Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Difference, Cultural Hybridity & Only Loneliness


Reading Time: 7 minutes

Some days, you read something that resonates so deeply, you can’t stop thinking about it… or sharing it… and eventually, you realize it has evoked so much in you that you have to write it all down before it flies out of your head. That’s what happened to me when I read Annemarie Perez’s Lowriding Through the Digital HumanitiesI read it at something like 2am last night and I couldn’t sleep.

Only Lonely Phenomenon

Let me repeat some of the quotes I tweeted out while reading it and comment:

Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases.

Oh that fear of being seen as speaking for my “category” whatever it may be. That fear. I have grown to overcome that fear, but I still have it deep down.

My parents raised me to embrace my uniqueness. I’m an only child. That’s already different and alone in many ways. But I’m also that in many ways.

My first reaction was to remember my experience at #altc last September. I was the only headscarved woman in a huge conference. I was one of a handful of non-white people in the room during the keynote. During lunch. Just me. In a way, this worked to my advantage. People could easily find me. People who knew me from Twitter did not have to squint to look at my face too closely to know it was me. Jonathan Worth saw me while giving his keynote and when I asked a question (from the second or third row) he said “Maha Bali is in the house”. After which people found me easily. Had I been blonde or even just not headscarved, it would have been so much harder. In that moment, on that day, being different was a good thing. A distinguishing thing. An advantage. Recognition. But when I was the only headscarfed woman in my Norwich, UK gym? It was really not nice. I made ONE friend from 9 months of going regularly to that gym. ONE. She is very dear to me and still my friend. But not a single other person was friendly to me. Not a single other person looked like me.

I’m one of the onlys in many different contexts, but I have to talk about cultural hybridity early on. Homi Bhabha made a really important point about postcolonial people – and it’s that we can no longer  talk about our own native culture as something pure and distinct from the colonizer’s culture. Our own culture is now something else, something mixed and not pure of one or the other, but a third one. When we meet someone from another culture, we meet them in a third space… but my thinking is that I am already in a third space of sorts, and just moving towards the other….

flickr photo shared by ma_bali under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

In the image above, I’m showing how I see myself as different in some ways. I’m Egyptian, born to Egyptian parents. I grew up in Kuwait. I went to British schools then American Universities. I lived in the US and UK as an adult for around a year each so that doesn’t count too much towards my basic culture. I’m not American or English. Of course I am not. And yet I am not by any means Egyptian. And definitely not Kuwaiti. I’m this: I’m this Egyptian born-and-raised-in-Kuwait-who-went-to-British-school-then-AUC. My friend who have similar circumstances understand. We share something, this “other” culture. It’s not even a third culture, but more like a 4th or 5th culture. That thing about having pride in your Egyptianness when you don’t truly understand Egyptian culture (I still don’t understand most Egyptian humor), of loving the country you were raised in even though you’re not seen as “one of them” and knowing that your countrypeople (Egyptians) have a totally misconstrued vision of what Kuwait is. And then being in a British school most of your young life, with a multinational group of students and mostly British/Australian teachers…. and being bilingual but having only the one academic language, really, and that language being the language of your pop culture, too. And then going onto American university, but in Egypt… the university itself being a cultural hybrid… with many different people who are cultural hybrids in different ways.

But I digress. Most of the people around me now are cultural hybrids of a different sort and we are all different and that’s fine. What I’m thinking about is this: for all my friends who are American or English, I’m this Egyptian/Muslim person they know. For myself, I’m this Egyptian/Muslim person with very strong British/American/Kuwaiti influences on my mindset and thinking. I have read their books, I have seen their films and TV, I have visited their museums, listened to their music. Historical and contemporary. And yet the opposite is not true. What they know of me and mine (the me and mine that we don’t share) is partly historical, partly media propaganda and partly personal to me… which creates that problem again of being a representative of a culture.

But in other ways I am hybrid (and many of us are). For a practitioner, I am too academic/theoretical; for an academic, I am too practical 🙂 It can drive me crazy sometimes, but I think I’m the right balance for my strengths and my interests 🙂

One other thing that may be less obvious to people who aren’t here in Egypt is how I feel as a headscarfed woman here in Egypt. There was a time when most educated women (higher socioeconomic status) didn’t wear a headscarf. Then there was a time when it became more mainstream, say, half of them did. And now we’re moving back to mostly not. So I am less and less likely to find myself at an event or conference where people assume I am a professor. Being young and headscarfed somehow reduces the changes of people assuming/believing I have a PhD and I’m an academic. It’s a lot of pressure to appear professional, to speak eloquently, to (oh no) represent because otherwise, I’m not myself present, you see? Sometimes, I need to be louder to be heard. And then my loudness can become an annoyance.

