What is Identity?

“I come from no country, from no city, no tribe.  I am the son of the road: my country is the caravan, my life the most unexpected of voyages….all tongues and all prayers belong to me, but I belong to none of them.”

Amin Ma’louf, Leo Africanus–

Identity, a subject that has long been an obsession of the human mind, remains to be a mystery to all those who dare question it.  Not a soul in history has failed to address the existential conundrum within, and ask: “who am I?”  Today, we draw the lines that define us through politics, religion, language, and most importantly, nations.  In a rapidly changing and increasingly connected world, however, pinpointing the limitations of these lines becomes ever more challenging.  The immense sprawl of peoples across the continents has resulted in the formation of large groups of individuals who identify with more than just one religion, language, or country.  For these people, the subject of identity is a vastly more complex question.

Consider, for example, the author of the above quote, Amin Ma’louf.  Ma’louf is a Lebanese Christian writer who fled the 1975 Lebanese civil war to France.  He has written countless essays and many critically acclaimed novels in French, although he is fluent in English and his mother tongue is Arabic.  In 1993, Ma’louf was recognized for his literary accomplishments and was presented with the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s most prestigious literary 8692622850_8f190fbd03_oawards.  In his younger years, Ma’louf struggled with notions of identity, spurred by the coupling of his Christian heritage and native Arabic language, the sacred language of Islam and Islamic culture.  Having moved to France, the perception of his identity was once more rattled with the introduction of an entirely new culture.

From his experience, deeply embedded in his literature, Ma’louf has gleaned the notion that identity is in constantflux.  It is defined ‘vertically’ through one’s ancestors and heritage, be it cultural, religious or otherwise, as well as ‘horizontally’ through interactions with surroundings and contemporary environments. Through this understanding, identity becomes a dynamic entity, eternally evolving and feeding on one’s experiences and allegiances.  A single component of an identity cannot stand alone as an embodiment of one’s whole person.  Rather, affiliations and allegiances are fused in a melting pot that never ceases to expand, continuously constructing one’s complete identity.  To that end, when asked whether he is French or Lebanese, Ma’louf would undoubtedly answer ‘both’.

Only a fool would cease to remember that the borders separating nations and peoples were all drawn by Man

Given that Ma’louf’s position as a Lebanese-Frenchman is not hotly contested, perhaps due to the permeation of French culture throughout Lebanese society, it may be difficult to explicitly witness the conflict within him.  Lucy Aharish, on the other hand, has made global headlines in recent months for a very public debate that delved deeply into the roots of her identity.  A Muslim Israeli-Arab, Aharish is well known for presenting the Israeli evening news on i24news.  Recently, however, she has attracted the spotlight by being selected to light one of 14 torches at Israel’s Independence Day celebration, which Palestinians mark as the ‘Nakbah’, or catastrophe.

Having been the only Arab in her school and town, Aharish witnessed her fair share of racist graffiti and bullying.  At age six, the Aharish family car was attacked by a Palestinian with a Molotov cocktail, severely burning her 3-year old cousin.  Her childhood environment, coupled with a lack of connection to the Palestinian narrative of the conflict, led her to initially adopt some ‘anti-Arab culture’ views.  Aharish says that she didn’t even know what the ‘Nakbah’ was until later in her life, and did not understand the reality of Palestinian oppression until she witnessed an Israeli soldier strip-searching several Palestinian men at gun point.

Aharish’s past and present place her in a thorny situation, having received severe criticism from both Israelis and Palestinians.  A week prior to the ceremony, far-right Israeli group Lehava, which works against assimilation, had requested to stage a protest regarding her selection.  Arab groups and activists also criticized her selection, viewing her as a traitor to the Palestinian cause.  However, Aharish has been a fiery combatant, striking back at whoever dares question her allegiance.  ‘Who’s a victim? Are you a victim? That’s your problem…I’m nobody’s victim’ said Aharish, in response to a representative from an Israeli-Arab party who had accused her of ‘blaming the victim.’  From Aharish’s point of view, the crisis that unfolded did not revolve around her identity, but around the public’s assumptions of it.  To her, the issue is quite transparent, and she proclaims her identity publically:  ‘I’m an Israeli.  Then I’m a woman, and then I’m an Arab Muslim.’

Regardless of whether you agree with her, is Aharish not entitled to identify herself as she does?  Is Ma’louf in the wrong for saying he is both French and Lebanese?  After all, none but they have lived through the experiences that have shaped their conception of who they are.  What gives anyone else the right to judge otherwise?  To insist that someone deny or adhere to a particular facet of their identity is tantamount, as Ma’louf puts it, to asking someone to ‘amputate a part of [them]selves.’  The belief that many people hold, says Ma’louf, regarding the singularity of one’s identity –that one is more Lebanese than French, for example – is inherently untrue, and places tremendous amounts of pressure on those attempting to balance the uniqueness of their identity with the present norms and environments.

Only a fool would cease to remember that the borders separating nations and peoples were all drawn by Man, and that the differences amongst peoples, be they linguistic, nationalistic, religious or otherwise, should not be what separates them, but what brings them together.  Jean Jacques Rousseau, 18th century philosopher, put it best when he wrote: ‘you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the Earth belong to us all , and the Earth itself to nobody’.

About Zaid Al-Nassir

Zaid is a Toronto based writer and aspiring editor focusing on the politics of the Middle East and, specifically, the many aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Contact: zaidalnassir@gmail.com