Sunday, August 17, 2008

about ISA

this is me, mohamad. 2008. i wanted to interrupt for a bit. a little hindsight i'd like to share. about something that came up in passing in my previous post, but should be addressed. it's about ISA, my old school.

honestly, i hesitated in hyperlinking to ISA's wikipedia page. even mentioning the school entirely. but i did. it's not that i think the wikipedia page is biased. though most everything about the school in the news, from 2001 through today, has been (see the "Controversy" or "References" sections in ISA's wikipedia entry). not just biased... but xenophobic, at best. and, at worst, racist. i guess that's why i wasn't sure if i wanted to go there.

in fact, i wasn't even sure if it was an important part of this story... of my being in cameroon. of peace and freedom. and of presence. but it actually is. much of this is about how "an Arab Muslim boy who grew up in America came to understand himself (and the world) more fully in Central Africa," right? well, ISA is a big part of how this Arab Muslim boy grew up in America.

it's interesting to note, if it hasn't already become an obvious theme, that one of my struggles in cameroon was coming to terms with my American identity. i remember thinking, during training in Babadjou, that i'd never felt as American in my life as i did in cameroon. somehow i'd taken that for granted growing up in America, even in my cross-cultural bubble of a school (see our curriculum)... and even through 4 years of college and a couple years of work in the US. it wasn't until i really had to deal with a 3rd culture in my life – cameroonian – that this became most apparent.

in some ways, i was more like a cameroonian than an american... especially if those cameroonians happened to be muslim. but even if they weren't, many of my cameroonian friends and colleagues noticed these similarities. particularly when my very arab mother came to visit. but both they and i also noticed that, in many more ways, i was unlike them (and my mother, for that matter) and more like my american compatriots. this was my arab muslim american hybrid identity. contrapuntal, as Edward Said so melodically put it.

but back to ISA... the cultural bubble where – though they didn't teach us music, much to my younger brother Offendum's offense – one or two of the independent melodic lines of my contrapuntal perspective (the arab muslim, that is) were nurtured. the only thing that was (is?) really wrong with ISA, as far as i was concerned, was that it didn't explicitly teach this arab muslim boy that he was also growing up american. because he was.

so i had to wait to learn that – i mean really learn that – in cameroon. in many ways, and in hindsight, i'm thankful for that delay. thankful b/c now i get to tell this story... and b/c i'm really happy with where this story is taking me. so i give thanks.


  1. since i used the word "racist" in this post, allow me to share this (my brother Offendum sent it to me):

    How To Tell People They Sound Racist

    You gotta use some strategery, indeed.

    salaam :)

  2. mohamad, though you address the cultural/race/religious aspects of your identity in relation to cameroonians, do you feel any of your american identity that stood out in cameroon was rooted in class/wealth? did any of them comment on your mother’s ability to afford multiple flights to visit you and all the gifts she brought you? did this give them the impression that all americans can afford these things? i’m not pointing a finger, just asking your thoughts on yet another perspective on identity with a 1st world vs. 3rd world context (using those condescending descriptors for lack of a better term). thanks.

  3. good questions, ellen. thanks! the answer is yes, of course. i did stand out, often quite STARKLY, on issues of wealth. there are a few layers to this...

    1st... the mere fact that america can send its citizens halfway across the world - not to mention fly them back a couple of times for health issues, as i was - says something about power and wealth.

    2nd... there i was, young and single, living in a BIG house by myself. and with a volunteer 'stipend' so small it couldn't be taxed in the US, yet big enough in cameroon that it allowed me to live more than just comfortably. this may have meant less interacting with civil servants (including teachers) in wum, but meant a lot when interacting with my neighbors, who lived much more simply.

    3rd... and your questions raise this issue, is diversity amongst volunteers. i'm quite aware of the fact that not all volunteers come from a position of wealth in the US. but then they find themselves wealthy in relation to cameroonians.

    and though it isn't blatant, class and wealth differences do appear again amongst volunteers. particularly when it comes to travel during vacations, having family members come visit and any other personal expenses (e.g. fancy furniture, fridge, computer...) that a peace corps stipend wouldn't cover.

    finally, a good friend and fellow volunteer in cameroon actually helped fund her host-sisters' (who moved in with her after training) food, housing and school-fees from her peace corps stipend. not sure if she used any of her personal finances to do so, but it shows how far that stipend (and volunteer caritas) can go.

    thanks for asking, ellen! :)

  4. (American) "Where are you from?"
    (Me) "Southern California"
    (American) "No, where are you reeeeeeally from?"
    (Me) "Well I was born and raised in Orange County"
    (American) "No no no, where are your parentssss from?"
    I have had these exchanges so frequently, it becomes wearing after a while. No matter how American I feel, i really never feel that I will be accepted as American because I look different than what is considered to be "American" and I follow a faith that is often marginalized in this country. I mean really, have you ever really felt 100% accepted here? I remember even as a kid, being one of the only Arab kids at my school, constant comments from parents/teachers/ students about my year-round tan. Taking every opportunity to point out how different I was from everyone else made me feel unsettled/insecure/ from an early age...
    I can honestly say that though I have never really felt accepted here, this is still home...when I am abroad, I miss it terribly. A love- hate relationship if you will...I guess when you stick out in some ways, whether here or in West Africa, you are forced to form an identity, to figure out who you are, what you stand for...
    thanks mohamad for opening this topic up...

  5. thanks for sharing rima! one thought comes to me mind in response. Edward Said writes, in his Reflections on Exile:

    There is a particular sense of achievement in acting as if one were at home wherever one happens to be.

    ...both the new and the old environments are vivid, actual, occurring together contrapuntally.

    so the "contrapuntal" (i.e. with 2 or more independent but harmonious melodic lines) perspective that feeling at home (or not) in more than one place affords is itself very insightful and valuable.

    in the end... i think we all experience some form of exile (and this includes the implications of a multi-cultural identity), regardless. Imam Ali says faqd al-ahibaa'i ghurba, "loss of loved ones is exile." again, depending on who the Beloved is, we are all in exile.

    salaam :)

  6. IMAGE: my 8th grade class photo, from ISA... i'm the sharp looking chap standing at the very left of the 2nd row from the bottom.

    peace 8)