[Expat voice] Where are you from?

November 27, 2011, Sunday/ 15:44:00

I have been living and working in İstanbul for just over one year, and while I thought I knew who I was and where I was from, being here in this great city has caused me to rethink many different notions.

Smiles are usually exchanged at this point as it becomes clear to both of us that we are not speaking the same language at all. Whether it is the local baker or one of the attendants at my favorite coffee shop in the center of Avcılar, the next thing said is a statement that I am asked to affirm, 'So you are Pakistani?' I reply, 'Yes, in that I have Pakistani blood, but my heart and mind are quite English'

İstanbul is a remarkable place in many ways, indeed. It was historically the “bridge of civilizations.” Today it is home to over 13 million, the majority of whom are Turks, largely of the Islamic faith, although they live in a society that has secularized significantly since the early 1920s. İstanbul was once the center of the Muslim world, and the Ottoman caliphate existed for over 600 years, longer than any other caliphate.

Presently, the economy of Turkey is performing rather well, and the rise of the “Islamic bourgeoisie” has ensured the vitality of the wider nation, rather than the elite urbanite secularists and liberals who, until recently, traditionally held economic and political power. Many Turks consider themselves part of an extraordinary heritage of Turkishness, with its progressive Islamism at center-stage. Other Turks wish to be Europeanized, and rapidly so with individualism, urbanism and internationalism replacing existing notions of collectivism, traditionalism and localism. These are important sociological developments in a society undergoing dramatic changes in the light of globalization and the opening up of media and politics.

While these advances are important for Turkish society and as someone who has had a lifetime to determine the important questions in relation to identity as a British Pakistani Muslim, living and working here as a foreigner has caused me to revaluate some of my thoughts. Almost every day I am asked the same question by those I meet for the first time. Each time I am asked, I ask myself if I really know the answer. All kinds of İstanbulites ask me, “Where are you from?” and each time they do I have less and less of an idea as to what to say.

I sometimes give a different answer just to prevent the monotony as I have a good idea of what will follow. But the norm is for me to say, “I am from the UK.” They immediately then ask, “Where?” and I say I am from England and they say, “But...” and start to point at my hands, suggesting that I have brown skin. I then say, “My parents are from Pakistan but I am British-born,” and they say, “Ah... you are Pakistani.” I say: “No, I've spent no more than three months in Pakistan over a period of 41 years. I am sometimes treated like a tourist there.” This creates disquiet among the questioners, who do not know how to respond to the idea that I am something of a dislocated Pakistani, perhaps unsure of myself, even.

Smiles are usually exchanged at this point as it becomes clear to both of us that we are not speaking the same language at all. Whether it is the local baker or one of the attendants at my favorite coffee shop in the center of Avcılar, the next thing said is a statement that I am asked to affirm, “So you are Pakistani?” I reply, “Yes, in that I have Pakistani blood, but my heart and mind are quite English.”

Being an 'Englishman'

At this point, I say to myself that I was never accepted in Britain as an Englishman -- the racism, bigotry and sheer indignation that I often received from many “Englishman” ensured that I was never seen like them in their eyes. But then who is the “Englishman”? Daniel Defoe wrote in 1701, “From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came; with neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.” The English are a complex ethnic group made up of many local and global empires, nations, communities and tribes shaped over the millennia. Benedict Anderson's “Imagined Communities” demonstrates that we are all a combination of many different notions of who we are, real or imagined. Many nation-states are quite strategically established, some out of empires, others because of them. So here I am, sitting in a coffee shop, describing myself as an Englishman, largely because Britain is an unknown entity among many everyday Turks. They all know England well enough, from Beefeaters to Churchill, from Buckingham Palace to Cambridge University, but where or what Britain is remains a mystery to most.

As the impasse in the conversation quickly passes, the focus turns to my religion, rather than my race or ethnicity. Some people go on to ask my name. I give it to them. Then they say, “This is a Turkish name. Are you Turkish? Why do you have a Turkish name but don't speak Turkish?” I say, “My name is from Arabic.” And then they ask, “Are you a Muslim?” I reply, “Yes.” Then they smile and say, “Salaam alaikum,” and I reply accordingly. After that exchange many Turks say, “We love Pakistan” for what the Pakistanis of pre-partition India did to support the Turkish independence movements in the 1930s.

Further smiles are duly exchanged. Now we can relax and enjoy the moment, although it is clear to me that most Turks are essentially defining me by my religion, as would most Britons. It tells me that my faith identity is important in the context of challenges to my ethnic or national origin, and that it can act as a unifying force with others who share Islam with me, as well as an objectifying force among those who would wish to see me associated more closely with a faith that for them might well be seen as problematic. When all else fails, while “who we are” is often defined by “who we are not,” it seems that religion, or the values, identities, ascriptions, rites, rituals and memories that stem from it, are the most powerful predictor of familiarity and sameness.

Yet, ironically, many of the great religions or ethical systems of the world, from Buddhism, Confucianism to Hinduism and Islam, for example, could not be any closer in terms of the basic ideals and aspirations in relation to our human existence on this fragile earth. Perhaps the next time a Turk asks me the question, “Where are you from?” I will say, “I belong to one race, the human race; I belong to one faith, the faith of those who are virtuous; and as a human being striving to do the right thing, I am utterly fallible, just like you and everybody else on this lonely planet. So let us get over where I am from and let us talk about where we all are.”

*Dr. Abbas is currently associate professor of sociology at Fatih University in İstanbul. His most recent book is “Islamic Radicalism and Multicultural Politics: the British Experience” (Routledge, 2011).www.tahirabbas.co.uk.