The Middle Eastern Store or inner monologue on home

By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

A few months ago, after a productive day of work, I decided to explore Bank street a little more. I never realised that South Keys was the little Middle East of Ottawa. I had been missing Arabic culture terribly, or maybe I was just missing the Al Reef Fatayer. Whatever it was and despite the flurries whirling past my head, it felt good to be back.

The first one I walked into was part store part shawarma place- a classic combo. Its fridges were empty except for spices and an expired bottle of mango juice. At the counter, a lone man reading on his phone. At the back a middle-aged butcher arguing with his co-worker. I walked around and stumbled across a mamool box, just like the kind I used to eat when I was a child in Dubai. The dough always crumbled, forever too soft for my liking. But in that moment, the mamool became an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. I gasped and clutched the box to my chest.

A few blocks down there was a strip mall with a Dollarama, a muslim women’s clothing store, and a few Arabic bakeries. I went into one, and to my delight, found that they sold Sajs!

Just what I had been craving for so long! Sturdy and chewy dough, topped with tangy zaatar and a handful of shredded mozzarella cheese. The sales man put the “pie” as they called it, into the open oven flame right before my eyes. I wasn’t even hungry, and the air was frigid, but I but couldn’t resist ripping off a morsel of the warm bread.

I continued my journey until I reached the “New Middle East Market.” A much larger market than the rest, no doubt. It was clearly still doing well, fridges well stocked, at least 15 people in the store at a time. I stepped inside, and the first row of food was just dates. Vacuum packed dates, dates in Styrofoam packages with glucose syrup, fresh soft dates from Iran, and the bitesized “lulu” dates that Baba despises. There were even more dates in the fridge, the fancy ones from Saudi Arabia that needed the refrigeration to keep fresh.

In the background, the hum of a television playing Al Jazeera. I strolled along the rows, happening upon the tea isle. From the corner of my eye I spotted the orange glimmer of “Al Waza Tea” that we always had in our cupboards at home. Even the less desirable “Ahmad Tea from London”, that Janat would make me drowned in milk at our house in Sanaa.

I began to well up. Fighting back the tears remembering tea time on the green carpet, in the living room of Gida’s house in Al Qusais. The family gathered around sweet steaming cups of Shay Haleeb, spiced with cardamom. I could hear my cousins playing the tabla with a tissue box, and everyone singing along and laughing.

I saw the red and blue stained glass in the ornate windows of our Yemeni house, the wooden shutters, the beautiful Malakitul Layl flowers through the window. Their perfume wafting through the open door. Everything was safe, everything was beautiful. The sunflowers were almost as tall as the car. The land was so fertile, they said anything could grow there.

It felt so odd to be surrounded by people speaking in Arabic, by people who looked just like me, acting as if they had never left home. So this is how people cope. They recreate home wherever they go. So why didn’t I do the same? Why was this the first time in five years that I had been to this place?

Even though I took comfort in that store, drifting from aisle to aisle, the shopkeeper spoke to everyone in arabic, took one look at me and spoke to me in English. How did he know? I wanted to speak our mother tongue. His mother tongue. My father’s. Not mine at all.

I wanted to go home, but I did not know where to find it.

Now, I am in my rented house with granite countertops, I listen to Tuareg singing with electric guitar rhythms. I listen to Yemeni Israeli jews mixing the trumpet and tabla. I burn oud and read Hermann Hesse.

I cannot find home, it is true.

I think I have to build it.


My case against the term “mixed race”

Growing up everyone (including me) called myself and others like me “the mixed kids.” I mean you need an umbrella term for what you are, without having to go into every gene and lineage that you possess. But every time I would claim to be “mixed” I would always feel this wave of unease come over me.

So I’m mixed…. like eggs and butter in a cake? Like a Cadbury packet of brown hot chocolate you mix well into white milk? A cocktail with a dash of caramel, a hint of chocolate, and a splash of vanilla? It just seems a bit hard to swallow.

Its like we aren’t a regular a person, made out of the same “ingredients” as everyone else. Using this term makes me feel like the sodding gingerbread (wo)man prancing around in the human world.

Or even worse, is it like a mixed breed horse, or a cross-fertilisation of plants? Are we like a fun Darwinian experiment? Go home kids and try to see what happens when you mix a Chinese and a Russian! This exact sentiment is present in so much of the media we consume. Recently, I discovered this horrifying video of a fellow multi-racial woman, Tyra Banks, having models of various racial backgrounds “try on” different “mixed looks” like Tibetan and Egyptian, as well as Mexican and Greek.

If we are speaking technically, aren’t we all created through a certain mixing? We are all jumbled up cells and genes. None of our creation was neat. But then why are only some are called mixed? And what is the opposite of mixed anyway? According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, mixed’s antonyms include: homogenous and pure.

Well, would using the concept of pure vs. mixed so bad? After all, us mixed kids aren’t purely one thing. But pure carries with it negative connotations. Pure isn’t just about being homogenous, its about being “unadulterated”, “uncontaminated” and “untainted.” Its homogenous, and fiercely so. Following that logic, anything that isn’t pure is then adulterated, contaminated, and tainted.

This language of “mixed”, whether intentional or not, has the power to perpetuate these weird dichotomies of regular or normal, vs. odd, and of pure vs. unpure. If we want to normalise people of multiple racial backgrounds, I don’t know if using the term “mixed” may be the best way to do it.

But then what is?

