02: Being Both & Neither

and the Concept of Belonging

Hello, hi, hello. Ramadan Kareem!

I woke up today and felt very conscious that it was Ramadan. I know that sounds like a weird thing to say, except for the fact that I don’t usually feel it, this much.

Ramadan is all about community, family and faith, about gathering to break fast and to pray, so there’s a lot to be said for how different Ramadan is going to be this year. But considering I’ve never really taken part in Ramadan, I didn’t expect it to be all that different, for me.

So I was surprised to wake up this morning with a weird sort of FOMO for it that I’ve never felt before. I’m self-isolating alone, and perhaps it’s that sense of belonging to a community that I am longing for, a mutual taking part in ritual and faith.

On the eve of Ramadan, a couple of years ago, Mona El Tahawy, the author of Headscarves & Hymens, tweeted something that I’ve been thinking about on and off ever since.

“I wish an easy and accepted fast to all who are observing. I also wish absolute freedom for those who choose not to. It is imperative: freedom of faith and freedom from faith,” she wrote.

It summed up my thoughts perfectly, across all aspects of religion – and life. Freedom to and freedom not to. But expectations of what you should do, what you should want, who you should be and etc, both those from within the ‘community’, as well as from those outside it, do a lot to influence how we see ourselves. Even when it comes to what should be our personal relationship with God.

My family don’t fast, nor do we do many of the other things Muslims are ‘supposed’ to do, and for a long time that gave me imposter syndrome. It’s in part why I still struggle to call myself anything other than ‘technically Muslim’. I’m forever waiting to be called out – by anyone.

I wonder, then, would we so often feel such a sense of rootlessness, if certain behaviours, wants and actions were not so adamantly attributed to either ‘East’ or ‘West’? If it weren’t made out that each decision reflected which culture you were choosing to side with?

Would we still feel like we weren’t quite enough of either, if we were free to just be ourselves, with all the contradictions and nuances that make us up?

This week’s newsletter is on being Both & Neither, and the concept of ‘belonging’. I’m so excited to share some words from The Greater Conversations first guest-writer, Linda Malek, cofounder of The Candid Bookclub.


Linda Malek, 31, London @thecandidbookclub

It was actually other Egyptians that I grew up with that put me off my heritage for a long time. During my most formative years, I avoided them at all costs.

With my white school friends, after I shut down the predictable pleasantries of “Do you live in a pyramid?” and “Do you own a camel?”, I was comfortable and proud of my Egyptian culture, and it was my group of BAME friends who were the compass I needed, not the Egyptians I grew up around.

I think the confidence to know yourself and your background comes from the home, and, thankfully, I have been brought up in a progressive and open-minded household – despite my parents’ conservative upbringing.

The pressure of marriage has not been felt, education and freedom of speech always promoted and a successful career and being independent always encouraged. But others I spoke to had a different experience: education was promoted up until a certain point (if only as a facade and for the marital CV), having non-Egyptian friends was frowned upon, and having aspirations other than getting married soon after graduation was unheard of.

I was always led to believe that Middle-Eastern cultures promoted educational excellence and competition with peers. Most parents automatically assume that their children will follow the vocational career paths of either medicine or dentistry. Failing that, pharmacy or engineering. Things started to gain a little more clarity as I studied for my PhD.

A couple of years ago, the hashtag #immodestwomen took Twitter by storm as the historian Dr. Fern Riddell was called out for using her full title by her male colleagues. When I got my title, I had now reached a new level of elite within the upper hierarchies of the community. But I soon found that, similarly, to some, I was now considered too educated. To the majority of mothers, my new title had made me intimidating to men – sorry, boys - and therefore too much of a handful to ever be the dutiful wife.

From a generational perspective, you might think that my peers would agree that the elders in our community were absolutely bonkers, but shockingly not. I also received some backlash from male peers who were highly educated, too.

By adopting a so-called British “attitude” to life, by Egyptian standards for women (in the diaspora, anyway) I was the anomaly.

Mind you, life has been much better as a result.

If you’d like to contribute to The Greater Conversation, please email me at greaterconversation@gmail.com

Through the stories told, discussions we have and the community we build together, my hope is that we all feel more understood and less alone, and thus emboldened.

Find out more about The Greater Conversation here.

Related Reading:

Like Many Young Muslims, I Fake Fasting During Ramadan

Killing Eve and the safety of returning to cooking traditional food

Speaking in Mother Tongues

What Ramadan will look like for British Muslims in lockdown

I wrote this for Restless on Finding Home in an Evening

Who am I?

I’m an Egyptian born, London raised freelance journalist and author of the bestselling non-fiction book The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes, released 2019. I have a BA in Sociology and Psychology and a Masters in Journalism and I’ve been published in The Telegraph, Refinery29, The Washington Post and more, providing unique takes on social commentary, identity and culture.

You can follow me on Instagram here and Twitter here.

You can order The Greater Freedom here.

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