On Finding Identity (Or Having It Find You)

photo credit: Edie Skeard

photo credit: Edie Skeard

Like most people, I had an identity crisis in my late teens to early twenties. The question haunted me for years: who am I and what is my place in the world?

Finding an answer wasn’t easy - mainly because I didn’t know where to start, but also because I had a lingering fear that I might never find out, or might not like what I found. What if, I thought to myself, I got so caught up in life and got too busy to resolve these important existential questions, only to be haunted with them again in retirement when it was too late?

Then came grade 12 English class where, lo and behold, our teacher announced to us that we would be spending the entire semester exploring concepts of identity. So, I basically had to face my demons and figure out exactly who I was.

I was certainly human, female, and Muslim. My roles at that time included, daughter, sister, friend. Career wasn’t figured out yet, so that was a huge question mark. And because I was born in Algeria, but lived in Canada, in an in-between, close-knit Arab-Muslim community, culture was what I struggled with the most. Especially since, post-9/11, the world seemed to tell me, yell at me, that I could not be Muslim and Canadian at the same time. Those identities were too contradictory, too controversial to be looped into one package.

My Muslim identity was here to stay. I was born Muslim, to two very loving and devout parents. I attended an Islamic school for all my elementary and high school life. Growing up, my friends were exclusively Musim, and even now, most of my closest friends are Muslim. We connected on more than just faith, but on a subtle, unsaid understanding that we were all on the same boat. Neither here nor there, we were different enough (from what we considered to be the “average Canadian”) to be interesting but similar enough not to be foreign. We would never be accepted as fully Canadians, nor were we exclusively Arab. We were hybrids. We were mixies. We were third-culture kids. And we had to stick together. Nobody else would understand the struggles of trying to hold down two geographies. No one could fully appreciate the struggles and inside jokes of being a minority, the only hijabi in a room, the Canadian-perceived-foreigner who got asked by random strangers if she spoke English, or how long she was here, or where she was really from.

Grade 12 English progressed and our teacher pushed us to reflect on our short lives thus far to find our identities. She told us to explore our Canadian-ness and asked us at what point in our lives we felt the most Canadian. The summer of my grade 11 year, my family and I went on a trip to Algeria to visit my extended family. It was not my first time there, but I was old enough at that point to understand what was going on around me, had experienced xenophobia and Islamophobia to some degree, and knew that not everyone thought I belonged to the country I spent most of my life. And so, I was looking forward to the trip, to be “home” again, to blend in and not be so different. Not having lived in Algeria since I was four, save for small pockets of summer vacation, I learned quickly that I was very different from the average Algerian. I talked different. I behaved differently. I had different fashion tastes, different food preferences, different understandings of social norms and etiquettes. I even wore my hijab differently! Algeria was foreign to me, and I was foreign to Algeria. A few weeks into the vacation and I decided I did not belong in Algeria either. I was ready to go back “home,” back to familiarity, and probably for the first time, I felt Canadian.

My struggle with identity has taught me many things. Identity can change and new layers will emerge and dissipate with certain events. Your identity is multifaceted - you don’t have to just one thing, in fact you can’t be. You are a complex, multi-layered, multi-dimensional, messy being on the quest to self-discovery.  Certain aspects of your identity will dominate at certain points of your life, usually when those parts are threatened or agitated (think about how much more Canadian you feel when you travel abroad). Parts of your identity are waiting to be built, and parts of it will always be there, waiting to be realized. Finally, you discover, build and accept your identity and then present it to everyone else (not the other way around).

Last year, as a fresh graduate with big dreams but no prospects, I was forced, possibly for the first time in my life to make my first major decision: what to do with the rest of my life. Like the internal war I had waged for years with my identity, another war, a much scarier one began: facing The Real World. For the first time in a long time, I had so much time to myself, and so many questions and possibilities about my future. I needed to narrow down and focus, so I decided to try Warren Buffett’s life prioritization technique (which I highly recommend): you write down 25 life goals, circle your top 5, and discard the rest (as in avoid them at all costs until you finish your top five). My fifth goal was to bridge the east and the west. A lofty lifetime goal, indeed, but one I felt I needed to share with the world. Within myself, I felt I could reconcile my “Western” and “Eastern” identities. They did not have to fight or argue, they were finally at peace, and I thought to myself, wouldn’t the world be such a wonderful place if everyone else could see that too.

Sahar Khelifa is an urban planner, tree lover and hobby artist.