“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” – Steve Jobs
I was born and raised in Kuwait and grew up in a multicultural society. You were either an Arab or a foreigner. I was reared in an environment where differences didn’t matter and people lived in harmony. The expatriates looked out for each other and I rarely witnessed any animosity while growing up. My family is from Pakistan and have always emphasized on three things, religion, good values and good education. They believed that good schools result in a good upbringing and balanced personality. I went to different schools, British, Pakistani, and American. Each school had a profound effect on me, one that I could not see back then, but are more apparent now. My parents were partly right, good schools might help you develop a good personality but it doesn’t make you balanced or help you discover yourself.
The British schools I went to emphasized on discipline, respect for authority and a strict routine schedule. The teachers would have a certain demeanor which was enough to keep the children behaved. You could smell the fear in the hallways and one look from a teacher was enough. I remember how fearful I used to be because of it. I always felt like a heavy ball is lodged in my stomach; it hindered my learning, and slowly I started becoming an introvert.
During the Gulf War, we fled to Pakistan and I had to live there for a few years. I had never been to my country for more than a month. I was 11 at the time and just wanted to go back to Kuwait, but when my mom told us we would have to go to schools in Lahore, I knew there was no going back. I went to a school where I had to learn Urdu as a language. I spoke the language but never knew how to write it. On top of that most subjects were taught in Urdu which meant I would be failing all of them until I don’t catch up to the 6th grade. There was no way out of it, I had to pull my socks which I managed. Some teachers were wonderful but most teachers believed in punishing and physically harming me when I couldn’t understand a language I had never learned before.(For those teachers, I will dedicate an entire post soon). Despite all the unpleasantness, I did well and made some wonderful friends. I started to like my culture but just when I finally figured out a way to fit in with my own, we had to return to Kuwait.
After I returned, I was put in a British school again and it felt like starting over again and learning a new school system, only now the stakes were higher in the 9th grade. Somehow I managed and did well in my O’levels but it’s an experience that still torments me. I decided to switch to an American school for my final year and found it life-saving. The school’s environment was carefree; every teacher was approachable and friendly. There was order but with flexibility. It encouraged me to become more independent and confident in myself.
Finally, I was in the right place at the right time. I did well and for the first time was happy with my progress. Unfortunately, I only got to experience that for only one year after twelve years of struggling in an education system that didn’t fit my learning style. If my parents thought that somehow those schools were shaping my personality, they were wrong because, at the time, it was all about getting the grades. Most of the time I was stressed about keeping up with my peers and character building was the least of my worries. If that was happening somehow, then I wasn’t conscious about it.
I decided to go to a Canadian University and pursue Architectural studies, and I was super excited because of the new environment. But after coming here, I realized what a ginormous change it was for me. Ramadan ( the Holy month for Muslims, where we fast from dawn to dusk) was coming up in a few weeks after I joined. For those of you who don’t know, most Islamic countries are theocratic. Exceptions are made for religious duties like prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan. School and work hours are shortened, and during the day no restaurants would be opened. How will I fast? What will I eat? How will I get Halal meat? Where will I pray? Religiously, the Islamic-Eastern environment kept you in line. There were mosques in every corner of the street, in the school, and at the workplace but now I am in an environment that was too secular. People around me are openly dating, partying, drinking and indulging in all kinds of activities that were not very familiar back home. Fasting was very hard and I had difficulty keeping up with my prayers. I started to look for some similarities between us so I could fit in. I know I spoke the same language and wore western clothes, but I wasn’t like them at all. I tried to find a balance but it was always hard to cope with. I was homesick a lot even though I made friends. I never criticized my western friends or looked down upon anyone, but I just couldn’t get myself to become like them mainly because I couldn’t go to the same places they went for fun or even eat the same food and it was hard to form deep friendships when you can only hang out or talk during classes. I still did the best that I could and was cordial with everyone around me.
It all changed one day when I was praying behind my desk (the professor didn’t allow me to go to the mosque during the 3 hour studio class, which meant I would be missing my prayers). A friend stopped by to ask me something; I didn’t answer and continued with my prayer. She stared at me like I was ignoring her on purpose and kept on talking all the while getting more and more upset about not replying. Once I was done, I explained to her why I couldn’t answer her while I was praying. Even though she apologized, she couldn’t understand the concept. This created an interest in the rest of the group and questions followed “Why do you pray?”, “What do you say?”, “What does it mean?” and the biggest one “Why do you need a book to guide you when it could have easily been changed over time”. I had no answers. I wasn’t trained to question my religion. I followed what everyone did back home and we did as we were told.
It only occurred to me then, that all my acts of worship were out of habit instead of understanding nevertheless it sparked an interest in the others and a dialogue started between us. It broke the ice and now we started having religious and philosophical discussions every day. In all this, they never criticized my religion or me; they only provoked me to think “Whats the point of following a religion blindly when you don’t even understand it?” I needed to get some answers because now I couldn’t go on embarrassing myself and claiming myself as Muslim, do the acts of worship and know nothing about it. It had to make sense and I should know why. My family did the best they could by guiding me, but every time they would give me hardline answers which weren’t good enough. It didn’t help me understand anything.
Were my values Islamic, British, American or Pakistani?… I didn’t know; I was lost and struggled to find an identity. I could not connect the dots between my upbringing and my religion. I did not see myself growing in any way and didn’t know where I belonged until I took up a psychology course as an elective. Things were never the same again. I became baffled with the human brain and how it affects your personality. A lot of things started making sense. My struggles in school, learning style, parental upbringing, social upbringing and etc. I took every course the university could offer … I became a psych junkie and took everything in like a sponge. I applied psychology to everything, but when I applied it to religion, things started to make sense. I felt I was on the right path and every time, I connected religion with psychology, I had a breakthrough moment because now I can explain my friends, the psychological effects Islam has on a person, and that resonated with them.
Yes, my western friends drank, dated and weren’t religious. They respected me for not trying to be like them but I deeply respected them because they tried to experience what my life was like as a Muslim. They never mocked me for who I was. They would remind me to pray, they fasted with me just to feel what I was going through and they went to the mosque to pray with me when they wanted to feel peaceful. Everyone has their own spiritual journey but I am deeply thankful to my friends because I found mine because of them. This is what a multicultural society should be like. Keeping your identities yet confident enough to experience what the other culture is all about even if there are huge differences at every level.
Coming to a new culture provokes you to think about who you are. Self-reflection is critical. People shouldn’t be afraid to ask why? They shouldn’t be fearful of discovering who they are and who cares if you don’t like what you see, as long as you are willing to tackle it head-on. When you are put into an unfamiliar environment only then, we are provoked to think about our beliefs and values. It’s like swimming. Your instructor can tell you everything you should be doing in water standing outside of it, but unless you don’t get in, none of those techniques can be understood or applied. You will never know how good you are unless you don’t get in there. We need to retain our identities, our individuality by conducting ourselves with balance in a culture different to our own and slowly we begin to discover ourselves.