“But your face…it looks so Arab.” Whether it was the immigration officers at the airport or a salesperson, I would get the same reaction. Every single time.
When I would respond to them in my broken Arabic, they would be puzzled and ask me where I was really from. Truth be told, I didn’t really have an answer. I was so closely connected to so many different places. So, I would end up telling them my story.
I was born in Toronto, Canada in a small suburb called Mississauga (yes, I had to google the spelling since I always mess it up) in Credit Valley hospital. My dad had already come up with names for a boy, I was supposed to be Amir. But when Dr. Van Ryan came out and said “It’s a girl again” and my dad saw me, the first thing he said was “yay wali different hai.” Indeed I was, in every aspect.
I don’t have many memories from Canada because I was only 3.5 years old when we moved to Saudi Arabia, the land of princes’ and princess’s as my dad described it to my older sister, who was protesting to leave.
So, we set off to a new land with a completely different culture and luxuries that we were not used to. We enjoyed the gated community life and grew very attached to our neighbors who became part of our family. It didn’t take long for Riyadh to become our home for the next 25 years.
I was in a multinational school, Manarat Al Riyadh, where I was surrounded by diversity and students from all walks of life. It was the place where I met my best friends who are from India, Uzbekistan, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia.
Most of us had the transient mindset that really connected us from the start. It wasn’t about where we were from, but the situation we were in. We even had our accentless ‘Manaratie’ way of speaking that people couldn’t quite put a finger on when trying to figure out where we were from.
Being in Saudi Arabia gave me the chance to travel A LOT. This gave me an understanding and exposure of different cultures. But I remained true to myself wherever I went.
I didn’t want to lose my identity wherever I went because that was what I held most close to my heart. I couldn’t lose myself and wear a different mask in the process of blending into different cultures. Instead, I chose to observe like a turtle in its shell – choosing to go back inside whenever it wants to.
My days at university were also surrounded by people from various backgrounds. I was suddenly living in Dubai, the melting pot of cultures in the Middle East. It wasn’t a major change for me since I was familiar with the UAE. Although it is a far more liberalized nation in comparison to Saudi Arabia, there are still whiffs of the Gulf essence in the air. Past the endless skyscrapers, there were still strict rules and regulations that you have to keep in mind which brought you back to the reality that you were still in the Gulf region.
I met people from all corners of the world and shared a room with a Nigerian, Iranian, and Pakistani. But I always felt comfortable because we were all one and in the same boat, so to speak. We were all citizens of the world living in a foreign city where you could hardly spot any locals. I was fortunate enough to meet amazing people who went out of their way to help me out and were my second family away from home.
In the summer of 2016, we made the major move back to the mother land – Pakistan. My dad had retired and since we all know (and are often in denial) that living in the Middle East isn’t a permanent place to settle. He felt that Karachi was the right place to move because the rest of our family is living here. I was already familiar with Karachi because we would visit every year, mostly in the winter when the weather was bearable. But I still couldn’t wrap my head around the complete chaos of the city.
Most of all, I still can’t get used to the fact that every single person I meet is Pakistani. I am not used to this uniformity and it didn’t feel like I was learning anything new. It just felt strange to me because I was used to always being in a scenario similar to a United Colors of Benetton advertisement.
More than ever before, I felt that I didn’t belong. That familiar tinge of being an ajnabi was running through my veins again. And people sensed it too, even when I would be roaming around in the bazaar or picking up bread from the nearby store. “Ap to London ya Amreeka say ayee hongeen (you must have come from London or America)”, the pathan salesmen would say to me with a wry smile. It was ironic how, after 28 years of my life living abroad, I was now a foreigner in my own country.
That was when I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter if I feel this way. Whenever I feel this particular itch, I think of travelling. The different architecture, unfamiliar flavors, and sounds of languages I am not familiar with make me feel at home again. The best part is, I can see my friends from Riyadh and Dubai in different parts of the world now. We will always continue to make new stories along the road.
I didn’t need to be in Riyadh anymore because most of my friends are scattered in different countries across the world. I actually dread going back because the city where I spent most of my life in will suddenly feel foreign to me.
I would feel out of place looking at other third culture kids like me sitting at cafes and roaming around in malls with their friends, having the time of their lives with each other. I wouldn’t be surrounded by my loving and caring neighbors and have long conversations with my best friend at our compound recreation center anymore. People are truly what make a place and once they are gone, I automatically began sensing a feeling of detachment.
When I look back at my life, I am happiest at the most amazing and genuine people I met through my experiences. I am incredibly fortunate to have travelled so much already that many don’t even have the chance to do.
There is a certain beauty in having the ability of adapting to a new place and being at home everywhere I go. It gives me a renewed sense of freedom every single time I am moving somewhere or travel for extended periods of time. I believe that I am not from anywhere, but everywhere.