‘Who am I?’ – A pressing question that keeps haunting you when you live far from your native land. In a foreign land, you are constantly checking yourself. You welcome some changes, but resist others. You try to adapt to a new cultural context. However, you become afraid you will not recognize yourself, nor even know who you are. It is a constant crisis you have to live in, a never-ending labyrinth.
When you are away from your native land, time becomes a friend and also an enemy. A friend, in the sense that it eases the separation from your own country, as you embark in this “new world.” You are excited! Motivated to start new things! And proud of yourself for stepping overseas for a new adventure. An enemy, however, as time makes you taste the pain of separation one drop at a time. You feel this chronic emotion of separation because you cannot see your family. Hug them. Cry with them. Have them console you and you console them.
Growing up in North Africa, my family was always around. They would come over, usually unannounced, and no matter what state I was in, I would always cheer up when I would see them. It’s almost as if their presence was medicine to whatever bizarre state I was going through. They destroyed that fear. The fear of the unknown. The fear of having to migrate and leave them behind.
When I decided to come to the United States, my naïve thought process at the time was that I would get a “better, more recognized education.” I made a sacrifice – the sacrifice of not being able to see my family for long strands of time. I left, regardless.
My pursuit for education in the United States made me realize how Western society imagines non-Western peoples and places. I did not like what I saw. No matter how hard I tried, I was always the stranger with the suitcase. The one that should not be trusted. The one whose stories did not matter. The one from “the exotic land of Africa.” When I would tell some people that I am from Morocco, I would often get some cliché answer such as: “Oh, I love Couscous,” or “Oh, isn’t that the land where women practice witchcraft,” or “My friend just came back from South Africa,” or “I love your accent, it is so exotic!” or “Where did you park your camel?” Although surprised that many people in the West know so little about what is beyond the seas, I take these comments as an opportunity to educate or correct any misconceptions. But, I get tired. I cannot be the person who has to constantly educate. It is not my labor alone. However, having to continuously address these misconceptions has become the full-time job of the immigrant.
In spite of that, I am still seeking this imagined place I dreamt of before leaving my land. A place where the immigrant is not constantly the person who takes on the role of the educator. A place where Western and non-western knowledge is valued equally; a place that knows no racism, sexism, or alienism. A place of equitable opportunities for all. However, someday, I will find this place.
I remember a few years ago, my friend, Jerome, who was born and raised in the United States, and I took a trip to California to visit his grandparents during Memorial Day. On the way back to Arizona, we were pulled over by a police officer. The police officer told Jerome that he was slightly speeding up, which he was. After Jerome showed the police officer his driver’s license and registration, the cop decided not to write a speeding ticket quite yet. He asked Jerome to step out of the car. Then, he proceeded to search the car, hoping to find something he could use against us, or so it seemed. After that, shockingly, the police officer asked Jerome to put his hands behind his back. The policeman put handcuffs on Jerome. I, stunned, started to panic. My thoughts were so blurry yet clear: Why would a police officer put handcuffs on a person just because they were going slightly beyond the speed limit? Is this normal in the United States?
The police officer came to my side of the car, and said, “You will have to drive your friend’s car to come to bail him out of jail.” I was afraid to ask why. I just stared at the policeman with an air of perplexity. He, then, asked for my identification. I showed him my Moroccan passport with the student visa stamped on it. He looked at me and said with a mocking tone “You’re an international student.” I collected myself and I started begging the police officer to let us go. I don’t think I have ever begged anyone like that in my life. I had never had to beg, in my home country. I had to immigrate to become a beggar. But I was not begging for food or money, but for freedom. The police officer, somehow, found satisfaction in my begging… He paused for a few seconds, then he finally uncuffed Jerome, gave him a ticket, and he let us go. Jerome is a black male, and that was what was causing issues to the police officer. It was clear to Jerome and to me. I was so upset and disheartened. How unjust! I started thinking about the idea that “The United States is a post-racial society.” What an illusion it is that I had consumed! What happened to Jerome and to me that summer day started to wake me up from this imagined idea of the West where “democracy” roams. That same night of the incident, I cried myself to sleep.
