Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Home, Belonging and #DigPed (part 2 of my reflections) 

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

It was caught off-guard when my almost 6-year-old said Fredericksburg the other day. I didn’t realize while we were there that she’d internalized the place and location. 

When she imagines going back to the US, she doesn’t AT ALL remember the long plane rides or the jetlag upon returning. Here’s what she remembers:

The names of her favorite waitresses at the iHop near our hotel in Chicago (where she went every day in hope of reuniting with her favorites – and her wishes came true multiple times)

The name of her favorite receptionist from our hotel in Fredericksburg, who kept her company while I was at DigPed

“University” as referring to UMW, the place mommy has a conference, where she could go and hang out a little bit.

The pictures of the social outings where she got to spend time with my friends – the ones she knew from before and the new friends she made.

I look at a lot of my daughter’s social butterfly behavior and I think of how it reflects (in an extreme way) how I am now, not how I was at her age (not that I remember – should ask my mom; it may be “only child” behavior) – and how it makes me look at the world differently, through her eyes. She had her eyes to the prize with this trip and she didn’t complain about the trip almost at all… Because she knew there were social rewards for her and that was what mattered.

A few days ago, I started writing my reflections on #digped and I thought the dam had broken and I’d be able to get it all out in a matter of days, prolific writer that I am. But no. And there is a good reason. It’s because a lot of what I’m thinking and feeling should not be shared publicly in detail because it concerns others. And at the same time, I have something to say that could be of value to others. How do I write something valuable to the person who doesn’t understand the context but something with in-between-the-lines clarity for those who were there?

I’ll focus on the one thing I feel I can write about today, and it’s something I spoke about in my part of the keynote. For a reason beyond my personal feelings about it, but also those feelings. 

I spoke about how I look like the most “other” person at #digped – no other headscarved women (a couple of ppl I know of who were at least part Arab/Muslim but not as explicitly so), not many ppl who live outside of North America. Not many people (in fact just one other) who lives in a non-English speaking country. And yet, in other ways, some visible, some not, I belonged so much. When Sean introduced me before the keynote, he said something along the lines of he gets surprised when he meets someone who doesn’t know me. It made me laugh. But I also realized I knew SO MANY people at this event. About a third of the people in my track. Every single track teacher and keynote speaker. A few other people here and there. And my first two days were filled with hugs (yes even to men because I couldn’t help myself even though I had promised myself not to. It got to the point where my husband just expected it and didn’t care at all. Even though it’s the first time he ever sees me hugging other men and I would never hug an Egyptian man, really…never mind).

I’m thinking about how people tend to “look” like they belong or not, but it’s not necessarily a reflection of whether they “feel” like they belong. For the most part, I felt like I belonged there. I felt like I understood a lot of backstories of a lot of things and therefore received them better, in the Edward Said way of trying to understand the “other” from their own worldview and not mine. But I also realized how other people perceive things in ways I cannot have imagined. 

I saw how Kate (an athesit) and I (a Muslim) might be open to particular religious messages (outside of or far away from our own beliefs), and that oir acceptance of this could blind us to how it might be unacceptable to others. And this mattered.

I saw how sometimes tolerance for and trying to understand behavior that leads to injustice can be itself intolerable to those who have historically endured this injustice in ways I have not.

I loved how Sean opened up by talking about how minorities are welcome at DigPed…and he named them one by one. I loved this sentiment because I also know Sean and I know how much this matters to him beyond words and that he tries so hard to translate it into action. It’s hard work and it’s a long road. But as an example of a time it really touched me? Sean and Jesse know I don’t like being in a place around alcohol, and for one of the important social events for facilitators and such, they made sure it was clear that the first part of the event would not include alcohol. So I could go and leave early (comfortably). I cried when they made this arrangement. I could not go in the end for complicated reasons. But the gesture reached so deep into my heart and squeezed it.

And people who know you and love you can do things like that for you. But it doesn’t mean they could do the same for others like you or other minorities. In a way, I was not a faceless minority group. I was Maha whom they knew intimately as a person and therefore knew my needs well. It’s not the same as being generally inclusive. It’s somewhat more achievable and more authentic and genuine. It is also the thing you get better at when you know more diverse people more intimately and can therefore internalize their needs better and be able to support them by asking them what you can do to be an ally…

I learned how race and religion and social class work so differently in America, and that I’m still not sensitive enough to this. That being in the moment with people gave me a totally different perspective on this. And I’m still absorbing it now. 

