My favourite poem growing up was “Citizen of the World” by Dave Calder. My cousin showed it to me as a little girl and it has resonated with me ever since. I had never read anything that so accurately described how I felt about being of dual-nationality. Dual nationality is tricky because it is not based on race, or blood, or religion. It is a middle ground that has no set rules or clear instructions. It’s being stuck between two unknowns. It is to be privileged enough to call two places in the world home, but never really fully belonging or more importantly, being accepted into either one.
My parents are Egyptian, both born and raised in Alexandria. I was born in Dublin, and raised in Ireland my whole life. I have never lived in Egypt and the most time I get to spend there is during summer break. I am Irish, but I am also Egyptian. I happily and fondly carry both nationalities with great love and pride. I reached this point by fighting my whole life to “prove” that I was both. I no longer let anyone take away from my right to be Irish-Egyptian. But, I often wonder if things had been different for me growing up, would I feel differently to how I do now? Would I claim one country as my own and discard the other? I don’t know. What I do know is that growing up, I never felt fully accepted as Irish nor as Egyptian. And I understand why. I grew up at a time when the world was not as aware (“woke”) as it is now, when everything was “customs” and “norms” and very much tied up into boxes you either ticked or didn’t. It was hard to see where a little coloured girl with an Irish accent would fit in.
I had extremely curly hair growing up. It was so curly that when I would have it in plaits, I never needed a hair tie to keep the plaits in place. They would just hold. I was quite darker as a child than I am now, my brown skin was distinct among clouds of white. I grew up in Ireland at a time when, unlike today, there was extremely few people of colour here. So much so, that if you weren’t white, you were just assumed to be black. While a lot of people think I must have grew up prone to Islamophobia, prejudice against my faith didn’t kick in until later years in my school life. As a kid, the question was always surrounding my race. Now, I don’t really want to use the term “racism” because I genuinely do not think that this was the case, at least not when I was a little girl. Little boys and girls my age weren’t “racist”, they just didn’t understand why I looked so different. They were very vocal about it and not always in the nicest way. They took the very basic knowledge they had, or rather thought they had about my appearance and applied it into comments and questions that didn’t always make me comfortable enough to answer “I’m Irish” when someone would ask me where I was from. For my primary school peers, “black” or “people from Africa” had curly hair. So, Meriem, therefore, must be black. I knew Egypt was in Africa, so I accepted this to be true. My friends didn’t know Egypt was in Africa. Egypt to them was Egypt, and Africa was Africa, you know, the country…
One day, I was playing outside my house on my scooter, and this little boy, who couldn’t have been much older than 5, kept pulling at his dad’s sleeve, his other hand outstretched pointing right at me. “Dad! Dad, why is that girl black?” “Why is she black, dad?” He kept nagging and nagging. His father, for some reason beyond my understanding, was more embarrassed and focused on shutting the little boy up, rather than taking a single moment to explain anything to his son. Anything would have sufficed – that people can have different racial and cultural backgrounds, or simply that other countries and types of people exist outside of Ireland. Anything at all. But instead, he said nothing. And naturally, curiosity killed the cat, and the little boy let go of his father’s hand and ran over to me: “Why do you look like that? Why are you black?” Funnily enough, I didn’t say anything to him either. You see, at this age, I just thought I was Irish, I had never had to question it. I was born here, so that meant I was Irish, right? Well, here was this little boy, a 5 year old, and it felt to me, that he was telling me, no, I was not. I ran into my house, up to my bedroom and cried, before tying my curly hair into a bun where it wouldn’t attract so much attention. As for my skin tone, well, there was nothing much I could do to change that.
