Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Being African (and other things) ahead of @emergeAfrica

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I give a keynote at the e/Merge Africa conference in a couple days inshallah (Tues July 17 at 2pm South Africa time, noon GMT) – slides open for comment a couple of blogposts ago.

I was watching Tutaleni Asino’s keynote from last week… And in it he talks about how he will say “African” even though he would usually be against such generalizations about the diversity of the continent and its (sub) cultures. And its different experiences of colonization and so much more.

I was reminded of an article Laura Czerniewicz (another keynote speaker at this event) had shared a few weeks ago tagging me: questioning how African North Africa is. It reminded me of a lot of discussions about identity I have had. If asked about my identity, which elements would I consider most important? Culturally and geographically I am all these things: Egyptian, Muslim, Arab, African. All of them. I’ve been to many Arab/Muslim countries but never any other African country or Muslim non-Arab country. What do I really know about Africa beyond Egypt, when we are all the way up in the North East corner and surrounded by Arab neighbors and Mediterranean which also adds to our culture which is v closely linked with (especially) Turkey but also Greece and Italy (with many Alexandrians having Greek and Italian ancestors and so many Egyptians in general having close Turkish ancestors including me on both sides of my family and my husband on his. This is, like, typical).

In some ways Egypt is so completely different from all Arabs and all Africans. Pharaonic history with agriculture and writing and science and all that (so not nomadic like Arabia, but I guess the phonecians and Babylonians had writing and agriculture before we all shared the Arabic language.

Egypt has been invaded so much in its history. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French, English. I guess the Arabs brought their language and religion and those remain.

Let me say this… I’m half watching the World Cup final as I write this. When there are Olympic games… Here’s what happens. When Kenya wins, I’m African. When Pakistan wins, I’m Muslim. When Jordan wins, I’m Arab. When Egypt wins, I cry. So… Clearly… I intellectually belong to all but emotionally, Egypt is different. But I was born and grew up in Kuwait and I feel extreme affection and belonging to Kuwait. I had British schooling (most of my k-12 and all my graduate work) so, intellectually, I cannot say my mindset and culture are fully Egyptian/Kuwaiti/Arab/Muslim. My brain is a hybrid of those cultures. And my bachelor’s and full time work and teaching has been at American institutions… And my Mid-Atlantic English accent leans more towards an American one (influence of pop culture not education). While living in Kuwait, I had many very close friends from Pakistan. One of my best friends to this day is Pakistani. Some of my close friends online are from everywhere in the world – yes many a are Americans, British, European, Turkish (I separated British and Turkish from European, see?) men and women, of different colors, different sexuality… All my South African friends are white or Asian (another diversity being generalized) for some reason. Perhaps the only things in common with my online friends is we’re all in education in some way, on social media, and probably mostly liberal in our politics.

I’ve lived in the US and UK for around a year each and I didn’t have any extreme cultural clashes. I made friends with other Egyptians but I also had a strong affinity with Arabs and Muslims and Africans. When in the US, I read a lot of novels about Indians and Pakistanis and Afghans who lived in America because they resonated so deeply with my experience.

But you know something. As a person, I think very much of my identity as a woman, as a mom, as an ALT-academic, as a semi-privileged person, marginal yet powerful in online and offline spaces. As a critical pedagogue. As a human who realizes every day that not all humans are treated the same and that while my own suffering is different from others, that I care about what we have in common and what we don’t.

I’m an extreme extrovert who loves to write and speak and isn’t afraid to show emotions and fall in love with people and their hearts and minds. And that sometimes is all that makes the difference in my interactions. Sometimes I’m nothing but a mom. Or nothing but a wife. Or nothing but a daughter. Or nothing but a friend.

So yeah. I mean, we can’t generalize about Africa. I share some things w South Africa but not apartheid history. I share some things w Tunisians but I don’t actually understand their Arabic dialect. I share a lot with Sudan but more with Jordan even though Egypt and Sudan used to be one country. I was born and raised in Kuwait but share more with third culture kids than I do with Kuwaitis…

And I’m thinking that vconnecting matters to people who are marginal in different ways: women, people from emerging economies, unaffiliated academics, graduate students, people with health problems, visa problems, ALT-academics… And those who just have dissenting views or care to listen to marginal voices.

Gonna stop now 🙂

Oh and who am I supporting in the world cup? They’re both great. I support France coz of all the African-origin players (let us have this) but I also support Croatia as a really brilliant underdog this entire tournament. P. S. When France won they played a Cheb Khaled song C’est la vie … So…. NORTH African singer. Ha. Algerian like Mbappe’s mom!

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