When I tell people I feel partly Middle Eastern, I get a lot of puzzled looks at my blonde hair, blue eyes and London accent. I sense people thinking of me as a little odd or just incredibly confused, which to be honest I was until I learned what it means to be a Third Culture Kid.
My family moved to Iran in 1978 and left a year or so later during the Iranian revolution, when I was 3 years old. I have vivid memories of the never-ending sunshine and running alongside the rivers in the mountains outside Shiraz, playing with the children from the Qashqai tribe. We lived below a wonderful Iranian family. They were such welcoming, hospitable and kind people you could never meet anywhere else in the world.
When we fled Iran, we moved to Qatar and became immersed in a different kind of Middle East: Beautiful warm seas, deep humidity, scorching heat and sand dunes that went on for miles. The exotic smells of the souk, the hubbub on the streets, the wonderful smiling people who pinched my cheeks affectionately to greet me – it was a multicultural melting pot of the East meeting South Asia.
We traveled throughout the region: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Dubai, Oman, Turkey. The link between them was the hospitality and kindness of the people. My family drove up to a hotel one night near the Syrian border. We ate and slept, and went to pay in the morning, but they refused. We then realized we had unwittingly turned up at a family home, not a hotel. Despite this, the family had accepted and welcomed us, being so kind as to give us their food and beds for the night.
It is very difficult to relate this to some people who may perceive the Middle East as a terrifying, backward and dangerous place.
That understanding made returning to a Christian, all-white school in the United Kingdom quite a shock for me. It was as if my world closed in and became narrower, and certainly less vibrant.
At my international school in the Middle East, my friends were from all over the world. There was no prejudice – only acceptance and something you don’t hear many people say about the Middle East: peace.
After 9/11, when the Western world seemed to turn on the Middle East and Islam, I felt deeply hurt as whole nations, cultures that I felt part of, were blamed for the actions of a few. There seemed to be little understanding, or refusal to understand, what or who could have driven the perpetrators to such extremes.
But times are changing. The region has become unrecognizable since I was there. Education and connection to the rest of the World are more accessible. The youth keep up with international news, are fully aware of their human rights, and understand the role their country’s resources play in the global economy. The people have had enough of those in power telling them what to think and feel, making decisions that only benefit the elite and the West. Change is really happening, fast, and the people are ready.
During my time there, the disparity between rich and poor, human rights violations and the lack of freedom and democracy were not entirely obvious to me. Now, I understand that there are incredibly difficult problems to solve in the region, and that solutions to these challenges will take time. But, I believe they can be solved, and will certainly benefit in giving the silenced majority, including women, a free voice.
Freedom, what does that mean really? I think many Westerners believe that freedom is about becoming Westernized, becoming a country that mimics the “Western ideals” of democracy and secularism… but is that right?
I don’t think so. To me, the wonderful, enchanting cultures of the Middle East have their own beautiful ideals that freedom will touch in ways that we have not yet seen. The most important thing is that they are able to choose how their freedom looks – with no influence from money, oil, power, other governments and most importantly, the West.
How can we not look at the Middle Eastern people with the most unbelievable respect, as they stand in the shadow of military tanks fighting regimes with more power and money than we can imagine? I have been humbled as I watch the news, seeing people of all ages and backgrounds – men, women and children – take to the streets in countries from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Libya and Iran and now Syria, vowing to fight, even die, for freedom and democracy. I never thought I would see this day come. I am so proud, and I stand with them in solidarity.