Finding Community Where You Are

I’m mourning with my community today.  I’m far from the Queens streets of New York City I grew up in or the Kingston neighborhood where my grandparents lived in Jamaica.  I’m in a small town, unknown by most, a little more than an hour inland from Muscat, Oman.  The statistically high incident of traffic accidents here now feels real as the tragedy has hit home.  The young man hurled from a recent collision was my neighbor’s son.
Since living abroad I’ve always tried my best to blend in, and today is no different.  I solemnly enter the sorrowful family’s home like another ripple in the sea of flowing black abaya gowns which seem most fitting for a day like today.  Trying to imitate the others, I enter with lowered eyes and lingering handshakes, mumbling salutations and inaudible prayers.  The boundary between family and community is so thin that I greet everyone as if they are the mother of the deceased because, in actuality, everyone feels the loss.  From room to room, I continue the procession wondering who is who in this house full of women.  A familiar face directs me to the matriarch of the family.  She lies in bed, as if ailing from grief.  The sorrow was so thick I couldn’t bear entering the room.  I wasn’t sure about coming here.  I don’t know this household so well.  Yes, I feed their goats my compost and we exchange pleasantries when we see each other, but this was my first time actually entering beyond the tall gate.  Should I have brought something to give them?  What exactly should I say?  I exit their home and assure myself that I did the right thing by coming.  This is my community.  They know I’m not from around here but they’ve grown accustomed to my oddness and so have I.
From the time I first moved abroad, I was vigilant, almost obsessive about fitting in.  I was prepared to dress, speak, and behave as the locals do.  I was determined not to cause the slightest blip on the visual or social radar screen.  However, after adopting the dress code and language of another land, I found that I still couldn’t really assimilate.  After my name, I am most-often asked “Where are you from?”  At a distance, my stature and stride set me apart.  My function over fashion sensibilities keep me from wearing cute, heeled sandals in my desert village, and when was the last time you heard of a vegan in Arabia?  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t veil my otherness.  No matter what I said or did, I was still different.
Over the years, I’ve come to terms with this myth of “fitting in.”  I stopped apologizing for being strange and cringing when I’m introduced as the American.  I learned to express my views and articulate my lifestyle choices in a way that was comprehensible but not confrontational.  I realized that I can embrace another culture without wholeheartedly adopting it as my own.   No matter how much I imitate, there is still a line drawn in the desert sand but those boundaries, however real or artificial they may be, don’t keep me from having authentic relationships with people and sharing in our commonality.

I live in a small town where most of its residents have lived for generations.  They are born, go to school, marry, raise children, age, and die in this very place.  They know where everyone lives along the unmarked pathways and know everyone’s name without a phone directory.  But more important than their deep roots in this neighborhood is their social obligation to one another.  At the announcement of a birth or death, they are celebrating and lamenting with the affected before the story even goes to print.  I used to find this tight knit tapestry of community intrusive but I now see it as inclusive.  Even if only symbolically, every family’s joys and tragedies appear to have the same value, concern, and relevance to all.  Some of my neighbors have more wealth and prestige than others, some are orphaned, divorced, or widowed, some are foreigners, like myself, but none of us seem to be left out, even if we don’t fit in.

At this point in my life I realize my home is where I am and my community is where I live.  I’ve negotiated the tango of “give and take” and try to accommodate the culture in which I reside without losing myself in the process.  I’ll continue to accept the dates and turn down the Omani coffee.  I’ll eat with my hands but avoid the meat.  I’ll don the black abaya but opt for a colorful head scarf.  But most importantly, I will rejoice and grieve with my community, even if we don’t always agree.

 This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.

5 thoughts on “Finding Community Where You Are

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  1. Umm Z! Your posts are so enlightening. Masha’Allah I could relate so much to this one in particular. As you know I lived in Yemen for many years and had to adjust to the normal customs and ways. Then after our departure settle on American soil where I also felt displaced. I felt my heart was pulling again back to Yemen where I once thought I did not belong to now where I left my heart behind.

    Subhan’Allah! Deep post!

    love and duaas,


  2. Beautifully expressed! One suggestion is that I would end the second paragraph with: ‘they’ve grown accustomed to my otherness, and I to theirs.’
    During my last visit to Oman, my friend Z played a short but moving audio clip about an elderly Muslim in advanced Alzheimer’s and near death. At one point I started to tear up. I looked at Z and he was teary too. The human heart transcends language and culture.

  3. In the 1960s I was a Peace Corps teacher in a small village in southern Ethiopia. The first funeral I attended was for the young son of my closest Ethiopian friend on the faculty. I was at first a bit alarmed at the extreme intensity of his grieving during the funeral procession. I later realized that this is perhaps the most appropriate way to respond to loss and then get on with one’s life.

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