Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Canadians of the UAE: Meet Hala Khalaf

Hala, Alana and Mr T.
Meet Hala Khalaf, a writer who has lived in the UAE for seven years.

"I’ve never felt more Canadian than I do living right here in the UAE. I acquired Canadian citizenship as a teenager living in London, Ontario, after having grown up in three different Arab countries before that. Then, after university, I left Canada - more than 13 years ago - and I’ve only been back “home” to Ontario for short visits. When I’m asked where I’m from, I didn’t always identify as a Canadian immediately.

That all changed, living in the UAE. Calling this place a melting pot is no idle cliche: I’ve lost count of how many nationalities I’ve encountered in this transient place that attracts all sorts, from all over the world. And where you’re from has a lot to do with your passport - it’s your form of identity here, it’s where your residence visa is placed. You’re always filling forms requiring you to state your nationality, and here, I’m Canadian.

It helps provide me with a sense of community. I get excited when I run into fellow Canadians, whether they left Canada yesterday or 15 years ago. I rejoiced with every single Canadian in the country when Tim Horton’s opened in Dubai.
There is no question that I want my daughter to be Canadian. Her mom is a Palestinian-Syrian with a Jordanian passport, her father is Lebanese-Pakistani, and our current home is in the UAE. She needs to have one place that would always be home, a grounded identity to always fall back on, and Canada makes sense to me - it was home. Now we’re working hard on moving to Ontario and creating a life for ourselves there, so that my daughter can grow up to truly identify as a Canadian.
It will mean a whole new life for my husband, an experience he cannot yet imagine. I tell him he will start feeling like a Canadian in no time - it’s the kind of country that embraces you, the kind of place you WANT to belong to. It’s hard for him to understand what I mean, because in our experience, home is practically a foreign concept. We grew up to feel we belong nowhere - that was definitely the case for me until I became a Canadian. He was born and raised in the UAE, but he is not Emirati. He doesn’t identify as a Lebanese either - he had only been on two short visits to the country - and he doesn’t identify as a Pakistani, save for the passport he holds. My situation is similar: I have a Jordanian passport, but in Jordan, I am of Palestinian origin. I haven’t lived there in years, and would never want to live there again, so it feels strange calling myself Jordanian.

Believing myself to be Canadian, and thinking of Canada as the home that we will eventually return to after being in the UAE - the home where we will raise our daughter and make a rooted life for ourselves - is my way of overcoming this identity crisis. And meanwhile, I live here in the UAE, a country that I have grown to love, and feel more Canadian than ever.

Full disclosure: Hala Khalaf is a friend of mine and a former colleague at The National who now freelances. I absolutely adore her and that's why I wanted to have her as the first in my series "Canadians of the UAE". In an interesting twist, I met Hala back in 2008 in the course of researching an article about whether mahrams (companions - in the form of father, brother or uncle - for single women) were becoming less prescribed in Islam. Hala had a blog and was complaining about the reaction of people in Amman, Jordan to the fact that she was leaving for a new job in Abu Dhabi. It turns out her new job was in Abu Dhabi, at - you guessed it - The National. And that is one of the first times that I realised just how truly small this world is."

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