I grew up in Seattle, Washington, where my parents have lived since the 90s. My dad moved to the United States when he was very young, and my mom moved in her 30s when she married my dad. Obviously, then, growing up was an interesting (and often valuable) mix of being born and raised in America, but having parental ties to Pakistan (where my parents are from). The region that I am concentrated in is Northern Africa, and geographically speaking, Seattle and North Africa are completely different. The climates, for one thing, are a big difference. Seattle is in the pacific northwest, meaning we get lots of rain and lots of grey skies. Whereas the North Africa region is part of the Saharan desert, a very hot and dry climate. There are obvious cultural differences in North Africa versus Seattle – the food, the language, Islam, and other customs specific to countries create an atmosphere and environment that is specific to Northern African countries, and far different from the United States.
As I was brainstorming how I may write this post, I thought about a scene from a TV show titled, Ramy, where Ramy, the protagonist, travels back to his parents’ homeland in Egypt for the first time since his childhood. Upon arrival when his cousin picks him up from the airport, he acts as if he is a “regular” tourist, any random person interested in Egypt and its history, rather than a native (which is understandable since he was born and raised in New Jersey). In one scene, his cousin is driving them past the pyramids on their way to his house. Ramy is completely in awe, and turns around in his seats to get a better look. He’s amazed that people driving through the outskirts of Cairo can just see the pyramids on a daily basis. His cousin, in contrast, is completely jaded by it. Later in the episode, Ramy asks his family lots of questions about the revolution in 2011 which he is fascinated by, but his family seemingly doesn’t like to talk about it.
All of this to say, myself and Ramy face similar experiences in that we grew up as children of immigrants and as Muslims, but in the United States. I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, where the majority of people are Caucasian, Christian or some variation, and don’t know much about the Middle East or South Asia. Though my parents raised us as Muslim, and we visited Pakistan on occasion (not so frequently because it’s hard to travel there), my connection to that side of my identity is relatively minimal, and mostly comes from my mother. When my family and I celebrate Muslim holidays like Eid and Ramadan, it’s relatively understated, since not many around us are doing the same thing. While I grew up Muslim, I also consider myself American. Because Northern African countries are essentially Muslim countries, growing up Muslim in Morocco will not mirror what it has been like growing up as a Muslim in the United States. Someone like Ramy who is the child of Egyptian immigrants will travel to Egypt, and know about as much in terms of culture as any other tourist. Or, someone like myself who has only really known living in America, cannot speak to the experiences of Muslims everywhere else.
I think this brings up an interesting question of identity. In thinking about myself and my parents’ experience moving from Pakistan to the United States, I was considering the experiences of immigrants moving from North African countries/Muslim countries to Western countries. Specifically in the case of North Africa, the case of Algerians immigrating to France. I took a Western European Politics course with Prof. Mitchell a few years back, and we spent a portion of the class learning about the history of Algerian immigration to France. As a former French colony, immigration to France started to grow during the period of decolonization in the mid-20th century. This site (https://archives.history.ac.uk/history-in-focus/Migration/articles/house.html) gives a brief history on the subject (I won’t spend time talking about it). I read a couple articles that talked about “sense of belonging” and how though Algeria was previously under French rule, members of the former colony moving to France did not feel like a natural transition. (A useful article can be found here: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/5/26/french-algerians-on-identity-discrimination-protests-at-home). Growing up Algerian and Muslim in France looks something like growing up Muslim somewhere in the United States (such as Seattle). Regardless of your citizenship or personal affiliation with a place, there are defining characteristics of your identity that make a sense of belonging a hard thing to achieve in countries where the majority of the population don’t match those characteristics.
While I am not from France, I believe it is worth considering the experiences of people moving from North Africa to any Western countries, as Seattle has more similarities to Paris than it does to Cairo, for example. In a few ways, I relate to the experience of having an identity that doesn’t always make sense. You can have very important ties to where you’re from, and still not really know who you identify as. In my case, I always say I’m American, but I know there’s a part of my identity that does not “fit” in this country. This speaks to the substantial differences of “where I live” and “where they live” – even with similar cultural backgrounds, the similarities can be hard to find and I would not be able to claim that my experience growing up here is the same as those growing up in North Africa, even if I were to, for example, say that religion could be the similarity. The practice of Islam looks for different in a majority Muslim country than it does here.