A lot of Egyptian conferences I go to tend to have MEN AND MEN AND MEN AND MEN AND MEN on the stage and an equal number of women and men off-stage. A recent conference had some women on stage (like by the end of the first day) but they were the same 3 women on 5 panels, and different men on each of the 20 or so panels throughout the day. An upcoming event is like that, too. It’s frustrating because I’m seeing men who are NOT necessarily the most qualified to be responsible for education, leading talks, with women who are more experience/qualified as participants. Leading because they are in leading positions. Because in Egypt, we count the number of women who end up as ministers and in the parliament. On one hand, I think. And as one of my colleagues says, they’ll take the minority and try to hit many birds with one stone (pick a Christian woman for minister and congratulate themselves on ticking two diversity boxes)

I’m not saying I am the only one like this. We’re all, to some extent or another cultural hybrids; most of us (even occasionally white men, but much less so) find ourselves in situations where we feel different, uncomfortable, even unfairly discriminated against. We are all complex and there are different aspects of ourselves that come to the surface. But the difference is that things like being a woman, covering my hair, being a person of color, all of those things are not things I can hide. And so they give an impression before I ever speak. And they can easily make me see I am in the minority.

Not “Getting” It

Another part of Perez’s piece that resonated deeply with me was this:

“We need to understand what it costs for a scholar of color to admit to not knowing or “getting” something and don’t take it lightly”

This is multiplied for a person who is postcolonial living in the scholarship field of the dominant white/Western/male/patriarchal etc etc. When someone like me tells you something is difficult for me to read (you being white Western academic) do NOT assume it is difficult for me in the same way it is difficult for YOU. I am already crossing cultural barriers to get to where we are on similar footing. I’ve already worked quite a bit harder than you to get to where I am, using a language that’s not mine (to the extent that I cannot use my own language to express myself well anymore), crossing cultural contexts to absorb all your culture so I can understand all the academic discourses we share, immersing myself in your world (this includes having a job at the American University in Cairo which is an immersion in American culture of sorts – a hybrid Egyptian-American culture) – every extra step is a  struggle for me. There will be pieces of writing that I do not understand at all from the get-go. I might try to read it over and over and the context will illude me. And then someone will explain it in simpler terms and I’ll understand. Why the heck do you want me to read the difficult explanation when the straightforward explanation is clear enough? When sometimes couching something in jargon can make it seem more foreign than it needs to be. When giving something a term and repeating it gives it some sort of elevated value and uniqueness, as if it doesn’t exist elsewhere… and then when I understand it, I realize I can say it in simpler terms. In my own terms. In my own language.

For me to be able to communicate clearly with those dominant in my field… I’m already taking all the steps. If there are 10 steps between us, I’ve taken 7 or 8 and you’re taking 1 or 2. Your language. Your turf. Your everything. My opinion and my voice 🙂

This has turned out to be an angrier post than I had intended… the issue is bigger than what I’ve been saying. And I love what Sean Michael Morris stated:

We must be civil to be accepted, even if what we have to say is radically uncivil. Civility, too, is only a virtue if nothing needs shaking up, if the established ground of the Digital Humanities is plenty good enough for everyone it includes. And it does not include everyone. Women are not safe in the Digital Humanities. Women of color, queer women, trans women, or gender nonconforming people, either.

That quote is from the prompt for the upcoming #DigPed chat tomorrow (Friday) at noon EST, and I am especially looking forward to exploring this particular question:

“What does exclusion look like in public digital spaces? What does inclusion look like?”

I am also thinking of what it is that makes me willing to take certain risks and not others, while seeing people who are supposedly in stronger positions than myself being less likely to take those risks? Did they get where they are by NOT taking those risks? I don’t know.


  1. Dear Maha,
    So many things come to mind – I know what you mean, I don’t know what you mean, I really know what you mean! All of those and more. It is real, that different thing, but it doesn’t define you. Your post made me think of a few experiences. One was of meeting a lady in a headscarf. She was also dressed with a covering thing (I don’t know if that has a name?) You know- a sort of cloak and it prevents others from seeing what you are wearing underneath. I was in The Gap shopping in the sales with my daughter at the end of December, and it was a nightmare. I was stuck in a queue a mile long to but a single shirt and this lady was looking at the rack of clothes nearest to me. As I was just standing there I was naturally looking around, and saw her shoe was untied. I noticed the lace trailing behind her. So I tapped her on the arm – and she looked up at me, frightened. I thought – ohhh, no!? what have I done?? I didn’t mean to make her upset. I smiled at her and said, ‘I noticed your shoe was untied.’ -and she smiled back and said thank you. Whether different because of an outward sign, like her clothing, or something not so visible – I’ve had students with different challenges that aren’t visible, but still make them ‘feel’ different – being different can be so embedded with difficulty. And even though I am so so positive and do believe in hope, there are real challenges and what you said is valid and worth saying. It takes courage to say these things. But – it is important to keep that hope. There are still some things that could divide people and don’t. I am SO glad there is not a prejudice toward hight (I’m 5 ft. 1 if I stretch). I wonder why that slipped through the net? Height is just as visible as these other things, but it gives me hope. The difficulties are deeply embedded in our different cultures, but they can be unlearned too. I love to look to the children- my son (8) has a friend at school and I wanted to see which boy he was talking about – ‘he’s the one with curly hair, mummy’. Curly hair trumped any other differences. He couldn’t see the skin colour, or hear the accent, and I love that. The last thing is that after reading your post, something triggered a poem from my own childhood- Listen to the Musn’ts by Shel Silverstein. I could hear it – must have been set to music on some PBS programme when I was little- sang it here for you 🙂
    You are not alone in being different. It is certainly not easy, but in this world of conformity, I can’t imagine you being you if you were just the same as anyone else.

