In December 1998, I moved to Dubai from Islamabad at four years old. I remember resenting being separated from my childhood home, a home my father’s father had built for us from the ground up, a home where my first lizard had fallen off the ceiling and onto my face, and, the last place I can recall where home felt as such.
Upon our arrival in Dubai, which was nothing more than a desert with a few apartment buildings at the time, I was sent to the first English speaking school in the city. A British school, infiltrated with the children of expatriates mainly from the UK — and a niche of South Asian children like myself.
Urdu, my first language, was soon forgotten. Instead, French and Arabic language classes were compulsory. My parents, both Westernised Pakistanis with little attachment to their culture, found English a sufficient means of communication with their children — and their marriage, a toxic one, required a private language for quarrels.
I adopted the accent of my peers and teachers, referring to my mother as ‘mummy’, inquiring what would be on the ‘telly’ and exclaiming I felt rather ‘jolly’ a lot of the time.
I forcibly adopted 'British values', being told what was correct behaviour rather sternly and coerced to don a blue velvet dress along with an unfortunate red lipstick (upon my mother’s insistence) in celebration of the Queen’s silver jubilee.
Yes, I was forced to celebrate the monarchy which colonised my people, bled India dry, which eventually resulted in the violent Partition.
Prior to our move to Dubai, my parents spent a fair amount of time travelling, leaving me in the care of my maternal grandmother, my nani (whom I affectionately refer to as nono). My nani is a Muhajir and native Urdu speaker, a victim of Partition displacement.
We conversed solely in Urdu and I always joined her during her daily prayers, relishing the way she affectionately wrapped a shawl around my small frame.
After our move to Dubai and the assured deterioration of my Urdu, I realised I could no longer communicate with nono as I used to; in fact, I could hardly communicate with her at all.
In April 2003, my parents are on the verge of separation, and I, nine years old and unwillingly and unknowingly at the time, am moving back to Islamabad with my father.
Returning under my parent’s marital circumstances was cataclysmic. At the dinner table, my father’s father, a retired air commodore, would slur hateful remarks about my free-spirited mother for demanding a divorce, the same way he would denote his dislike for Hindus.
I felt deprived of maternal affection and turned to my maids for solace. However, we could hardly communicate with each other, so I decided to exchange English words for their Urdu equivalents and vice versa.
It was a confusing, disorienting and tumultuous time — from adapting to Dubai’s expatriate cosmopolitanism with brilliant chameleonism to relearning a lost culture amongst the hypocritical, bureaucratic elite of Islamabad. My identity continued to tear itself apart, and my tongue continued to split into two.
Once I began the fifth grade in Islamabad, I was taunted for being a ‘burger’. I was criticised for speaking the finite Urdu words I knew like a ‘Pathan’. Kids were rough, and times were tough.
Nono was flabbergasted upon the realisation that she was unable to communicate with her anglicised granddaughter, especially since I would spend the majority of my time after school plopped in front of her TV with a homemade burger she had prepared for her ‘burger’ granddaughter.
She, a dexterous writer of Urdu shayari and well into her 50s at the time, taught herself to speak, read and write English through Urdu-to-English textbooks, sold at Urdu bookstores. I was moved and inspired to do the same.
I chose to pursue remedial Urdu and began to teach myself how to speak, read and write Urdu by engaging in conversation with whomever refrained from ridiculing my attempts, and by constantly practising the Nasta’liq script as opposed to doodling.
I realised that re-learning my first language had become more than just a means of survival and chameleonism — it brought me so much closer to the people I loved.
Summer 2010, I am forced to move back to Dubai to live with my mother, and leaving Islamabad instilled a deep melancholy — being a child of divorce was much like being caught in a strenuous game of tennis.
Going back and forth between each parent, each geographical vantage point, contributed significantly to my disparaged identity.
Dubai, now, had officially transformed into a parking lot for gaudy skyscrapers. The number of taxis on the roads had increased drastically, fortunately with drivers whom I could converse in Urdu with.
I am now sent to a predominantly Indian-British school, to continue my secondary education with the British Council’s Cambridge GSCE curriculum. It was unfortunate that I was unable to escape this colonial education system between Pakistan and the UAE.
I felt more assured with my identity this time, and being able to amiably add interchangeable Hindi-Urdu slang made the adaptation process easier. However, come any Pakistan vs India cricket match, I was callously discriminated against and alienated by people I considered friends and their nationalism percolated at the sight of cricket rivalry.
Since the possibility of obtaining citizenship in Dubai is essentially non-existent (nor are you permitted to be a dual passport holder as a resident of the UAE) — expat kids who grow up there attach their roots to a Third Space — a unique Third Culture which intertwines with Western, local and their own culture.
It's attractive for the Third Culture Kids to adopt popular culture references in English, but throw in some Khaleeji slang and you’re considered more cultured and less of an alien resident! It was during this time I realised how powerful language is and how its power is abused to police cultural borders.
Irrespective of how my learned chameleonism enabled me to appear ‘cool’ and ‘cultured’, I can assuredly say I have not experienced as much racism and xenophobic discrimination as I did living in the UAE — as both a child and young adult.
In spite of my financial class and luxuries, I was mocked for the colour of my skin, the hints of a Pakistani accent, and received looks of disappointment when my Pakistani identity was revealed in social settings.
Dubai was where I learned to be South Asian was loathsome, and I itched to crawl out of my skin and cut off my tongue.
Two years later, I’m 18 and on the move again — this time to North America, foreign and daunting land to me.
Toronto was cold, but what I found even more fascinating was how diverse the city is, albeit incomparable to London — yet, I was still quite impressed by how many languages and familiar dialects I could hear upon my arrival, and observing the subtle (or not) racism and fetishisation of the multi-ethnic piqued my interest most.
In Toronto, I’ve been asked a handful of times regarding the origins of my accent, and I have always responded by simply claiming its hybridity.
I’ve been asked, out of surprise: how is it possible to be so well-spoken and well-versed in English, as a woman of colour who grew up in South Asia and the Middle East?
I’ve found myself smirking upon realising my command of the English language is vastly superior to a lot of my White counterparts’. I’ve found myself frowning when I mispronounce an English word and jumble my Urdu grammar.
I can’t provide you, or anyone else, with a just explanation. Purity, like virginity, is a social construct. In order for us to thrive and coexist harmoniously (especially in Pakistan), we must accept nationalism alienates us, and we must appreciate each of our own unique hybridities.
And language — our tongues, the way we converse in order to connect and relate — is an exceptional place to start. Just ask my grandmother.
Are you learning your way around identity and language? Share your experience with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zahra Haider is a Pakistani-Canadian writer based in Toronto. She has written for and appeared on VICE, BBC World, Huffington Post, Bustle, Daily Beast, rabble.ca, Times of India and more. Zahra is currently working on a collection of essays and her first novel.
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