I’m an Australian citizen, a proud Palestinian, a sceptic when it comes to multiculturalism in its current forms — and at the same time I’m strongly against assimilation. I’m stating my position from the start so as not to be misunderstood. Why? Because I know I’m risking upsetting both sides of the multicultural debate with what I have to write.
I speak English, go to the pub, eat pies, love a good barbecue and play a team sport on Saturdays.
When asked my nationality when abroad I say I’m Australian. But there is more to this than meets the eye. It’s true I speak English fluently but I still have a slight accent. And that often prompts a second question, "where are you from originally?" I often respond by saying I’m Palestinian. In fact, when in Australia I often cut the story short and say that I’m Palestinian as my first answer. That’s not because I’m anticipating the second question but because I’m resenting the first when I’m in Australia and clearly a local!
Did I mention that at the pub I drink whiskey not beer, that my barbecue is kufta and kebab, and that the only sport I play is soccer? I tried to be into rugby but alas it’s not for me. The pro-multiculturalism team will rush to say, hang on that’s great you’re adding a new dimension to being Australian. I’m not sure if they would be talking about my whiskey habits there or my fanatic love of soccer. In any case what they are doing is skirting around the issue.
At issue are not only cultural values or social integration but also nationality. I’m proud of being an Australian in terms of nationality — and I’m also proud of being a Palestinian national. "Uh ha!", the anti-multiculturalism will say. How can you be loyal to Australia if you are also loyal to Palestine? Actually, the opposite is true. How could I be loyal to Australia if I wasn’t loyal to Palestine? After all I’m lucky that I hold both nationalities. The law allows me to hold dual citizenships. I will not give up by Palestinian nationality nor my Australian and I want to honour both. It’s not a mutually exclusive relationship.
Now that we’ve established that I’m a dual national, what culture do I follow? I would argue both — and neither. I’m my unique self, an Australian-Palestinian. When in Australia I’m looked at as a Palestinian. When I worked for the UN for one year in Jerusalem, I was looked at as Australian. The fact that my heritage is Palestinian was often forgotten no matter how hard I tried to speak fluent Arabic — I’m told I speak Arabic with an Australian accent!
Amin Maalouf, one of Lebanon’s most prominent literary figures, writes in his book Killer Identities about the complexities that comes with holding dual identities:
"To those who ask, I explain with patience that I was born in Lebanon, lived there until the age of 27, that Arabic is my first language and I discovered Dickens, Dumas and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ in the Arabic translation, and I felt happy for the first time as a child in my village in the mountains, the village of my ancestors where I heard some of the stories that would help me later write my novels. How could I forget all of this? How could I untie myself from it? But on another side, I have lived on the French soil for 22 years, I drink its water and wine, my hands caress its old stones everyday, I write my books in French and France could never again be a foreign country. Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalised; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions."
My story is not so different from Amin’s.
This week I turned 41. This is a half-life milestone — and here I’m not referring to the half-life of an isotope with its decaying radiation but to my life with its multiple nationalities and confused descriptive and ill-defined tags. Twenty and a half years ago I arrived in Australia, a wide-eyed young adventurer looking for a new life. As I write this exactly half of my life has been spent in Australia, the other half in the Middle East. Yesterday I’d spent more time living in the Middle East than in Australia, was I more of an Arab then? Tomorrow I’ll have spent more time living in Australia than in the Middle East. Am I suddenly to change my title to Australian? I find myself asking very existential questions. Am I tomorrow not the same person I was yesterday, what changed to make me a different person than the one who landed in Sydney airport with dreams and slight trepidation? Has this change been so gradual that I hardly noticed it?
Let me recount an incident that happened to me few years ago. I was in pub watching Australia play Uruguay in the World Cup qualifier. I was out with a few friends. Some were from Uruguay and we sort of ganged up on them, teasing them when they lost. Needless to say we all consumed many drinks and I was a very proud Australian, emotional with happiness when the game finished.
As the night went on, however, the TV screen in the pub switched to news and up came a story about Palestine. By then the volume was muted but I could see images of killed children wrapped in the Palestinian flag. I don’t know why but suddenly I found tears swelling and escaping my eyes uncontrollably. I had to hide my face and quickly wipe them away. I felt guilty for spoiling my joy with an ongoing bad situation and at the same time I felt guilty for being so distant and not sharing the pain. I’m telling this story to show how complex we are as human beings and how simplistic the views of both sides of the multicultural debate. Here are a few gaps that I’m highlighting in the hope that I can start a discussion. I’m certainly not claiming that I have all the answers.
Firstly, why is the multicultural debate always addressing a need for dialogue between White Australia and the various ethno-cultural groups? What about intercultural dialogue that also demands a better dialogue among the various ethno-cultural groups? Why not criticise a Palestinian for not really understanding the Australian Indigenous story — a very similar story to his own. And vice versa for that matter. Why not criticise a Chinese immigrant screaming racism in one sentence and being racist against an Indian in the next?
Secondly, why can’t we be honest and acknowledge that modern Australia is only young, that it has a lot to learn from it’s Indigenous culture that spans 2000 generations — and from the new arrivals that come with their own rich history and culture. Are we so afraid of change that we demand cryogenically frozen culture?
Lastly, I don’t want to state the obvious but Australia is so much richer for its people of multiple identities. Why not think of dual nationality as positive thing? I for one am more comfortable being Australian if I am allowed to be comfortable being Palestinian. I guess I’m trying to say it goes both ways. Yes we need to learn the language here, adopt the culture, and live by the law. Yes we need to be part of the community we live in. But we deserve credit that we can uphold both sides of the deal.
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