Apr 7, 2007

Identity and global souls

I had a chance to chat with Ethan during AJ Forum about global souls or what he termed - for the time-being - "the forth world". The term refers to the group of people who don't neatly fit into predefined national borders, cultures or ethnicity; people who feel at "home" almost anywhere, Ethan says:

In that sense, I think of the moving circus folks as a subset of a larger group, the Global Souls that Pico Iyer wrote about in his 2000 book. The book is a skeptical, dark look at a group that Iyer, himself, is a member of: postnational people who for economic, romantic or xenophilic reasons break our stereotypes of what it means to be “at home”. But the Global Souls I meet are generally an optimistic bunch, proud of where they’re from, but at home in places far from their home nations, building friendships and relationships with people from different nations, races and religions.
Doha was a good place to think about post-national people, global souls, or whatever we choose to call this group of people. (I’d been weighing the term “the fourth world”, thinking of Jon Hassel’s wonderful jazz/electronica/world music experiments that blurred boundaries between worlds of music. But there’s instances of “fourth-world” being used to refer to indigeous communities within the first world, or to the poorest corners of the third world, meanings very far away from the post-national meaning I’m looking for.)

I would say that there's a distinction between economic migrants and those who end up living in a different, or multiple, countries, cultures and languages; to the extent that they become part of that society. The Nepalese or Filipino worker in Qatar is interested in his job and the opportunity it gives him/her to grow but learns only enough about the culture and language of the society that would make his stay comfortable, and almost alway goes back to his/her own country. This is the same for the Polish worker in Britain or the American engineer in Saudi Arabia.

There are others however who cross those borders. Take the example of
Rasna Warah, a third generation Kenyan-Asian, her forefathers came from Lahore which is in present day Pakistan - but was then under British rule; is she Kenyan? Asian? Indian? or Pakistani?.
Edward Said is of this group, he spent his life between two cultures and two languages; Arabic and English. He explores this mixed existence in detail in his memoirs but this is what he says in his Between Worlds article:

I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport and no certain identity at all. To make matters worse, Arabic, my native language, and English, my school language, were inextricably mixed: I have never known which was my first language, and have felt fully at home in neither, al-though I dream in both. Every time I speak an English sentence, I find myself echoing it in Arabic, and vice versa.
My background is somewhat similar, I'm ethic Somali but I was born in Saudi Arabia, had my primary school in Somalia, middle and high school in Egypt. I'm officially an Australian - and attended university there - and now I work in Qatar. In terms of languages, I'm almost a native speaker of Somali and Arabic, and English isn't far behind. Just like Edward Said, I don't really know in what language I dream. My wife, a distant cousin, was born and raised in Qatar and only speaks Arabic while my two youngest brothers only speak English. With my parents, I dare not speak anything but Somali. And my father is an American citizen while I'm an Australian citizen.

There are millions of people who, just like me, ended up being part of many cultures, feeling at "home" in more than one place.
There are also those who chose to be global citizens moving to different parts of the world or simply caring about a culture or place other their native ones; an American migrating to China or an Asian in Britain.

Ethan argues that Global Souls are good for the economy too:
I am - very, very slowly - starting to outline a book I’d like to write about xenophilia. It’s my argument that parochial, isolationist nationalism is an economically suicidal stance in an increasingly globalized world. The future, in a very literal sense, belongs to the post-national, the Global Souls, the economic migrants. They’re the best placed to create solutions to global problems, to invent new products for global markets, to build bridges and understanding between different nations. It’s not possible for everyone to uproot themselves and try becoming literally post-national, but the only obstacle to xenophilia in the age of the internet is lack of interest, desire to know what people in other parts of the world think, feel and believe. (This is deeply different from cyberutopianism, by the way, which believes in a single, unified, computer-mediated world largely shaped by 1960’s American hippie principles by way of Stewart Brand. Xenophilia believes that the world is made of diverse, culturally and socially different, yet interconnected spaces, and that the ability to encounter these different spaces without getting on an airplane is one of the most exciting aspects of the 21st century.)
There is a downside to this; when I'm asked the common question of "where are you from?" I learned to vary my answer based on the situation, so in an Airport the answer would be Australian, with a group of Somalis I would be Somali and with a group of Arabs I'm an Arab and so on.


Anonymous said...

Yes I can relate to this and have written about "identity" a couple of times on my blog. I do the same when asked THE QUESTION (the right answer is inevitably disbelieved and questioned) so sometimes I come up with the most ridiculous mixtures like half Japanese half Columbian - people generally believe that one which is interesting - easier to believe than to say you are a Nigerian because I dont fit whatever stereotyped image people including Nigerians have of what a Nigerian looks like! But most often I just say I am from many different places - here and there etc. But sometimes it would be nice to be able to say you are from somewhere and for people to accept that one has the right to define oneself and not to question people. I would never ever ask someone where they were from and then question their answer!

Abdurahman said...

Lol, that's a great of dealing with it, I've done it couple of times before.

In Qatar, and certainly in most of the developing world, you get asked about your nationality before they even they get your name, it's so important for them to know!

The problem is that people already have a "guess" before they ask you, so they disbelieve you when you don't fit "the guess" or stereotype.

I'll try a Korean and a Yemeni mix next time, lets see what I reaction I get :)

mohamed said...

I'm not sure if they care so much about your nationality as your ethnicity.

That's why I'm continually asked "But where are you *really* from" and South Africa never seems to be an adequate answer.

(I find it too painful to even bring up the fact that I was born in Scotland...)

Abdurahman said...

True, people link nationality and ethnicity. One woman give me a furious look when I told her I was Australian because she thought I was making fun of her :)
Australians are white but your black!

mohamed said...

I use to get that from taxi drivers when visiting Egypt. They'd say "How can you be from South Africa - you're not black" to which I would respond (with a perfectly straight face) "You have to drink a lot of milk to get like this"

Jonathan Marks said...

Wow, what a great mix of cultures and languages. Everyone is a richer person for having this heritage mix. Was also at the AJ Forum and was impressed with what AJ is doing with young journalists. Are you working for the network or AJTalk?

Abdurahman said...

Yeah, I think we've met in the forum. I work for the network with Mohamed.

Daniel said...

first of all, i came across your blog viz-a-viz ethan's blog. if i may add my two cents. as you mention, edward said is an excellent example of "hybridity". though with all your personal accounts, you are faced with the same question: "are you either ______ or are you _____?" there is no middle ground in the question. there is no either/or..../or. rudyard kipling faced this dilemma when he left his childhood india for england. either/or, he decided that he was an englishman and proponent of empire. however, i would be reluctant to lump all hybrid identities into a "fourth world" category since each are unique in their very uniqueness. this travel culture on which much has been written reminds me of deleuze's concept of the nomad who is nowhere and everywhere, not a westernized cyberutopian in the least, outside of the container conception of nations, societies, and cultures.

Abdurahman said...

welcome daniel, well said, people often have to make a choice. A young Iranian for example who is born and raised in Qatar - and only speaking Arabic - will forever remain Iranian because the society forces him/her to pick a side (and only one side. It's difficult to group all "hybrids" together as some have entirely melted in their host country (Obama is a case in hand), others completely retained their national identity and there are those in between (and Edward Said is had adopted and remained a Palestinian). Whether they adopted and by how much depends as much on the new country/society they live in as on their willingness to adopt or retain their national identities.