that implies!).

Anyway, for some reason that identity topic came up while we were enjoying the great food at JW Marriott (one hell of an awesome hotel, see, even that guy paused his boycotting when it came to great food). I think the topic started when I was saying how Alexandrians really suck (hehe) when they throw those heavy household utensils from the windows ontop of moving cars on New Year's eve and end up breaking their windshields.

So some how we ended up discussing our identity, him claiming that there's no such thing as being Egyptian, because we're under the large umbrella of Islam, we're just Muslims.

One thing I disliked about that discussion is his assertive way of talking as if he's definetely right, and as if he's teaching me the truth. I understand a Muslim being confident in the basics/core of his/her religion, such as the fact that there is no divine being but Allah, and that Muhammad is His messenger for example (and many others). But not everything you interpret in Islam will be the absolute truth (you might be close enough). Please learn something from the great yet humble early scholars.

Why do we have to have one single identity, and that has to be the one great identity that is flawless, and negate any other identity?! Some Muslims argue that we're Muslims and that's it. Arab nationalists argue that we're Arabs, and we should lose the boundaries and integrate all those Arab countries. Some Egyptians say that we're all originally pharaohs, and speaking Arabic doesn't make us Arabs. Some Christians argue they're not Arabs, but just Egyptians. I say, what's wrong with being all of that together. Which we are, like it or not. Each identity of those sucks in its own way, yet it doesn't help when we claim that, no, that's not us. We can try to fix it, but we can't deny it. So, Arabs suck, and I'm an Arab. Egyptians suck, and I'm Egyptian. Muslims are screwed up (they suck, except Malaysians), and I'm a Muslim. My relatives are weird, and they're still my family. I'm crazy, and I'm still me.

No one has a single identity, but we are so culturally monotonic, closed-minded and intolerant that the only thing we accept is that we all be the same! Everyone has multiple identities, they're just hierarchical identities, and each one prioritizes her identities differently. Here's an example: One's own self, then the lover, then the atomic family, then the extended family, then Egypt, then Islam/Christianity/Judaism, then Arab, then the rest of the world.

But then in Islam, God asks us to take extra care of our parents and not even say "uff" to them, but only disobey them if they encourage us to go against God's commands. Its also an obligation by God that we fight our own ego and inner self, so I'd understand if some devout Muslims would change the order for example to be:
God, one's own self, atomic family, extended family, Muslims, Egypt, rest of the world. And so on, with different variations. A true romantic lover would place his lover before his own self for example.

Many different orders of priority for our multiple identities. We don't have to be the same. Even Muslims don't have to be just Muslims and negate all other identities. Didn't God say that He made us into different nations and tribes to get to know each other. Didn't He say (I'm not sure if this one is in the Quran or was said through the prophet) that there is no difference in His eyes between an Arab and non-Arab except by one's piousness. Which is an admission that there are different identities, just that they don't count in the judgement day (and you know why that was said. Arabs were thinking that just by being Arabs, they are better Muslims (pretentious Arabs)! So no, your piousness is all that counts). Also, isn't Egypt, the country, mentioned in the Quran several times.

Sacrifices are made when one overlooks her own good (the higher priority identities, like one's own self, or one's atomic family for example) for the good of the larger identity. That's what could be considered noble. So when you sacrifice your life in a war for your country, you're being somewhat noble. If you have Islam in the end of your list (hierarchy), and you sacrifice your enjoyable sins for God's pleasure and spend some time praying instead of doing something else for yourself, you're being kind of noble!

My point is, I have multiple identities, and so can everyone else, regardless of how flawed each of them might be. I am many things, with different orders at different times. Sometimes I'm selfish, sometimes I'll compromise for the person I love and be noble (huh).

Thinking about the post title again, I think I might be exaggerating to call that identity issue a crisis.


ringgit said...

Hello Mohamed, I'm a Malaysian and it's a pleasant surprise to see you mention Malaysia in your blog. I visited Egypt 5 months ago and I noticed that when I told the Egyptians (on the street) that I'm from Malaysia, they would have given me a thumbs up. Did Malaysia get a lot of coverage in local newspaper? Would you be able to comment on this? Malaysia is such a small, unknown country and it gives a good feel to me that it is known in a place as far away from Asia as Egypt is.

BTW, I love your blog and your style. Keep it up!!!

Hesham said...

Again, intolerance shows it's ugly head. Intolerance to anything apart from what we believe is correct or the right way to do things. Again we can't stand eachother's differences, again we attack and belittle anyone who isn't on our side. Again and again we are intolerant.

What is the defination of an identity. Is it my language (then I am an Arab) is it my religion (then I am a muslim), is it my country (then I am Egyptian) or is it my ancestors (then I am a pharoah, arab, roman, frensh, british, turkish) or is it the country where I am living (then I am Australian). Identity isn't a badge you wear on your sleeve to indicate which group you belong to. Identity is the sum of all, the essence of oneself, your heritage, believes, ethics, experience, and by that everyone has a different identity, an identity that doesn't belong to a group.

I refuse to be categorised into a group (and judged) based only on my skin colour or religion or where I came from.

Mohamed said...

