Living In Babylon: The Politics That Govern Our Sense of Identity and Belonging
It is usually me that rushes to ask the question, ‘so, where are you from?’ first when I meet people. I find it curious. And I’m always interested in knowing how far up the tree of their family history people are willing to pitch themselves. To me, it’s a symbol of a sort of resistance- a vocal stance of how willing someone is to redraw their own personal map of the world. Do they see the world as how they wish to see it, or how they’ve been taught to see it, or how they feel they should see it? Do they take boundaries to be as they are right now? Or do they see boundaries as something as loose as they are in the hands of those that defined them for the rest of the world? In other words, how sovereign are they willing to be in their identification of self?
After all, the exact reason why a lot of biracial people are considered so ‘in’ is because of this exact resistance, the willingness of the generation before them to redraw their own boundaries rather than leaving them as predetermined. Yet what of those of us that have biracial roots not just one generation ago, but several generations over, especially in colonised parts of the world (now countries) full of populations that have had to constantly migrate as a survival tactic? Those of us whose families have had to mingle and mix with other populations every twenty or so years because they’re running from economic restraints, depleting resources or annihilation given one social or political reason or another? Are we just as ready to probe and extend our sense of self beyond just one generation ?
It’s interesting to note that some of the most distinguished writers of the Indian subcontinent are known for carrying a case of the ‘travelling identity’. The unfixedness of their identities is not an ideology, but a tactic employed specifically as resistance to what in the 1800s was an onslaught of imperialism whose main purpose was to freeze identities, peoples, goods and trade roots in order to close in and control. This tactic, of always being mobile, of being undefinable, of occupying the third space of a hybrid and multilayered existence, is not a new concept. It’s been preached in poetry by some of our best poets, from Ghalib to Alama Iqbal. Iqbal himself regularly gave rallying calls to embrace a travelling self. Embrace it to the extent that the baggage you carry is light, in fact, the only thing you should attach to you, is travel itself. So carry nothing, let nothing define you, and keep moving. He played consistently with points of origin, reshuffling and repositioning his dialogue in a desperate attempt to outstrip the shadow of imperial conquest that was casting itself across his continent. His writing was a means for himself to reorientate his own identity against one singular point; the Hijaz, as apposed to Buckingham Palace, which was fast becoming the established mecca of the orientalist age. And where once the Muslim world was used to defining everything in relation to what happened in and around Makkah, everything was now becoming defined against how bleached it was (and still is).
So why do so many people have a fixation to pin themselves down to an identity that is only, in the case of my country, 60 years old? Why is it that when I lay claims to the Afghan tribes of my maternal heritage that descend from Germanic roots (whose surname is still one of the most common Danish surnames in Copenhagen at least, yup, I’ve travelled enough to check…) that statement is considered to be ‘begging it’? (For those not used to coloqualisms, begging it here refers to an attempt to render oneself cooler than they actually are, hence begging for attention). And that’s not the only time I’ve been told to ‘Get real, you’re just a Paki!’ Really? What does that mean anyway, are we talking about the country Pakistan, are we referring to the migrants that came here in the 70s and 80s that were given that insult as a label by the racist skinheads in the Nottinghill riots especially, are we talking about that demographic in particular, or…?
Where does the need to tie down those that resist pinning themselves neatly against an identity that only stretches back by one generation, come from? Is it because of the fear of a sudden vastness of territory one can lay claim to? Or maybe, it’s the fact that such claims expose the meaninglessness of so many of the emblems we pin to ourselves in order to frantically fill the hole that comes from not belonging?
It’s to be noted that a feeling of “not belonging” is exaggerated dramatically in Western countries for migrants, because they suddenly find themselves existing in a culture that is constantly appropriating itself against everything that for them is ‘back home’. (Note: the time lag implied in the term BACK; and the accepted baggage that comes with it). The incessant fantasy of Western culture to be ‘THE enlightened’ and ‘pure’ entity it claims to be, can only really be propagated by an assumption that the West is eternally insulated from the historical exigencies and tragedies of the Wretched of the Earth. So, given the very nature of our skin, once we are flung out of the mainstream vacuum of Babylon, we find within ourselves an almost traumatic need to belong. Which is all fine, but why must we grab and cuddle only that part of our history that is the closest to us?
When those that do claim themselves to be British take claim to their ‘British’ roots for example, at least they choose to limit themselves to a culture that has a 500 year history, the last 300 of which they choose to remember fondly, and the last 100 of which they ram down the throat of the rest of the world and use as an excuse to enlighten and amass vast portions of things that belong to other people. But for the rest of us, especially those of us that come from countries that only exist BECAUSE of these last 100 years, when we label ourselves only by the identities of our immediate divided lands, and especially when we don’t do the detective work of asking our families and taking interest in where we actually come from, we’re limiting our own sense of belonging to histories that are only at best, 50 – 60 years old. And when that’s your history, the only thing you can lay claim to is corrupt politicians, famine, terrorism and a cricket team that since the loss of Imran Khan is always an embarrassment… what’s the common theme running through the aforementioned? They are all post colonial cultural constructs in conquered territories, used to construct a false notion of dependency in the minds of the (ex)colonised, forever reminding them that they can’t really exist without the culture (that once dominated) forever defining them.
There is good reason that a writer as deeply passionate and rooted to the current geopolitical struggles of her country as Arundhati Roy chooses to make a point of her Syrian Christian heritage, no matter how many years down the line THAT was. Because it still has an impact on who you are. Beyond the colour of your skin, and the curliness of your hair, and the green or brown tint in your eyes. And the rest of the world can see it; they make use of it to categorize you and constantly remind you what category according to their current way of looking at the world you fall in when you fill those awesome voluntary demographic forms at the end of each voluntary survey you do, whether it be a job application or a prison sentence; the categories are always the same.
Isn’t it about time you lay claim to your history beyond the portion that has been handed down to you? And take a good look at why we have been taught to divide ourselves, the way we do?