The Middle Eastern Store or inner monologue on home

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.