I have some vivid memories of going to Egypt however. My mom would play Dutch/Flemish music at my grandmother’s house in Ismailia. I must’ve been 5 or 6 years old. My grandmother always made way too much food. She used to breed pigeons on her own balcony. I recall her giving me some money to get yogurt or rice pudding at a street vendor. I loved that rice pudding. We’d also visit my ‘dreadful’ aunt who made me sit on her lap and slapped my cheeks. I remember singing songs with my cousins, and standing on the hood of a stranger’s car, speaking Arabic while explaining Dutch games to kids in the neighbourhood. I remember the call to prayer in the morning, the sunshine through the windows, the noise, the dust, the first supermarket that opened, the cassette stores, the mosquitos..…18 years ago, the last time I visited, I promised that aunt that I would come back and learn Arabic. I never did. She passed away several years ago.
I never understood that my upbringing was different. I also never saw the massive cultural/religious clash that went on. My life was my only point of reference and it was normal to me. I didn’t know any better. Like how you don’t see race until you understand what racism is. Plus, as far as I knew I was just Dutch. Before the divorce I may have gotten instilled with both Dutch and Egyptian values, but after my dad left, Egypt left with him. And as I grew more and more estranged from him over the years, I cared less and less about that part of me.
All I wanted growing up was to belong. I didn’t want to be different. People need a sense of belonging to feel like they’re part of something bigger, and cultural identity is a powerful thing.
Surhuisterveen, the town where I grew up, is a small, Frisian town in the north of the Netherlands. I stood out. Kids would always ask if I was adopted. My name was the butt of the joke very often: Somayonaise. Somini. Somalia. I hated my name. I also had a “funny looking nose” and “hairy arms.” I don’t remember 9/11 so much for the impact it had on the world -because I was too young to comprehend- but I do remember that all of a sudden I was called “muslim,” “Bin Laden’s daughter,” or “Arab” (like it was a bad thing to be called Arab). While we’re at it, let’s go through a few more on the list: I’ve been called a hairy monkey, I’ve been a filthy Turk or Moroccan, terrorism was “my people’s fault,” and my last name sounded like “that suicide bomber…” On the flipside, people would also comment on the thickness of my hair and how different it was from Dutch hair, or the “mystery” that was my race. My identity was always challenged by others. I was always different. I was always confused.
All I wanted growing up was to belong. I didn’t want to be different. People need a sense of belonging to feel like they’re part of something bigger, and cultural identity is a powerful thing. Trevor Noah, in his book Born A Crime, described it perfectly: “I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black.” In my case, the people around me were white. But when no one looks like you, you’re going to be perceived as different. And growing up in a small town in the 90s, there wasn’t much cultural blending going on. There still isn’t. On top of that, I didn’t have a father around, and no one to actively teach me about the other 50% of my racial background. I was too naive to understand then, but I understand now how much that influenced me. It was a massive internal struggle, perpetuated by the outside world. I tried very, very hard to fit in all the time. I just wanted to be a normal kid. Until I gave up trying.
You could really tell how that manifested itself during high school. I took to alternative fashion and music. I also started to act out (in a very modest way). I was known for being kind of rebellious and scary looking. I was loud and unpredictable. I wasn’t a bad kid, per se. I was just weird. I needed a lot of attention, but it was more a cry for help. It’s not that I was unhappy; I don’t remember high school as a particularly bad place. I now describe it as my ‘floating’ identity. That’s how I felt: always floating in-between everything and nothing. I wasn’t Dutch enough, but I definitely didn’t feel Egyptian. Yet no matter how hard I tried being Dutch, I kept being pushed in different racial boxes. So I became an outcast. That never really changed. Finding likeminded friends within an alternative subculture might have been the first time I felt like I was part of something. My high school years were filled with boyfriend drama, feuds, rebellion, puberty problems, but also music, performing, and artistic self-expression; it was the first time where part of me felt like I was accepted for just being me.
At 18, I had developed such strong resentment towards anything ‘Arab’, that I decided to change my name. Not only did I hate my name, I was also told that I’d have a higher chance of finding a job with a Dutch name. To me, at that time, my foreign name was the only thing standing in my way of becoming a less confused individual. Somayah Feisal changed into a name nobody in the Netherlands would even blink twice over. I have no evidence on my job prospects, but other than that, nothing changed. My dad, who I had been seeing on and off periodically during my teenage years, was furious. I didn’t see him for several years after that. Our relationship was already hanging by a thread, but that made it so much worse. It was never normal to begin with. I never considered or understood his point of view, or why he tried to teach me about Islam, or the importance of family names in Egypt. I never considered anything really. I just wanted it gone. He was bad, his culture was bad, Egypt was bad. There was a lot of hidden resentment I wasn’t aware of.
Two years after changing my name, I left my home town. I distanced myself completely from anything Egyptian. But even when I said nothing, I would continue to hear Arabic slurs, terrorism jokes, and questions about Islam. Media portrayal of the Arab world is 100% negative. But all I remembered was the rice pudding, my aunt slapping my cheek, or the lullaby my dad used to sing to me (Yalla Tnam Rima). I took other people’s negativity to heart my entire life. I started to feel ashamed of never talking about it. Of not acquiring the knowledge to say that Egypt wasn’t all like that. I didn’t actually know. I associated Egypt with negativity just as much.
I say this a lot, but self-awareness has been such an eye-opener. I only started to put the pieces of the puzzle together around my mid-twenties. Before that, the only thing I understood was that things were always different. Now I understand why. I understand why I behave a certain way, or why I house so much anxiety. Things finally started making sense. I don’t regret much in life, but around 25, I started to regret never trying to understand my Egyptian side. I never cared about the fact that I have an entire family living in Egypt. I don’t even know their names. I never bothered to learn Arabic. I never attempted to learn about the culture, history, or customs. I know nothing about Islam. I just kept pushing it away. Knowing the link between my past and current self has helped find so much acceptance around my ‘floating’ identity.
I want to know how life could have turned out if I embraced ‘mixed-race’ as my identity. Not because I need it, or because I still struggle, but because I owe it to myself to stop being ignorant on behalf of others.
I knew that I wanted to make a change. But by then I had over 20 years to catch up on. I didn’t know where to start. So I decided to work on myself first. I went into therapy (would recommend), I took on every opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I focused on overcoming personal insecurities. I also started taking Arabic lessons (currently at level toddler), reading books on contemporary Egypt and modern history, following Egyptian media and related social media influencers, and I have since made new friends with similar backgrounds and experiences. I’m ridiculously comfortable with myself now, and I have gained the self-confidence to attempt rediscovering what was lost.
The best way to do that rediscovering, for me, is by moving to Egypt for while. I’m definitely not without fear. I have no idea how things will turn out, how people will view me, or how my family feels about me. But I want to have a sense of closure. I want to know my family and their history. I want to know what my dad was like growing up. I want to know how life could have turned out if I embraced ‘mixed-race’ as my identity. Not because I need it, or because I still struggle so much, but because I owe it to myself to stop being ignorant on behalf of others. I deserve to come back and never omit, be ashamed of, or fear that part of me ever again.
I am Dutch. And I am on my way to becoming Egyptian.
Because of the concern raised by loved ones, as Egypt can be tumultuous at times, I have decided to be relatively candid about it. Also because I want to document this and look back on it later.
And, who actually knows that much about Egypt? It hasn’t gotten any mainstream coverage since the Arab spring. I’m curious, aren’t you?