For once, the past ten days have seen me more occupied and engaged in events that are not happening in Egypt or the Middle East. Instead, the British element of my dual national dichotomy has emerged to the fore.
This past Wednesday I sat at home and watched the funeral of the late Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister in the twentieth century, and to date, the only woman to ever hold this office. Taking place at the grand and colossal St Paul’s Cathedral, the funeral service saw a number of prayers and speeches delivered by members of her family, current Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Bishop of London, Rev Richard Chartres. But just as the previous week had seen the debate over her legacy rage on, her funeral would also not provide any respite, as boos could be heard from London’s crowded streets as the hearse carrying her body made its way to the fourteen hundred year old cathedral. It was only within the confines of St Paul’s that it felt like the debate over Thatcher’s legacy, at least for an hour, went silent. But a brief look at my Twitter TimeLine showed me I was wrong.
“‘We are all Thatcherites now’ says David Cameron at the start of the most expensive political broadcast in history. Speak for yourself mate,” tweeted columnist for The Independent, Owen Jones, as well as writing this column published the day after. Jones’ tweet and article was just one of a number of reactions to the ceremony, which in itself became a platform of political debate regarding how tax payers’ money should be used.
Then came the Boston bombings. Like people around the world, I was both shocked and appalled that a sporting event designed for athletes, charity raisers and ‘fun runners’ was the scene of such a devastating crime. And just like many Muslims and Arabs living in the west, we held our breath praying that the perpetrators would not turn out to be someone claiming to adhere to our faith, or hail from the Arab peninsula. As I write this, reports are emerging that the two suspects are of Chechnyan descent.
Both these news items raised my self-awareness as a dual national of the conflicts that arise within this duality, and the complexity of being a Muslim in a period where this has the socio-political connotations that have been on the rise since the tragic events of September 11 2001.
As I watched Thatcher’s funeral take place at St. Paul’s, I couldn’t help but feel extremely nostalgic about my childhood. Attending Church every morning for six years at the Roman Catholic school I went to. The numerous school trips I went on to churches and cathedrals across Europe, and the familiar scent of burning candles and a thousand year old mahogany. The Lord’s Prayer being read out at Thatcher’s services which I know line by line. All this, and I am a Muslim. All this, which I cannot admit to many of my friends in Egypt who are also Muslim but have not had to contend with this duality that I have experienced for my entire life. By the same token, one tweep watching Thatcher’s funeral also tweeted “Today is one of those rare days I feel more Egyptian than British,” which again shows that at any given time, date or event, we can jump in and out of identity association, even so far as our nationalities are concerned. In my case, while I have never considered myself a Christian, I cannot, inexplicably, shake away my Christian school upbringing.
I find it very difficult to differentiate between Jesus and Esa. I know there are differences in what each respective Holy text says about him, but for me he is the same man with the same message that I learnt in Religious Studies and Islamic Studies classes. And I also know that I am not alone in this as a Muslim Arab living in the west. For those I have spoken to and call my friends, it is something that we feel but know it would be frowned upon back “home.” Just last December one of my best friends, a practising Muslim, agonised over the decision of whether to put a Christmas tree in his house so that his son could enjoy the festivities that he was seeing all around him in London. A small decision but with a wider socio-religious implication. Does this make me a traitor to my religion? Can I be a Muslim and engage and participate within western or Christian traditions?
Since September 11 2001, a false binary has been created within popular narratives: if you are Muslim then you must be a hater of the “West.” You must hate other religions because we have seen your preachers and your Islamic terrorists tell the world that other religious believers are infidels. For the most part I encounter people reasonable and educated enough to know that there is more to the story, and I can thankfully say that I have never encountered any abuse towards Islam that I can’t count on one hand. One of those brief encounters led me to write this poem. It didn’t matter that I had a British accent or had read the Bible, or was simply sitting on a London train minding my own business - that day one gentleman only saw an Arab looking man in an Arab scarf and drew his own conclusions.
My first reaction to the Boston Marathon was probably like yours. My second reaction was to bite my bottom lip and agonisingly scroll through the Breaking News article looking for the word “Muslim” or “Arab,” because that would have implications for me, thousands of miles away from Boston. If I was living in Cairo or anywhere where Arabs or Muslims dominate the population, this would have been a non-issue. But I don’t. I watched Thatcher’s funeral humming to He Who Would Valiant Be, and I said the Shahada for the victims of Boston, just as I always do for Egypt, Syria, and anywhere else where tragedy surfaces.