Obviously, race isn’t just black and white. And so, there is probably no one right answer. Certainly, there is nothing that we can use that won’t be at least a little controversial. All we can do is use labels that fit each of us best as individuals.

Regardless of whether people debate the rightness or wrongness of the concept of race, ignoring the idea of race does not seem like the right solution to me. In a society which does think in terms of race, one in which everything is racialized, it doesn’t really matter whether race as we think of it is a “true fact” or not. The experiences we have because of this concept are real.

So, we, those who do not neatly fit into the existing racialized order, have no choice but to acknowledge it and find a way to carve a space for ourselves. For me part of doing that is through using the term “multi-racial.”

Being a member of multiple existing categories, it makes sense to be broadly categorised as multi-racial. It isn’t situated outside the existing categorisations, but rather within and amongst. Instead of conjuring up images of mixed drinks or puppies, it actually manages to sound … like a have, not a have not. I am the product of multiple races.

With these multiple races, I have multiple modes of thought, multiple viewpoints, and multiple life experiences. This term sounds abundant. It connotes a connector and a bridge builder. It fills the out of place and messy hole that I feel “mixed” creates.

Regardless of all this, I know that some people have no issue with the term “mixed”, and identify as such. I will continue to respect other people’s choices and never would I impose my preferences on another person. For myself, I’m going to stick with multi-racial. For now anyway.

The problem with the “where you from?” conversation.

I have dark brown curly hair, brown eyes and beige skin. Evidently, so do a lot of other people in the world, making me able to “pass” as a lot of different races and ethnicities… simultaneously. So far, I have been categorised as Lebanese, Portuguese, Columbian, Indian, Mexican, Pakistani, Egyptian, “brown”, and “sort of white.” The last one is my favourite, because what does that even mean?

It can be fun to be racially ambiguous. Not really boxed in because although I am a potential member of several groups, ultimately, I am uncategorisable.

What is constraining is the actual categorisation itself. Mainly because of where it comes from –  the questioner. Once they decide what I am, they feel it is their obligation to inform me, exactly who it is I am.

This conversation usually goes like this:

Them: Where are you from?

Me: Its kind of complicated. I am from Nova Scotia, but spent most of my upbringing in Dubai.

Them: So you are from Dubai?

Me: No I just lived there as an expat, I’m from Nova Scotia.

Them: Really? You don’t look like you are from Nova Scotia, where are you really from?

Me: Canada….

Them: Where are your parents from?

Me: Both are Canadian. Mom was born in Nova Scotia and Dad in Yemen.

Them: Ah Yemen. You are from Yemen!

Me: ?

Now on the surface, perhaps this exchange does not look that offending. But it is, for two reasons.

First, the persistence in needing to place me, and once they do, to tell me, rather than accept my definition of where I am from, and “what I am.” It shouldn’t ever be okay to tell someone who they are, and that’s exactly what someone is doing when they tell you what race you are, or what area you are from.

Race and home, through establishing ties of belonging, make up big parts of our identity. It isn’t just a colour, or a spot on the map. These are identity markers because they carry with them values, beliefs, and traditions.

Given the importance of these labels, it is so important that they be placed correctly, and in line with what the person in question would label themselves, if at all. So not only is the questioner telling you what you are, but they are often declaring you something you personally do not identify with, and something you wouldn’t even be accepted as within that group.

So applying this to my own experience: I am Yemeni, there is no doubt about that and I am fiercely proud of this. But, that isn’t the same thing as being from Yemen. I wasn’t born there, I was born in Canada. I didn’t grow up there. So placing the label of “from Yemen” on me, is just not accurate.

Similarly, although I spent most of my childhood in Dubai, I cannot say I am from Dubai. I remember the move and how homesick I was. I lived there as an expat, still very tied to Canada. At my school, we had international day, where kids would dress up in their national dress and teach other people about their cultures. I would alternate between my elegant Yemeni dress and a t-shirt with the Canadian flag.

When I lived in Dubai, expats safely guarded their cultures, and didn’t really plan on staying there for a long time. Expats don’t generally become Emirati citizens – mostly because thats not the end goal of the government. Expats are brought in to work, to contribute to the economy. It takes 30 years of living in the UAE to even be considered for naturalisation. We weren’t immigrants, we weren’t on the path to citizenship, we were just migrants.

Seeing someone like me, a person of colour and declaring them to be of a foreign land, regardless of the constant reminders of their experience is othering. Actually, seeing a person of colour and assuming they are from somewhere else is othering too.

This leads me to the second reason the question is offending and inappropriate: it conflates where someone is from, their nationality, and their race.

Race is a societal construct which serves as a descriptor for the physical features you have. Where you are from, can be many things; where you grew up, where you are currently, or even nowhere. Contrary to popularly held opinions, a person’s race, where they are from, and their actions do not always go hand in hand.

This really, is the crux of the problem.

People allow their assumptions about a person who looks a certain way to dictate what their behaviour and interests should be. For instance, a Saudi Arabian girl has to be devoutly religious, or a Dutch girl from Amsterdam must be pretty liberal when it comes to drugs.

So what does this all mean? These offending mindsets create a lack of respect for people’s self-identification and for individuality amongst the minorities. More than that, they signify misunderstandings of the ways that race, nationality, life experience, and identity work together.

The constant repetition of this question results in entrenching existing inequalities of race and status in society. For the person questioned, the most dangerous effect of this is an internalisation of these ideas. The feeling that they really don’t belong, and that they don’t deserve to either.

If we want society to be a more equal place,  and if we want to respect diversity, conversations like these have got to change.