Since that summer night, my naivety started to turn into conscious awareness. An awareness of subtle shades of alienation. An awareness of colonial tales that pour like heavy rain on a late April night; colonial tales about the land of freedom and equal opportunity. I did not want to let this awareness turn into a cynical irritation. Yet, this irritation finds a passage into my body at times when I hear racist and sexiest comments about immigrants, different ethnic groups in the United States, and when the laws do not always work to the favor of such groups. Other times, I feel strength flowing through my veins. The immigrant that I am is learning to be resilient. Resistant. I think, because my family equipped me with a screen that protects me against harm – the immigrant’s shield. This resilience of the immigrant is embodied in a survival mode. A mode that does not take a day off. A mode that masks the pain from the outside world where I sometimes express an illusion of contentment with a forced smile. The resistance part comes in this effort to stop idealizing, and worshiping, Western ideologies. I was constantly chasing the Western dream. Chasing an imagined future. A future where people from different races and ethnicities lived in harmony. Then, my experience with Jerome showed me a dimension I refused to see in the past until it happened to me, and to my friend who was racialized in his own birth country. My imagined concept about the West started to unravel itself, especially when my husband who is a white male was pulled over for the same reason, and the police officer let us go with no issues, questions, or searched cars. What a predicament!
As I have continued questioning my harmony with the West, I’ve begun to lose sight of my native land. Am I in harmony with my native land? My shield was only a one-way ticket. My fear has become different now than the one I carried with me when I embarked on my new, Western, life; my old new life. What I did not expect is that the fear has started to take a different shape: What if my native land does not recognize me? What if my Indigenous mother tongue I’ve begun to forget does not forgive me? What if my beloved ones lose sight of me? What if my imagined dream of returning to my home finds me equally as lost as I am in my immigrant world? I was never equipped with the shield to protect me from this fear, the fear of being the stranger with the suitcase in my own native land.
When I return to Morocco, I feel like a stranger. One afternoon in my hometown, Meknes, my American husband and I were walking down the street. Suddenly, these teenage boys who heard us speak in English shouted at me: “You got lucky; you got your Green Card.” This phrase automatically made me “the other,” the Moroccan who left, but also the other who is dishonest because the only explanation of walking down the street with a white, American, male is that I am on board only to obtain my American Green Card. My ticket to the “Imagined West.” I started asking myself why the boys uttered such a phrase: Maybe these teenage boys uttered a phrase that is a product of a society that also has a fantasy of the Imagined West. The card to a better life? I am not sure if they were expressing envy or mischief. But I know that I felt as a stranger in my own land, the place I call home.
When I am back with my community in Morocco, my opinion in some instances is often insignificant. “I am an American now”, so I cannot possibly understand what is going on in my native country. I agree with that to a certain extent because I will never fully understand the experiences of my community in Morocco, as I am not physically present in the space. But, how about the twenty-seven years I spent in Morocco where I learned a great deal about life? Do they count for nothing?
As a part of reconnecting with my roots and land, I started doing research on Indigenous languages and cultural revitalization of the Amazigh people of Morocco and in the diaspora. I remember sobbing one night in my “western king bed” about the politics of identity, and how one cannot claim Indigeneity unless they live in their Indigenous land. I felt, for a second, that I had become a Westerner, and that my assimilated soul could not be rescued. I was neither American, nor Indigenous Moroccan. I did not belong anywhere. That was my fate. However, after a few months of contemplation, I decided that this is not going to be my reality. Nor does this have to be the reality of any immigrant.
As immigrants, even though we are naïve again to think that our homeland would open her arms wide to welcome us back, we did not realize that we needed to allow her time to recognize us, and to get reacquainted. Native land is like a sibling; even though you have your differences and you can argue, you can always count on each other because you love one another. Leaving our homeland to seek an imagined perfect place, means we need to accept the difficulty of return. We need to be patient. We need to allow our native land the time to accept us, and refamiliarize herself with us. We need to be gentle. We need to make a constant effort to always have her accompany us no matter where we are. Our imagined native land is a place where family, memories, traditions, songs, laughter, native language, and soil are our salvation. It will take time. We must be willing to take the risk.
Who am I? I am an immigrant. In two worlds, I am a stranger. I am not in harmony with myself. I will always be the orchestra member who is out of tune, out of sync. I struggle. I accept the struggle. I am hopeful that the imagined place of equity and justice will be reached one day. Meanwhile, as I am debating my worlds in this labyrinth of identity, I am not going to stop seeking me. This is an immigrant’s dilemma.
Dr. Mounia Mnouer is an independent scholar. She is originally from Morocco. Both her parents and their families are Indigenous people of Morocco, Imazighen. Mounia grew up in Meknes, Morocco and she identifies as Indigenous North African. She has been active in human rights’ matters, as she works with the Moroccan Organization of Human Rights. She enjoys writing poetry and creative non-fiction as a way to express her voice on current issues. Her works appeared in Spillwords, Typehouse Literary Magazine, the Metric, and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. She works on autoethnographies that pertain to Amazigh identities in the diaspora, issues of decolonization, and engaging in social justice education.