None of this bothered me as much as it did when people caught hold of the ‘N’ word. When my little sister complains of being called “caramel” and “exotic” growing up, I laugh to myself about what I was called in comparison. The first time I was called “nigger” was on my primary school playground. I still remember the girl who said it, and to reiterate what I was saying about kids not being racist, I still know this girl now and she is one of the nicest and least bigoted/racist people ever. But, eventually what ended up happening was I was projected to a hurt and a discrimination of a community and history that is not my own. And it fucked with my identity growing up. For the earliest years of my life, I was questioning my race more than I was anything else. Irish people were automatically assumed to be white, which I was not. And Egyptians, more than anyone, are the most confusing nation when it comes to race. Because we don’t regard ourselves as “Middle Eastern” nor “Arab”, Africans don’t really accept us as “African”, despite our geographical location, and we’re obviously not white, Asian or Hispanic. So, what are we then? Well, that depends on who you ask. If you ask the Census, we are “other”. If you ask any Egyptian, I can almost guarantee their answer will be the same: “Egyptian”. We see ourselves as a breed of our own, us “Pharaohs”.
So, my “inability” to be Irish growing up was overwhelmingly based on the colour of my skin. In the majority of other aspects, I measured up, and let me honestly and proudly say, aside from the longwinded question of “where are you from?” to which “Wicklow” is never a suffice answer, growing up in Ireland as person of colour gave me equal opportunity, way of life, and everything in between, as my white peers. And as we continue to grow and progress in the world, the “characteristics” to be a certain nationality are continuously breaking down. I never felt like I couldn’t do something my white friend could, or that I didn’t have an equal opportunity to excel or pursue in any aspect of my life. So, in many ways I felt “white” because I grew up as privileged as any white kid my age did. But, obviously, feeling “white” because of privilege or feeling “black” because I was called “nigger” during my childhood, doesn’t mean I am. On the other hand, my “inability” to be Egyptian was based on everything but my skin colour.
Very quickly, I was labeled by my Egyptian friends, community and society as “agnabeya” which means “foreign” or more specifically, “Western”. Though I couldn’t seem to fathom the difference between myself and my friends, they could. I mis-pronounced a few words in Arabic and I didn’t always understand all the puns from Egyptian films. To them, I spoke differently, dressed differently, walked differently, interacted differently, and these things had to be excused by saying that I was “foreign”. I naively navigated my social life in Egypt thinking that people would understand that even though I didn’t exactly meet Egyptian appearances and didn’t carry myself as traditionally, I still grew up with the exact same cultural appreciation, the same love for molo5eya and wara2 3enab. I still watched the same movies, listened to the same music, and grew up with the same values and traditions most Egyptian households upheld. But, because of the “impression” I gave off, because I didn’t grow up fully understanding the do’s and don’ts of Egyptian society, I was almost always misunderstood. Along with being labeled the “agnabeya” came the shock when people found out I don’t drink, or simply, the look of complete awe when I sang along to an Um Kalthoom song, or when I knew a grammar law in the Arabic language like the back of my hand, or even when I prayed and actually knew how to make wudu. They expected me to be everything an “Irish lifestyle” would represent, simply because they never accepted me as Egyptian to begin with.
Over the years, I constantly rocked myself between “am I Irish?”, “am I Egyptian?”, “am I both?”, “can I be both?”. Mixed children, who may have one Irish parent and one Egyptian parent, to fit this example, can fully and undoubtedly claim both. Me, I wasn’t so sure. I’m still not entirely sure. I realise I have been measuring my identity based on the identity people categorise me in. I felt reassured when my Irish friends called me Irish, and when my Egyptian friends called me Egyptian, but I didn’t feel secure in either because it meant I was now seen as one thing, and therefore not the other. But, I am both. I feel both. I realise I’ve been focusing my whole life on the things that “don’t make me Irish” or “don’t make me Egyptian” rather than focusing on all the things that do. In saying that, I have come to accept one thing: I can claim to be either or, I can claim to be both, but I will always have a home in each and no one can say I am not entitled to that. No matter where I go in the world, I know I can adapt. I know I can live among different people, in different countries and not feel beaten down for not being entirely the same. I have done it throughout my whole life. I can make a home out of anywhere, simply because I have known what it’s like to feel like you belong nowhere. And no matter how far I roam, I know I have a house, friends and family in both Ireland and Egypt to return to whenever I’m feeling “homesick”.