    • What a beautiful comment Laura. I will listen to the sound cloud in a minute (excited about it) but wanted to say there is such a thing as heightism 🙂 ur lucky it hasn’t touched u. I am tall for my society, tallish in general.. But my daughter had growth issues and it created all kinds of social problems (and she’s only 4!) but it also made her unable to do certain things kids her age do easily (climb steps – turns out it’s more than just a height problem but anyway). Ah. Don’t get me started 🙂

      But yes – I talk about all of these ways I am different and difference isn’t always a bad thing or a disadvantage. It’s often a great thing and makes each of us unique. But it’s all contextual isn’t it? (was the woman able to tie her shoes? The cloak thing is called abaya and is usually black but can be colorful)

      • Context is everything, that’s certainly true! Yes, she did tie up her shoe – and it was a good thing, because there was a sea of crazy shopping chaos! Here abaya was cream. 🙂

  2. You know, Maha, when you get to that point and say, “this has turned out the be an angrier post than I intended…” That is where I feel you completely. On several levels of acculturation we learn to be polite and kind and to withhold our anger – as females, as young people, as POC, as foreigners, as academics, as teachers, as students, and on and on. Anger, we learn, is for bitter, unhappy, unpleasant, irrational people – so stay away from there!
    Anger, however, has its place. It can be a tremendous source of creative power if we take the courage and time to acknowledge it and learn from it. The multiple steps we may take to make ourselves understood, heard and acknowledged are so often lost on those whose attention we are seeking to garner. So aptly put: 7 or 8 steps to 1 or 2. That is maddening and exhausting, especially when we must venture forth in the absolute singular.
    @slamteacher is right is describing the role of civility. There are few established structures in education and elsewhere which do not need to be ‘shaken up.’ Anger is often what fuels the need to do the shaking; to interrupt the regularly scheduled proceedings and notice: why are there no people of color involved in this convo? From whom have we not yet heard? Whose voices are missing or have been silenced in this context?
    In terms of exclusion/exclusion I am reminded of a tweet from @iamDrWill after his ISTE proposal was not given space at the conference (2013 or 14). He wrote: “No longer asking for a seat at the table. Time to build my own.” I blogged on it and I see now what an inspiration that thought still is. When I asked him about it, he told me he had been angry and so the response. So keep thinking about that anger piece and how you will and do use it.
    Thank you, as always for bringing me back to the core of what I am here for.

  3. Maha, I am glad you can own your anger and I have learned from reading your post. It made me return to something that has occupied my thoughts much over the last couple of years – how can we engage in dialogue with people who are different from us when we can’t even know the ways on which we are different and similar? How can we appreciate their experience of this dialogue? I can still recall the shock I got when I read Watching the English by Kate Fox where she introduced the concept (in a very non-academic way) of ethnographic dazzle. By that I understand the ways in which we are so precoccupied by our differences from other people that we fail to acknowledge the common unwritten rules that guide our behaviours that can confound those who operate by different unwritten rules. I was born in Scotland, conscious of my Scottish and Irish ancestry, the religion of my birth and didn’t really think of myself as very ‘English’ until I read that book that brought the truth home to me – I am very English.
    A challenge for apparently diverse online networks and gatherings can be to treat diversity as a flat thing, an attribute of the group/network, instead of helping it to surface in unexpected ways.The discomfort of others can be troubling in social settings and groups can respond defensively, citing diversity as a defence, unaware of the commonalities and unwritten rules.
    BTW, I am not defending white or male fragility that seeks for reasons of self-preservation to minimise differences – I just think that we need to be able to express our feelings of lonely only and discomfort, and , here’s the tricky bit, to give people permission to express theirs and listen when they do.

    • Yes yes and yes 🙂 I especially love the call not to treat diversity as a flat thing. Is that your own expression or someone else’s? I love it. I also love your problematizing of how this plays out in relationships/interactions in diverse online (or really f2f even) spaces. Thank you

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