Wow Hesham, you're in Australia, that's far man.

Ringgit, unfortunately Malaysia doesn't get much coverage at all in the news here. However, like you say, alot of Egyptians admire Malaysia. Its becoming one of the favorite destinations for honeymooners and vacationers. But that's not the only reason we think highly of Malaysia. That simply indicates that there's something right going on there. Its also Mahathir Mohamad, and what he was able to achieve there, which he couldn't have achieved without having something right about Malaysians to work with. The economic leap he achieved and steadfastness, holding firm infront of the World Bank and the vicious western capitalism can only be admired. Being such a rare outspoken leader, other than the hollow shouting by some leaders we're used to here (so he's neither succumbing nor shouting like all Arab leaders), is highly valued. His real embracement of other Muslims and Muslim countries is admirable as well. As far as I know, Malaysia is the only country in the world that allows Egyptian passport holders to enter the country without a visa. While it could be arguable that this is stupid!, I think it says alot about their sense of belonging and acceptance of other Muslims.

His political dictatorship is something for you to tell me about. But his stepping down says alot of his (non) cling to power.

Leaders like that don't come out of void. Something must be right about Malaysians.

I have to admit that other than those few things I know, I'm actually ignorant about Malaysia. Any good Malaysian blogs you can point me to?

Orientalism said...

Having multiple identities is pretty normal, but let me be a bit of a devils advocate: of you had to choose one identity,which one would it be?

Al Sharief said...

Huh…I like that "the realties of multiple identities" and I’m a lot like that except that I would be concerned with many identities, which I am, atto be “…different orders at different times”. “Things” may be, but NOT identities. Identities are believes that could lead to noble goals for the progress of a person or even a nation. “Things”, on the other hand, could be a metaphor for a negotiation with identities for sake of convenience and survival at times. I strive for stability of principal identities and the balance of complimentary “things”, the ever-going challenge of balance it all. Just to add: since we are entertaining human convenience at some level here, One would need to take care of “Mann Itbaa Hwaah” – those (including myself) “who follow their own moods drifts and own likings”

praktike said...

Hey, Mohamed, I think a good place to start looking for Malaysian blogs (in English) is Jeff Ooi's site.

Mohamed said...

AAG, that's exactly my point. I don't choose between identities, I am all of them. Now you can ask how I prioritize them (but I don't have to answer;).

Sharief, you are right, that statement is misleading “…different orders at different times”. It implies that your value system is mutable. I said it in the context of sacrifice, but still, that doesn't change the order of your identities/value system. Very true. However, you can revise your hierarchy every now and then (just not so often I guess).

Thanks Praktike for the link. You really are the "blogging guru".

ringgit said...

Mohammed, you are right. Dr Mahatir Mohammad is very respected leader in Malaysia because of all the things he has done for Malaysia. He's a visionary leader and it is sad to see him step down. He genuinely love the country and its people.

I'm not too much into the politics of Malaysia (I think not many people here talk about politics) that is why I don't have much to comment here. But I see how a Muslim people would have admire Dr Mahatir. He has shown the world how a Muslim country could have grown and progress.

Mohammed said...

I wonder if you followed a very similar conversation at http://r-and-m.blogspot.com
a question by ramy about arab liberation vs. arab occupation lead to this post:
and a an interesting follow up by amr here:
and here:

we need to re-activate this r and m blog.... are u reading this ramy?

Mohamed said...

Interesting discussions there Mohammed. I should start learning how to type Arabic :( Interesting approach you guys are taking in that R&M (Q&A) blog. Sensitive but healthy for sure.

Mohammed said...

Mohamed, ihath is a good example:)

Karim Elsahy said...

This is, in my opinion, your best post M. I want to see another (more relevant ;) comment from you on my Pray 4 Peace idea.

Karim Elsahy

jessy said...

Right, identities, and I thought I was one of few who had identity crises.. Although mine isn't as random as Hesham's, I'm all over the place as well ( Half Lebanese, Half Egyptian,consider my turkish and moroccan roots, Lived in Kuwait, Cairo, Lebanon, and, now the UK, Muslim, Arab.. a lot goes in thinking about where you're from) and well actually when one looks at their family tree, they would then realize the many cultures that make up their identity. So how can one really feel inclined to belong to one country or nation? I mean, when i talk to my mother who's egyptian, she says she is one hundred percent egyptian before being anything else in life, let that be a devout muslim, or a nationalistic arab.. she says she's egyptian first. In my experience, I STILL don't know what to consider myself, as I really have no inclination towards a certain country, region.. or whatever it is that creates an identity. In reality, Our society and existence has become global as we breathe, the world's cultures have fused, generations before us have immigrated, lived and worked everywhere. Yet our parents, and grandparents know where they are from without a second thought to spare. I'm quite definite generations before them would have refused to leave their land of origin believing that in it lies their existence and identity. Yet we (whether I speak of the younger generations, or a spectra of people in particular) ponder, dubious of our own heritage. In my case, the key is to let go, embrace whatever makes up my identity which in essence, is my existence. I still haven't found the place I call home, yet I guess since I'm embracing whatever it is that makes me, "me", then I'm going to find it somewhere.

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