Post-Brexit, a New Fight for Identity

By Nasri Atallah
08 October 2018
Britain, Feature, First Person
Illustration by Aisté Stancikaité
Increasingly, British Arabs are being told to ‘go home’ but what should they do when they're already there?

I must have been about 10 the first time someone told me to “go home”. I was speaking to my mum in broken London-raised Arabic in a shopping centre, and an angry woman sidled up to us and just shouted it. I wasn’t entirely sure what had happened, but I could read in my mum’s face that it wasn’t something pleasant. Not that I had any notion of where “home” was anyway.

It seemed an odd request. I knew where my bedroom was – was that home? Later, my mum would tell me this was one of many such interactions my parents had to endure as Arabs arriving in the UK at the tail-end of the ’70s. They regularly received mail addressed to Mr and Mrs “Ayatollah”. I’m still unsure as to whether this was some hardcore trolling, or just the result of ’80s Britain figuring that one word from the ‘Orient’ was enough to keep track of.

The Britain I came of age in was very different. At 14, when I eventually left London for Beirut with my parents, New Labour was sweeping the country. This wasn’t thick-grey-carpet Britain, it was hardwood floors: Oasis were drinking at 10 Downing Street. And whenever I came back over the following 20 years, Britain still felt like it was open to the world. People stopped shouting “go home”. For a while.

In many ways, that changed on the morning of June 24, 2016 when 52 percent of the British electorate decided to leave the EU. Part of the kind of multilingual metropolitan elite that has become reviled (openly) in the last few years, I was brought up in a French school in London. Being Francophone and Francophile, Arab and British always meant that I never really felt at home anywhere.

I later found out this was an intentional strategy: My parents wanted to spare me attachment to a place I’d inevitably be torn away from, like they had been. The result was that I never knew where to go back to when it was shouted at me. I had settled on home being somewhere along the hyphen in my British-Lebanese identity. The entirety of the European Union was my hyphen. And it all fell away on an otherwise normal Friday morning.

Later that summer, I was on the bus back from work. A man got on board and decided to squeeze next to me, his supermarket haul rubbing up against mine on the floor. Unprompted, he asked where I was from. And for the first time in a very long time, this didn’t feel innocent and curious – it felt accusatory.

“Why should I tell you where I’m from?” I snapped, surprised at how defensive I’d become. Something had changed.

Last year, during an otherwise delightful dinner party, the subject of Brexit came up. I mentioned that I’d felt an unease since the vote, a more brazen attitude to casual racism across the country. Since Trump’s election in the US, there had been some validation of this as a global counter-cultural moment. A fellow dinner guest, who had up until that point been the kind of shaggy-haired Tesla-driving plastic-straw-hating progressive I’d expect to find in my clueless bit of London, told me he voted Leave and that racism was all in my head. To him, there was no racism. I told him I’d been told to “go get raped by ISIS” on a recent night out in North London – that didn’t leave much to the imagination. “In your head,” he insisted.

In the two years since the vote, freedom of information requests revealed that the UK has seen the highest spike in racial and religious hate crimes ever recorded. Even in parliament, the current news cycle is dominated by accusations of anti-semitism against the Labour party and Islamophobia against the Tories. Maybe it’s not in my head after all.
I started having panic attacks on public transport. I started going to therapy. The world around me felt unwelcoming. I felt everyone’s gaze on me. That much was in my head.

But there’s something else that’s in my head, too: it’s the decision to no longer let anyone decide whether I’m actually British enough. Emboldened by the voices of other people who have been made to feel unwelcome for too long, I’m resolutely determined to make that decision for myself. Here and now, I decide what my Britishness looks like. Even if it is only in my head.

Nasri Atallah is a London-based writer.

From the October issue of GQ Middle East