The reality of raising a family abroad was like a distant dream that suddenly came true. My husband and I packed up our life in Pennsylvania in 2008 and headed to Yemen to study Arabic and Qur’an. A year later, we relocated to Algeria to teach English and found ourselves on the cusp of parenthood. We scrambled to find an opportunity in the Arab world where one income would suffice. Between an offer in Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman, we chose the latter and so the recently unknown to us country became our daughter’s first home.
Initially, life in Oman was idyllic. We lived in a peaceful Muslim land where prayer and piety were mainstays in the societal landscape. Our neighbours were warm and curious. We felt safe and secure. Children played freely in the streets and walked to school bus stops alone without fear or harassment. Modern amenities like reliable internet, garbage collection, and postal services were accessible and mostly efficient. We were regularly assumed to be Omanis and had enough language skills to converse and make friends. Our new land seemed to suit us well, but we quickly learned that finding a home for our unconventional family wouldn’t be easy.
As my pregnancy progressed, I was initially comforted by the thought of giving birth in a Muslim country. I imagined myself surrounded by caring, professional women who revered the miracle of birth and respected the rights of women in their charge. I could already hear their reassuring words encouraging me in labour, interspersed with the praise of Allah and acceptance of His decree. I saw myself supported through a homebirth much like Omani women of the past, but with professional midwives and birth attendants. I looked forward to having my modesty safeguarded and body protected. Instead, I found myself in a hospital rushed through an assembly line of birthing women attended to by mostly foreign midwives and doctors. With only calculated time allowance for each stage of labour, they were eager to intervene, poke, and cut. I felt less than sacred in their care. My husband and I had to defend our decision for a natural, un-medicated birth. So much so that before I could even lift myself from the delivery table, the doctor told me, “You read too much.”
After my post-partum recovery, I focused my attention on getting to know my neighbours. I was carefully conscious about blending in, so I donned the black abaya daily and learned the pleasantries of colloquial Arabic. I did my best to observe local customs of hospitality but, I couldn’t hide my daughter. All of our lifestyle choices became evident in her presence. From her unpierced ears to her chunky, cloth-diapered bum tucked in a sling wrap, our daughter didn’t assimilate as easily as I could. Though I wanted to be a gracious guest in a foreign land, I couldn’t consent to the MSG-laden chips and artificially coloured candies they offered my child. Nor was I fond of the overstimulating television programmes that young children were commonly placed in front of. At times, our child rearing habits seemed to clash in our new community and we wondered how our daughter would feel as a child of misfits.
Watching our little flower grow in the desert, we worried that she would feel out of place, but we neglected to realize just how deeply she absorbed the landscape of Oman into her being. From her car seat she would contentedly gaze out of the window watching the sun set in peachy hues over the endless mountain range and the vast, arid expanse. Many saw our small town of Nizwa as dry and desolate, but for her it was enriching and orienting. Our simple days passed peacefully with comforting predictability. The sun almost always shined intensely, tanning her caramel skin. Elders passing by greeted her warmly and gave her a parting treat or a few bills of spending money. The abundant date palms showered us every summer with ripened fruit, plump and sweet. Though I always noticed the curious stares her braided hairstyles garnered or the silent disapproval of how we raise our daughter, Oman was still her home – no matter how far we were from her Afro-Caribbean and Black American roots.
Our next destination brought us closer to home both figuratively and literally. We charted our path westward to North Africa with the Atlantic Ocean as the only expanse between us and our American family members. Though we’re not aware of ancestral roots connecting us to Morocco specifically, we were still in the motherland. The faces around us were many shades including our own. We were prepared to try out the traditional dress of hooded robes and pointed slippers but, alas, our stay was cut short before we could really comprehend the post-colonial culture. We struggled to understand how Moroccan youth identified themselves as native Francophones and distanced themselves from being African. At times, xenophobia reared its ugly head when we were mistaken for West Africans. Feeling more like Manhattan than Morocco, our daughter felt overwhelmed by Casablanca’s panhandling, volatile tempers, and filthy urban streets. She acutely described the city as making her tired and we were too.
A more stable and suitable opportunity for our family arose in Turkey and here we are. The capital city where we live is mostly functional, orderly, and clean. We were daunted by leaving the Arabic-speaking world and standing out amongst mostly cream and olive-skinned complexions but in all honesty, life here hasn’t been bad for us. Regardless of our colour, people treat us with a curiosity that is respectful and hospitality that is sincere. We are learning Turkish at a snail’s pace, but we are motivated by the kind people we are connecting to. We have been warmly welcomed in this Mediterranean land and can entertain the possibility of staying.
As for our daughter, it’s hard to know what her birthplace will mean to her in the future. She is developing an eclectic sense of herself that occasionally peppers conversation with a British accent, sings Islamic songs in Arabic while she plays, combines Brooklyn hipster fashion with traditional Moroccan garbs, and is developing a taste for Turkish cuisine. As she grows older, she finds ways to identify different cultures and pick which aspects to assimilate as her own. Perhaps the significance of where she is from and where she is will constantly vie for relevance in her life. Maybe she will have to connect the many dots of her experiences to know that she is truly global.
Our life abroad continually teaches us that irrespective of where we live, we are a family and we create home wherever we reside. There is no vacant home or apartment awaiting us anywhere. Home is where we are. We strive to make every resting place inviting, rejuvenating, and nurturing. We begin and end our days with warm hugs, prayers, and positive affirmations. We prepare nutritious meals with love and conscience. We share our day’s reflections over dinner in the evenings and make internet calls to our families on the weekends. This is our home life. Regardless of the country boundaries we find ourselves within, we have a responsibility to seek and gather the best material available around us to create a nest worth calling home.
This essay was originally published in SISTERS Magazine.