Abdullah, or NidalM of “NidalM Photography Blog", an excellent photoblog that is a subset of his professional photography site NidalM Photography continues here his personal essay and reflection on multicultural identities, career, and courtship in Saudi following on Part I--From Birth to Career of his personal essay "Desis, Multiculturalism, Saudization, and Marriage".
Abdullah is 23, born in Pakistan, but raised in Saudi Arabia since the age of 1 month. Both his parents are Pakistani, although his mother was raised partly in Tanzania. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering from Saudi Arabia's prestigious King Faud University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), and a Master's degree in Financial Engineering from the prestigious University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He currently works for a Saudi investment company, and does freelance photography work part-time.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin.
Opening a Can of Worms
You might argue that Saudi Arabia already has a naturalization policy. Indeed by 2005, the Arab News was flooded with articles of how the new citizenship laws would potentially benefit 1 million of the country's 8 million expats. Potentially being the key word here, because as time has shown, only a scant few ever made it through the application process.
The fear here is, of course, the same as what every country fears when opening its doors to outsiders: an erosion of cultural values and traditions. All of which are very solid points--our traditions are things we cherish. Here's the problem though. If you wanted to protect your culture from outsiders, you're already a decade (or two!) too late. There's been internet and satellite TV access in the Kingdom since the 90s. The country's youth have taken up the government's international scholarship program in droves, and have started returning to the country with new ideas, incorporating their Saudi culture with what they have seen on the outside. And as I have learned very recently, there are a large number of Saudis that have taken non-Saudi wives (though the opposite is a decidedly more slippery slope
Are those who have adapted their culture 'bad people'? Shouldn't multiculturalism be something that should be encouraged, not stifled, as long as it is not at the expense of religion. It's rather arrogant to think that one's own culture is superior to another's. We all do some things right and others wrong. We can all learn from each other.
And learn we all do. Something strange has been happening as Saudi Arabia has slowly started creaking open its doors. The world has started to pay attention! It has suddenly become 'cool' for Muslims all over the world to start incorporating Arabic into their languages. Words like 'Ya3ni' (I mean) and 'Akhi' (brother) have replaced their counterparts in their own languages. The veil and hijaab are becoming more common in North America. Worn by women who project a strong character and who have amazing personalities, they are changing the negative perceptions of the Islamic and Arab world. Saudi Arabia's ambassadors of culture are not the thousands of mullahs exported worldwide, but their expatriate citizens, who interact with foreign societies, and win them over. It is their bloggers, who write about life in the country and show the world how it's not all about fundamentalism. Too long has the perception of Saudis in the West been of a rich bearded man being followed around by a gaggle of veiled women. This needs to change!
By opening its doors, Saudi does not risk to lose its culture. There's no such thing as culture loss. It's called a cultural exchange. And the whole world seeks to gain from it.
On Blending Multiple Cultures
Something I enjoy very much is when people ask me where I'm from. The answer (even to me) is never simple. On a recent safari trip to Kenya, I was confronted by a man on a Mombasa beach who called himself 'The Doctor'. I would learn that the reason he called himself that was to advertise the fact that he wanted to sell me marijuana, but I digress...
[Start of conversation redacted as it involves liberal use of the word 'Ganja' trying to be peddled at exorbitant prices]
"Ey man, where you from?", the Doctor asked me, frustrated at my lack of interest in his wares.
"Guess", I said smiling.
He stares at me, "Your accent sound like American."
Too easy, I was wearing a Michigan Football T-shirt (btw...GO BLUE!), "Good guess, but no"
Taken aback, he pressed forward: "What’s your name?"
"3abdallah", I said, with the proper Arabic pronunciation. As I said, I love this game.
"You are from Arab!", he said smiling, gaining re-enforcement by looking at my two Saudi friends who were traveling with me.
"Nope, I just live in Saudi Arabia, I'm not really a Saudi"
The poor man was visibly flustered now. His friend joined him and they spoke to each other in rapid Swahili. I only picked up a few words my mother had taught me as a child. At least I was sure they weren't planning to stab me or something.
Turning back to me he replied, "My friend says, you are Indian... because you have Indian hair."
I laughed. A lot.
Now Desis can sometimes tell that I'm a Desi. Saudis can sometimes tell I'm not a Saudi (the accent gives them pause), but they can't pinpoint where I'm from. And when I get that long overdue haircut, I will again be unidentifiable.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin. At the Serena beach resort in Mombasa. Not the man who tried to sell me the stuff, but I bet they're related!
However, it's all fun and games, until the really important life questions start. I've been able to pass off as Saudi, Pakistani, Indian, and, in the United States, as a Latino. Physically blending in with a community is one thing, cultural blending is quite another... While I've always been an outsider to the Saudi community -- though I have been a part of it and learned to emulate it --it is also very unlikely that I would be considered a pure Pakistani. Furthermore, I detest the terms American-Desi or Americanized-Desi, because they carry a wide range of connotations, many of which I disagree with.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin. Devon Street (aka Mohammad Ali Jinnah Way) in Chicago, IL. It has a special place in the hearts of America's Pakistanis and boasts a serious case of multi-cultural syndrome (oh, there's Indians and Polish Jews there too!)
