What am I, mummy?” I asked my mother once, aged five or six.
Her response was, “What do you mean, what are you?”
My family moved around a few times in the first ten years of my life. I was born in London, then when I was a few years old we relocated to Belgioioso, a town in the province of Pavia in the Lombardy region of Italy.
At the time I asked my mum that question we were living in Edinburgh and I had come home from school one day, frustrated at how unfair it was that I couldn’t be Scottish.
Or at least according to my peers, because I was born in England and my parents had accents.
She encouraged me as she always has to unpack my disappointment.
“You are what you feel. So, what do you feel?” And I replied defiantly: “Scottish!” “Scottish you are then, baby,” she said. Feeling Scottish didn’t stick — we moved back to London when I was eight.
It saddens me to admit, but growing up I oscillated between a feeling of embarrassment and burden when it came to understanding, connecting with, and communicating where I was from.
There was an added layer to the customary teenage angst I think we all experience to some extent when we’re making sense of who we are as individuals. I’m a daughter to a Lebanese mum whose father is Catholic and my mother was Greek Orthodox.
Mum is of part-French descent and suspects wider Levantine and South Asian heritage too.
My dad is from a small town in Naples called Torre Annunziata that sits at the mouth of Mount Vesuvius; historically the hub of ironwork and pasta industries, and home to UNESCO World Heritage site, Oplonti. Dad is the fourth child of eight half-siblings. He never got to know his biological father.
Both my parents found themselves in London by their late teens.
Along with the exodus of around one million other Lebanese as a result of the civil war, at the tender age of sixteen, my mum left Beirut and her broken home behind.
My dad came in 1983 just before his nineteenth birthday. Taking an unconfirmed number of trains to get here, he found himself in Piccadilly Circus with something like fifty pounds or less to his name.
He had told his family he was only going to London for three months. He’s still here. My parents met in 1985 and although they were separated by tongue, class, education, and race, they shared a sense of rootlessness and their young pain spoke the same language.
When people in the UK ask me where I’m from, what they’re usually asking, in not so many words, is what my ethnic background is.
They hear my native West London accent, then they scan my face — olive-toned with big Mediterranean features — or perhaps they’ve seen my surname that they’re hesitant to try to pronounce. I can see their expression trying to marry what they hear with what they see.
In the UK, my answer is always that I’m half Italian and half Lebanese.
I do feel different here. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s there and it’s constant. I embrace my hyphenated Italian-Lebanese identity and the elements that make me different thanks to the cultures that I move between, on an almost unconscious level.
I’ve never really registered when my parents switch between languages mid-sentence because it sounds like one to me, and I was well into my teens when I would still substitute Italian words for the times I couldn’t them in English.
I continue to eat predominantly the food of my parents’ countries because what a dire existence it would be to not eat my dad’s parmigiana and ragù, or order lahm b’ajeen (a middle eastern style pizza or meat pie) and kibbeh (fried round meat and pine nut croquette) from the Lebanese bakery.
I would choose my mum’s maqluba (an upside-down rice dish — it’s difficult to describe without doing it a huge disservice) over a roast dinner any day, and sweet black tea with ka’ak (breadsticks) comforts me more than a British brew with Digestives ever could.
Pino Daniele and Fairuz and Charles Aznavour transport me to my childhood on nights where I’d pull a stool from another room and sit with my mum in the kitchen as she played their music on tape while she washed the dishes and sang their songs.
Things like these that make me proudly Italian-Lebanese reach into me a way that I can’t describe, and I feel like I’m home.
But that notion of a home only seems to exists when I’m in the UK.
More often than not, how I present myself is dictated by the context in which I find myself and how those I around perceive me because my answer to the question “where are you from?” is in constant flux.
I learned quickly during the six months I spent studying abroad in Venice years ago that being an Italian citizen doesn’t necessarily make me Italian; being half Neapolitan makes me exactly that: half Neapolitan.
The exception to the rule, though, is when I’m in Naples.
There, I’m English because the dialect escapes me. I’m even more English in Lebanon because I can’t speak my ethnic language, and because in the eyes of the Lebanese law, my mother — being a woman — is unauthorized to pass on her nationality to me.
So when I read Justin Salhani’s words in an article for Latterly magazine, I felt them as if they were my own. He writes: “a problem many immigrants’ children face, is that they feel very connected to the country of their parent’s birth and strangers on their own, only to return to their parent’s home and realize it is not theirs.”
I am the product of two immigrants whose ties to their homelands are like old wires; their plastic cable casing frayed and the fibers inside tangled and severed.
And I have spent many years awkwardly holding the precarious wires in place, trying to find a sweet spot to preserve its life.
It’s not only within the frameworks of national identity and language barriers that my Italian-Lebanese identity has at times felt compromised.
The transnational connection I have with both of my parents’ homelands is fragile; the relationship I have with Italian communities in London is infrequent and with Lebanese ones, practically non-existent.
My parents never really facilitated the kinds of activities people do in diaspora communities, nor did I think they were happy participants in mingling with those who shared similar experiences to them.
My sister might feel differently; she is over six years younger than me and only has a recollection of London as her base with more second-generation Italian friends than I ever had who she grew up with.
But for me, some of my most uncomfortable moments growing up was this constant low-level doom, feeling like I had to justify to other second-generation Italians or Lebanese — or any immigrants’ children for that matter — why I didn’t feel that strong community connection, why I didn’t speak my parents’ language.
It was like choking up each time because I literally didn’t have the words; I never felt like one of them.
Equally as uncomfortable were the hours I’d spend looking in the mirror as a young teenager, aching to have naturally fair hair, bright blue eyes, and small, delicate features so that I could see myself in the way I saw my school friends: beautiful. I never felt like them either.
