Where are you from from?

(This article was originally commissioned and published by The Metro)


It’s Friday night and I’m on a late train home from Birmingham to London. The carriage is full of tired faces and drunken slurs. Commuters trying to ease the work week off them while others choose to drink it down them in cans of Fosters that they’ve bought just for the journey. There are two white men sitting opposite me and they are strange spots of paleness among a sea of colour. For once, most of us are black and brown, our skin shinning against bright outfits and the green and red hijabs the group of Muslim women behind me are wearing. The two Englishmen have found themselves suddenly in Africa. Nigeria to the right of them, Sudan to the left, and I, Egypt in front of them.

They are loud and drunk. Crushing cans of beer in between conversation no one wants to have. They interrupt us time and time again. Nigeria tells them where he’s from and they talk about jerk chicken. Say they get it from Tesco. Sudan tells them where they’re from but the see headscarves and hear only Muslim. They joke about the Taliban and ask what ISIS really want. I exchange looks with the women and we roll eyes together, our silence an entire language. They ask me where I’m from and I curtly reply ‘London’. The colour of my skin doesn’t look like London and they insist; ‘no, where are you from from’. I tell them I’m half Egyptian half Irish and they roar loudly in appreciation. Tell me how exotic I am. Ask if I’ve ridden a camel. Say that I’m a ‘good looking lass’ and I see the fantasy in their eyes. They see the anger in mine and call me ‘feisty’. Say they like feisty women. I am too tired and too alone so I say nothing and bow my head back to my book.

The journey continues in this way. Us trying to mind our business, them constantly and aggressively trying to pull the words from us. Over the course of the journey we are rebranded, labelled something new. Terrorist. Exotic. Foreign. We get off the train with new names we never asked for and identities that have been given to us. I want to tell them that my label is writer. Poet. Feminist Freedom fighter. Those are the names and labels I wear on my chest with pride. Instead, I’m now part of a terrorist group they are afraid of, but a woman they will fantasise over late at night when the alcohol has dried up and the music has stopped playing.  

That’s the things with labels. They are wonderful and empowering when you’re the one choosing them. They are an opportunity to be a new person, become a different human and grow into yourself in diverse ways. They’re refreshing and rejuvenating. They can become a rallying cry and your own shout for independence and freedom. They are in essence, you crafting your own identity and image. They can be really beautiful things, however, the minute you’re excluded from the process of choosing your label is the same instant they transform into something else completely. They become heavy and distorted, a yolk around your neck that changes the person you are and even the direction your life can take.

At various intervals I have been given the label terrorist, exotic, sinner, extremist, oriental, Jihadi and fanatic. They have been placed upon me and in doing so have begun to frame my narrative for me, completely cutting me out of the conversation. It’s an uncomfortable sensation to be spoken about in a way that misrepresents you yet knowing there isn’t much you can do to change the story being told. I often think back to that train ride and the shared glances of exasperation that passed between us all and how frustrating it was for everyone, not only that our journeys were being interrupted by two men who lacked any cultural awareness, but more so because our identities were being framed in ways that were not true to any of us. We had been reduced to labels. We’d become nothing more than caricatures of communities or problems that exist, our humanness erased in just a few bawdy jokes and some drunken laughter. We had all become something that we were not, and that’s one of the biggest dangers with labelling other people. Rarely will you get it right and the most you’ll do is erase their own ability to tell their story because you’re insisting on telling it for them. It’s time we remember that we are the only people who have a right to tell our stories and labels will only ever work when you’ve assigned them to yourself. 


Salma El-Wardany