Why must I choose an identity?

By Sandy Rashty, May 10, 2012

'So where are you from," she asked. "London," I responded. "No, 'originally' from?" "My parents are from Iraq," I submitted.

Not the average exchange between chatting females in public loos, but this lady was set on decoding my ethnic background, rather than borrowing a lipstick.

I met 'Loo Lady' at Shakespeare's Globe, during a break in the West Bank-based Ashtar Theatre's performance of Richard II, performed entirely in Palestinian Arabic.

Loo Lady was not the first to be stumped by me - the British-born daughter of Iraqi Jews. Before she uncovered "who I was", she mistook my Arab features for allegiance, and my sneer for a smile, as she passionately cheered the "Palestinian cause".

Among friends, I'm famous for such encounters, and for challenging people's reluctance to accept that the 'Arab' and 'Jewish' communities can have anything in common. At Birmingham University, I had countless encounters with cabbies who would lecture me on Middle Eastern politics. "It was the West that murdered Saddam, he was a great leader," said one driver. I replied that I couldn't agree since countless Iraqi people - my Jewish grandfather included - were tortured under Hussein's rule.

She began applauding my Iraqi background

First he laughed at my warped sense of humour. There were no Jews in Iraq, he told me confidently, rolling his eyes. My serious face stunned him into silence. Angry silence. He didn't talk for the rest of the journey.

My background has given me a particular perspective on the Middle East; one more dimension to add to the average left or right political spectrum. In a way, I've found it easy to interact with both communities, especially since I spent half my life growing up in Edgware Road's 'Little Beirut' and the other at the heart of North London's Orthodox Jewish community.

Granted, I'm able to read Hebrew better than I can speak it and my Arabic accent offends my maternal grandma no end. I was once given an Arabic name by an imam who considered mine too western, while on another occasion I was told off by a rabbi who considered my multi-coloured nails problematic for the same reason. In my life, the cultural boundary-crossing is there.

It frustrates me then, when activists in search of a cause - in my experience, often frizzy-haired academics - use cultural boycotts to disperse an inaccurate 'them and us' mentality that inhibits any relationship between the communities. Sue Blackwell, an enthusiastic supporter of a boycott of Israel, is one example. She was also my frizzy-haired university tutor.

My memories of Sue are hazy - classes before 11am are rarely appealing to students - but one sticks out. Called into her office, she began applauding my Iraqi background (not the Jewish part, I regretfully failed to disclose) and handed me a theatre flyer promoting the Palestinian plight. I never went back.

My days of meeting boycott-friendly folk were not over, as I discovered at the Globe during a post-performance discussion with Ashtar members. The actors I had enthusiastically applauded on stage appeared now as petulant children calling on the audience to boycott Israel's Habima Theatre. They championed the opportunity to deny Habima the chance of performance they had labelled "a basic human right" only ten minutes before.

Controlled breathing exercises were required as I grew increasingly frustrated at the use of theatre to promote division. It came in stark contrast to MuJu's performance at the Tricycle Theatre last month. A close friend performed with MuJu, which "brings Muslims and Jews together through a shared passion for creating art". He told me that as they discussed eating habits, family politics, relationship strategies and a mutual love of shwarma, the actors were shocked to find they had more in common than apart.

The differences between us are plenty but the cultures are similar. The alliance of Moors and Jews during the Spanish Inquisition is a far cry from the political alienation between the communities today.

Loo Lady washed her hands and left. In hindsight, I should have told her that the situation is not black or white; that you can be Jewish and Arab, that there is more than one story and that it would be better for everyone if we took the time to listen - in the toilets, on stage or anywhere else.

Last updated: 7:23pm, May 10 2012