I was completely mortified at my parents’ Mediterranean eccentricities, from the lunches I brought into school, to the way they’d say my friends’ names with heavy mispronunciation, to their neurotic fixations about me wearing a vest at all times so not to ‘catch a cold on my tummy’ or my dad meeting me at my bus stop to walk me home.
Later, I grew to appreciate my chocolate hair and big, chestnut eyes, and now my biggest woman crushes include the likes of Monica
Bellucci and Salma Hayek. I also feel a real sadness at how I took my parents’ total love and adoration for my sister and me for granted.
As an adult, my frustration revolves less around being unlike others and instead peaks with eye-rolling tasks like ethnicity tick-boxes.
Like a multiple-choice test, with every paperwork comes a new selection for me to choose from.
Each time, I gravitate to the closest one of the poor options available to me, and each time it’s a constant negotiation of where I ‘fit’.
Or rather, a constant reminder that I don’t fit, anywhere.
There’s difficulty in explaining, unless intuitively understood, what it’s like to exist within the degrees of whiteness.
Because I move through my Western life so easily as a British-born and mostly bred, white, Christian-raised, “accent-less” (I’m being ironic), and devoid of any obvious marker that would place me outside of the majority, it’s always amusing to observe the reaction of different groups when they learn of my second-generation status, and in particular, towards my ‘Lebaneseness’.
What’s particularly fun for me is the total disconnect between how the Lebanese side of me is seen by Westerners, and what it means to be Lebanese for the Lebanese people that I know.
In the West, the gross homogenization of Arab identity makes being Lebanese something that’s part of a muddy, war-torn, fundamentalist much-of-a-muchness region rather than what it is: beautiful, independent, rich, multifaceted, complex, and nuanced.
Often I’m confronted with a strange assumption, usually generalized, about what that part of me means to others. I’ve been on the receiving end of: “Oh, but you’re not like most Arabs”; “Did your mum convert to Christianity when she met your dad?”; “What is Lebanon?”; “You’re not really Arabic though, you’re white”; “You’re not really an Arab though, you’re Phoenician” to name just a few.
Not long ago during a lunch-and-learn talk, I attended at work on the topic of race, I shared a story about what race means to me.
I had mentioned that we lived in Edinburgh, but it merely served as a backdrop to the story.
A white male colleague interjected, laughing, with complete disregard for what I had shared to ask: “What were you all doing in Scotland? Seems like a bizarre choice that an Italian-Lebanese family would live there”.
I’m not sure if there was malice or cruel intent to what he said, but still, I found myself taken aback.
What did he mean by ‘what were we doing there?’ and what relevance did that have to anything I was saying? If anything, he was proving the point I was making whether he was aware of it or not.
Because there’s a subtext to every quasi-racially-insulting comment people make when they share their thoughts about my Lebaneseness, my belonging.
Once, a barista from the north of Italy tried to explain to my mum that being married to a Neapolitan isn’t being married to an Italian, because to use his words,
Neapolitans are “like filthy Arabs”.
He didn’t know that my mum was Lebanese at this point, and she enjoyed humiliating him in front of his customers telling him of the multiple ways in which he had insulted her by his racist remarks.
He apparently waited outside his coffee shop every day with a takeaway cappuccino for her as she walked passed most mornings on her way to work.
She declined each time and never returned to his shop.
On the flip side of the coin, growing up seeing how the Lebanese I know identify themselves while picking up on the tensions that exist within the diaspora was a completely different experience to the kinds I shared above. You may or may not have noticed that I first described my mum as a Lebanese Christian.
It’s never really something we preface here in the West — your faith alongside your nationality — but sectarian affiliations form the separation terms of so many Lebanese, including immigrants, and their experiences shape the kind of relationship they’ve had integrating with Lebanese communities in their host countries.
There is no such umbrella for the Lebanese in Lebanon, just generations of people who have been conditioned to see differences between them; differences great enough to sustain a fifteen-year war against one another.
I guess things aren’t too dissimilar in Italy: a regional country defined by their regional borders.
No war, though, just prejudice that continues to bubble away under the surface.
Yet both countries are breathtakingly beautiful with their rich histories and ongoing vibrance; and their people and culture are gifts that keep on giving.
It’s no wonder that my parents are in themselves of their homelands but also disconnected from them too.
As I got older, the feeling of not belonging became less of a burden, and less of me trying to work through how I’m perceived by others. I don’t long to be anything or anyone other than who I am.
That’s the beauty of a coming-of-age of sorts, and why I’ve never understood people who pine after their adolescence — ‘the best years’ of their life — I couldn’t think of anything worse.
Other than the limitations of ethnicity drop-down options, my feelings towards identity aren’t what they once were; they’ve evolved.
Now, my patchwork background is like a rare treasure.
My diverse parentage has afforded me the privilege of floating; it has facilitated a kind of communion with people all of creeds and cultures, and it continues to teach me the beauty of difference but more poignantly, of connection and of solidarity.
And while I’ve never known what it’s like feel wholly anything, like I belonged anywhere, that I was like anyone, I no longer think that’s in any way a problem.
I’ve reframed that sense of loss within myself to see it as something gorgeous — a growing consciousness. Leaning into the discomfort of every reflection on who I am has taught me that attaching myself to an external, definitive ‘thing’ is not only a farce but also sacrifices my power as an individual.
I’m thinking about who I am in a completely different way — as part of evolution and that I belong to one thing only: me.
A complex, layered, changing, flowering, loving, whole being with so much more to give and so many more ways connect with others than simply through identity politics.
So here’s to unbelonging, and honoring all the pieces that make me who I am.