How many times has someone asked you where you’re really from?
“Yeah, I heard you the first time but where are you really from? …. No, I know you were born and raised in the U.K but like, where are you from originally? … Like where are your parents from?”
Yes, I’ve lost count too. It’s basically being stuck between saying London or Somalia – especially when you’re abroad. In my case, I always assume people know I’m Somali just by looking at me. But time and time again, whenever I get that question, I have to do mental gymnastics.
The UK is basically a hot mess at the moment, with discussions surrounding Brexit and Islamophobic articles written every single day. Even though I was born and raised here, I’m still seen as the “other”. I could never say “Oh yeah, living in the U.K is lit! It’s home!” My mother reminds us all the time: This is not our country. And I’m thinking: But this is all I know. I’ll definitely visit Somalia one day though.
Well, I’ve been to Somalia and I still felt like an outcast but it was a lot more intense with the whole “Westerner” label that people slapped on me.
Regardless of where I belong, it never actually feels like home.
I went to Somalia for the first time in 2013. At first, I was excited! I was going to see family I’ve never met before but heard stories about. I was actually going to my home country – the place my parents grew up in. I was going to dip my feet into CLEAR BLUE water at the beach. I’m going to see Somalis everywhere and I’ll fit right in! …. No. From the moment we got to Mogadishu airport, I felt it.
I was travelling with my mum, aunt and grandparents. My grandparents had US passports and the rest of us had British passports. We queued up at the airport to get our passports stamped. Right off the bat, the Somali woman behind the glass window stuck her nose up at us and was tutting as she flicked through each of our passports. She’d call each of us to the window by pointing and clicking her fingers. At first, I thought maybe she’s just in a bad mood. People who work in airports look like they really hate their jobs. Anyway, after that weird situation, we walked off to collect our suitcases. I didn’t think anything of it and shrugged it off. However, as days went on, I realised the attitude displayed by the woman at the airport wasn’t just a one-off.
I was in Somalia for just over two weeks. Let’s just say that those two weeks felt like a very long time.
My mother and I were out and about, walking around the markets and getting some fresh meat. I was wearing a jilbab – a covering from head to toe, with a colourful baati underneath. I walked around like I was a local and thought I fitted right in.
A lady was walking towards us and stopped in her tracks. She stared at us as we walked by and then said something. I turned around and noticed she was speaking to us.
“Where did you come from?” she asked (in Somali). I stayed mute. My mum went along with it and told her we’ve been living in Somalia for many years. But she seemed to have a hard time wrapping her head around this possibility.
The lady looked puzzled, but she wasn’t backing down. She continued to say in Somali:
“I’ve been watching you guys walking around, and I just know you’re not from here. Just by the way you’re walking. You’re probably from Europe or America.”
“And does that make us any less Somali?” My mother asked. I could tell she wanted to challenge her a little bit. The last time my mother was in Somalia, she was in her early 20’s. She used to make jokes about how much I’ll stick out like a sore thumb. But on that day outside the market, we were in the same boat.
I looked at the woman to hear her response.
“We’re all Somalis but don’t assume we don’t know the difference. We can tell,” she said as she slowly walked away.
“Okay, assalamu alaykum abaayo (sis)” And we went our separate ways. I didn’t have to say anything. I just looked at my mother and all she did was laugh about it. “This is long,” I thought. Why do you have to go out of your way to say this to random people you don’t know?
That interaction kind of made the rest of the trip a little less exciting for me. Don’t get me wrong: there were good days when I went to the beach and had fresh fruit blended into cold juice, sitting under the sun. I went to Somalia thinking that I was actually going to feel at home. But it couldn’t be more different. After that lady with the superpowers told us she could sense Westerners, I started to notice the stares a lot more and I got paranoid.
Fast forward to today, somewhere in the month of September 2018:
I was having a discussion with a friend of mine about our home countries and going through the “identity crisis”, which inspired me to write this post. She was told she’s not Pakistani when she went to Dubai.
“Look at me!” She laughed. “I mean, come on… I barely look English, do I? I look Pakistani! And yet, when I say I’m Pakistani, I’m wrong. When I tell English people that I’m from Birmingham, they say ‘where are you really from?’ So instead, I tell them my whole life story. I’m Pakistani, but born and bred in the UK.”
Am I Wikipedia? Why do I have to say “I’m Somali, born in Manchester, but raised in London” every single time I meet people. If you want to know my ethnicity, get straight to the point and ask that. Even when I was in Turkey recently, a lot of people asked us where we’re from and there was always a follow-up question after I said “The U.K”. Eventually, I told people to guess and walked away before they could utter another word. I’m sure you can already tell from this post how much I hate small talk.
If you’re keeping up with the news, you’ve probably heard about what’s happening in China. Muslims are being detained, forced to drink alcohol, eat pork and denounce their faith. Can you imagine the psychological effect it can have on someone? The harsh reality is, there are always layers to your identity. You may have been born and raised in your country but then you have your faith, your political views, your sexuality, and even your tribe as you keep peeling back the layers. You’re then accepted based on which part people prefer.
As much as people like to say “But it’s your country, you should love going there.” Oh, I’m down for going back one day but at least I’ll be more mentally prepared next time. “Where Are You Really From?” is a question we get in the U.K and back home. We’re all naturally looking for a sense of belonging. I’m too foreign for the UK and too Westernised for Somalia. And that’s the way it is. I’m currently floating around in a weird grey area.
As a side note, this is not a post about bashing my own country. It was just one huge culture shock and the constant questioning got tiring.
I’m still trying to get through being a Muslim Somali in the UK let alone anywhere else. So let me survive that first.