While I'm very liberal in terms of accepting what other people choose to do with their lives, I tend to lean towards the conservative on my end. While I'm not a fan of clubbing and bar-hopping, I feel that nothing is better for getting a wedding mood going than a bit of Bhangra. And while I think it's important for a guy and a girl to get to know each other before marriage, I feel that parents also have an important role to play in the final decision-making. I'm a fan of the Hijaab. But I also see it as something a girl chooses, not something that can be imposed. I suffer from wanderlust. I pray regularly. The Qur'an is music to my ears. And yet I've had quasi-religious experiences listening to music. I speak Urdu, English and Arabic, in their correct accents. It's a myriad collection of different beliefs and ideas, the totality of which I cannot attribute to any one community or culture that I've been part of.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin. I'm probably the worst dancer you could find. But its all about having fun right? :)
The question is, “Why am I suddenly so concerned about my identity now?” It's not as if I realized this overnight. Pardon the pun, but it's been a lifetime in the making. The answer is, “Yes, now I have to find someone to share it with.”
And it’s no easy task. You might be shocked to hear that a guy at 23 years old is suddenly burdening himself with these issues. Well, it’s because in Desi culture, the fact that I have completed my studies and am now working (and own a car!) means that I am "set". And it is at this point that society suddenly turns against you. Simply put, the women of our community and close relatives have now started pressuring my mother to get me married off. And this in turn translates into pressure on me.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin. "You're next!". The look my aunt gave me at my cousin's wedding.
You have the expected: women pointing out girls they know. This is something that I've been aware of and doesn't bother me in the slightest. The more sinister approach that I never expected: people, mostly back in Pakistan, pointing out that since I've been exposed to Americanism, I should quickly marry a 'traditional' girl so "she can straighten me up". It has been a shocking revelation, to say the least, to see people so close to me suddenly talking about the possibility of me taking up drugs, drink, and clubbing if I stay single too long.
A lot of expat friends that were raised with me in Saudi Arabia (and not necessarily of Pakistani origin) have told me about the same problems that they've been having with finding their own partners. Given that I was the youngest person in my class by a year, they have a some time on me in terms of experiences through dealing with parents and traditional marriages. Almost invariably, they find that they've been unable to make things work when set up with someone from home. Now, I certainly consider it too early to single out a type of girl that I like, but traditional just doesn't sound right to me either. Growing up outside Pakistan, I find some stark differences in the way we set goals in life. Education has a major part to play in it, surely. But so does an aspect of culture. I don't want to generalize, I have met some great friends born and raised in Pakistan, but they are almost always highly educated, brought up in a liberal atmosphere, and not what you think of when you're told 'traditional'.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin. Bridal Henna.
Whenever I talk to people about marriage, it invariably leads to a "Would you marry an [insert ethnicity here]?" question. My answer is always both a yes and a no. Yes, because having lived among people from so many places, and having seen people of all types from all nationalities, I don't consider it a factor at all. No, because there usually may need to be some serious cultural reconciliation from both sides. And I would like to avoid too much of that. I admit having multiple identities is confusing. There are days when I wish I could say I am Abdullah from xx and that’s the end of the sentence. They say getting married would help in this regard, but I'd rather figure it out before I take the plunge. Or find someone with a similar outlook and willing to figure it out with me. I don't want to impose my culture on someone else; and, I don't want to have another identity imposed on me--whether it be Desi, Arab, or Western.
I consider myself as having a laid back attitude towards my identity; and currently, I would think an ideal partner wouldn't be too biased towards hers. I am indeed too young to get married right now, but if I were to marry early, at least being flexible in this regard would allow us to learn from each other and discover what we would like to be together.
And of course, then come the other more concrete ramifications of getting married into a different culture. Marrying someone raised outside Pakistan would mean my relatives thinking that I've no interest in them, and want to cut away from my roots. Marrying a Saudi would mean a long period of limbo pending government approval, not to mention problems with the family and whatnot. Someone raised in America would result in people thinking I want to give up on religion (because if I move to the States, I HAVE to get high and drunk... right?). There's a compromise here I'm sure. And there's a good chance I'm overthinking it all. Just hoping for time to figure it all out! Children? Not even there yet!
And a closing thought...what's the etiquette on being the photographer at your own wedding? :P
© Abdullah Mohiuddin.
I would like to thank Abdullah again for contributing this excellent personal essay, and urge you all to share in my enjoyment of his outstanding photoblog, “NidalM Photography Blog”, and his professional photography site NidalM Photography .
In his 2-part essay he has raised a number of interesting individual and collective challenges, those of individual identity formation, the family and community impact on life stages, choices made for and forced on one by government laws and policies, including Saudization and what one might call “the Saudization of Marriage”, the government preference for intra-Saudi marriages, except for the “undesirable” Saudi women (over 25 professionals, over 40).
What are your thoughts and comments on, and experiences of, multiple identities, family pressure to marry, Saudization, and the “Saudization of Marriage”?