I also remember feeling like I belonged one minute, standing beside Kate, and that I didn’t belong another minute, standing beside Kate, just a moment later. Of being acutely aware of my otherness. I felt it seesawing a lot while working with Chris on the keynote. On how to support him in expressing himself how he saw fit without eradicating how I wanted to express myself.

And it was like I was in my intellectual home but not my physical or social home and the cognitive dissonance of that was overwhelming. DigPedLab Cairo was so different in that regard. I had more control over (yes, I said control) how the pieces of my life fit together and could keep up with my digital and physical self. I was not completely overwhelmed by all the 3D versions of my digital friends. For DigPedLab Fredericksburg, I had met many people before (important ones like Autumm, Rebecca, Jesse, Sean, Amy) but there were many more REALLY important people who were f2f (Kate, Chris, Remi, Lora, Laura, Roz, George…  This could go on forever) and new people to meet and fall in love with. But also to share most of these people with my family. My child especially and how she responded to them and how they embraced her as just part of what this trip was for me.

And I’m thinking of the metaphor of home…and that there’s an assumption that home is a place where u belong. And yet here I was, acutely aware this was not home, not at all, and like a pendulum swinging between states of belonging and not belonging.

And I’m thinking of how other people may look like they belong more, in surface ways, but not truly feel like they belong at all. And how much agony an event like this might feel for them. If they don’t make friends easily and have no one to have dinner with (as opposed to Kate, who had many friends there but often chose to have dinner alone). Who may have had no one to walk to UMW with each day. Who had to stay in a faraway place because of funding and not have the opportunity to bump into people at breakfast each day. 

Or more importantly – who may have had overwhelming feelings inside of them during this event and no one to talk to. I had my husband (because i wasn’t home, but home came all the way with me, for good and for bad). I had Kate. I had Autumm. I had Rebecca. I had at least one night or moment of talking to each of them that helped me get through the week. What if I had none of that? And I was still overwhelmed. Actually, I am STILL overwhelmed and winding down.
I’ll stop now and write again when I can

5 Comments

  1. I love you, Maha.
    That’s all, really.

  2. Beautifully written Maha, thank you. Interesting how our sense of belonging changes after having left a place for awhile. I guess it’s possible to actually withdraw a sense of belonging from something as abstract as a country but it’s probably more like a wall of separation that needs this constant attention for how it cracks and crumbles as if the wall was as weak as a person’s intentions to be tough or resolved.
    When I started reading this blog the image in my mind was Leslie and I leaving the US for Canada in 1975. We’ve been back maybe 8 times for visits and twice to bury parents. We don’t belong there, and especially after Trump, and it’s only one or two of our friends that could lure us across the border but only as foreigners or, as they say, Aliens.
    And, of course I don’t mean that. Inside where it hurts to not belong, it takes our spirit away to some construction of hurting and hurting back. A falsehood of non-feeling.
    And, I didn’t this to be about separation and connection after what you’ve said above. So I’m thinking about this place we live in Alberta that I’ve been in conflict with since day one, and we are now moving away in a few months and now it feels like breaking a bond that went unnoticed. A few years ago our friend Nadia from work invited us to her Mother’s funeral. It was our first time inside a Mosque and more importantly in a community gathering that reminded me of Unitarian Church services. The religion was unimportant and not knowing her Mom I could still feel what she represented to the people around me and it might be our real belonging is carried by those around us.

    • Love that. “our real belonging is carried by those around us”. And despite that, you can be talking about the same person, and sometimes your relationship with them makes you feel like you belong, and other times not…

  3. Love this Maha – I have been struggling quite a bit with senses of belonging recently so this is really toenly for me. Themes that come through for me from this are care and comfort – they should could hand spin hand but don’t always, The little things that make such a difference can often be forgotten. Or just taking the time to see things from a different
    isn’t of view like your daughter’s can give such insight, thanks, as ever for sharing

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