By Genny Ghanimeh
Genny Ghanimeh, founder of Pi Slice, a Dubai-based online micro-lending platform for the MENA region, met with a lawyer recently to talk about setting up a Regional Arab Impact Accelerator. Little did she expect where the witty lawyer with a crazy hair would steer their conversation.
Alain asks me what an Arab Impact Accelerator is, to which I promptly explain that an accelerator is an organisation for start-ups with cohort-based programmes, that include mentorship and educational components and culminate in a public pitch event or demo day to an audience of potential investors.
An impact accelerator is an accelerator programme focusing on start-ups whose business models serve to achieve a social or environmental impact.
But unsatisfied, Alain continues asking what defines being an “Arab” and what defines “us” being “Arabs”. Is it simply a geographic delineation? Is it a language and/or religion demarcation? Is it a historical continuation past and future? Or is it a set of common traits and if so, what are they?
I actually never thought about the question before that day, I never felt the need to define it. But today my mission is to set an Arab entity, so I might as well define it.
Coming myself from parents with different nationalities and cultures, and having lived, studied and worked in cosmopolitan cities for the last 15 years, I naturally feel like a global citizen in the sense of someone who identifies with being part of an emerging world community which has no defined borders or nationalities, and whose actions contribute to building this community’s values and practices.
It is true that long ago the place of birth and upbringing used to define our identity. However, today’s modern states have passed from the nation-building stage into that of multicultural belonging due to a push for a globalised world agenda. Issues like migration, citizenship, integration and diversity are at the centre of this effort towards multicultural belonging.
In this new age of connected technologies, Millennials experience the effects of globalisation on a daily basis through employment patterns, the friendship groups they develop, their usage of the internet and social networking and the wider cultural influences on their lifestyles, as well as through them receiving targeted messages about global social problems. In fact, we are all affected, no matter who we are.
Going back to defining what it is to be an Arab – I live in Dubai, the capital hub of the “Arab” world today, and one of the most cosmopolitan and dynamic cities in the world. We take it for granted that the definition of the Arab region includes 22 countries surrounding us from North Africa, Levant and the Gulf states.
The people of these countries speak mostly one language, follow in a vast majority one religion, and are stereotyped with some traits such as being centred around family and tribe, being hospitable, friendly and conservative, being loud, emotional and possessive, and lacking in collective critical thinking and self-criticism.
Is this what defines being an Arab? Today I want to know and I want to define it for myself. I want to invite people around me to define it for themselves. Possibly, in doing so, all of us can have a deeper look at ourselves (or at others), and maybe we can start having a better understanding and tolerance of who we are and what brings us together as humans – whether Arab, European, Persian, Asian, African, American or else.
Since I was a kid, I have always had a passion for ancient history. Ever since I have read and researched everything related to the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans.
Naturally, I have also explored the region’s recent past, from the Islamic Era - and its decline, the Crusades Wars, the Ottoman Empire, the New World Colonisation, the World Wars, up to the present war in the Middle East. I have always felt that all this is a continuous timeline of events that shaped the region where I belong.
Am I the DNA lineage memory of all my ancestry, their historical events, their wars, their arts, their ruling empires, their languages, their folklore, their knowledge, and their traits?
But am I also the diverse authors, poets, painters, musicians I studied? Am I the cultures of all the cities I lived in? Am I a bit of all the nationalities of the close friendships I built? Am I the languages I speak? Am I Lebanese, Romanian, French, Persian, Iraqi, Armenian, Palestinian, Swiss, Turkish or English? Am I Arab or European? Am I Arab or Middle Eastern? Am I European or Westerner? Am I one or many?
I remember the quote of Xavier (Romain Duris) from the movie ‘’L’Auberge Espagnole’’: “When you first arrive in a new city, nothing makes sense. Everything is unknown, virgin... After you’ve lived here, walked these streets, you’ll know them inside out. You’ll know these people. Once you’ve lived here, crossed this street 10, 20, 1,000 times... it’ll belong to you because you’ve lived there. That was about to happen to me, but I didn’t know it yet.”
And he is right! We are the sum of all our experiences.
We are the composite of what we encounter, we live, we breathe, we get moved by, we grieve, we gain, we lose, we fall in love with, we walk, we read. It is well established in today’s science of epigenetics and the Nurture vs. Nature debate that all the genetic programming we inherited can be re-edited, reprogrammed, and re-designed.
Today, we know that our brain is the receptor/broadcaster of the information we code in our genes. Our genes are the technology encoding all the experiences and information around us into our biology and our brain.
We aren’t only BORN, but we are also BECOMING! Our identity is ever transforming, evolving and being built upon. An unexamined, cleansed, purged, merged life is not worth living. It is our choice to take all this and work with it to define our identity. Maybe a deeper identity will be revealed, the one where we even understand the identity of “being human”.
In order to become though, we must also understand what we were born into!
In the end?
Must we thrive, as human beings, to eliminate distinctions? Are we bound to evolve towards an all-inclusive global world where the boundaries defining different identities are fading away and are being replaced by a human being having multi-layered identities?
The tendency towards globalisation did affect the identities of people and it is becoming a matter of choice rather that a matter of nationalism, race, religion, language, and similar. Any human being, throughout his/her life, wants to be part of a certain group of people sharing something in common, engaging, and contributing. It is part of human nature and it is what created the first societies.
Even in high school or university, a young student would take part in the geeks group, the music group, the sport group, and so on. And at all stages of life, any person would connect to a certain group where he/she would feel more comfortable, more engaged and/or more contributing, depending on their choices and depending on whether this group accepts them or not. We are even doing that every day by joining various virtual groups on social media channels.
Perhaps, it is merely the categories of that definition-exercise that have changed or expanded – from races, languages, religions, nationalities, and regions, which are objective categories used before globalisation to identify people as being part of some groups, to new categories of which a person can choose to create or to adhere to.
Maybe globalisation doesn’t lead us to a homogeneous world where everyone will feel to be part of, and therefore be capable of evolving and becoming. And maybe there is no nationalistic identity per se anymore because we do not feel that we fit into a group that is characterised by time-worn stereotypes, indices or categories that we do not “fully” belong to anymore.
Maybe to define this, is to define the new categories we feel relevant to us – and that is a personal and collective exercise we are all invited to do together.
Essentially, the definition of identity itself has evolved.
It is both vast and intimate, collective and personal, homeland-bound and spiritually transcending - a perpetual amalgam of a state of belonging, through a state of longing to a state of becoming.