In 2013, I was visiting family in New Zealand when, for reasons I can’t recall, a window in our house cracked. The window had a cat door attached to it that was also damaged. Since I was there on holiday and everyone else was working, I took on the responsibility of getting it fixed.
The handy man arrived before lunch and I realized less than a minute after showing him the window that this wasn’t going to be a simple operation. The handy man was a talker.
While working, he complained about the weather, his wife’s thoughts on Oprah Winfrey, his daughter’s upcoming wedding and his childhood living in the South Island on a farm. The man didn’t even take a breath between subjects and contrary to modern belief, he was a great multi-tasker. I couldn’t have been more grateful when the house phone rang. I spoke to my mother no more than a few minutes and when I hung up, the handy man was quick to ask,
‘What language was that?’
‘Arabic,’ I said.
‘Oh yeah, where are you from?’
‘Iraq,’ I said.
‘Yeah? So, what are you? Sunni or Shia?’
I was shocked. Here I was in New Zealand, one of the least political countries in the world, having a conversation with a man who, according to him, didn’t complete his high school education, had never left the country and preferred to watch ‘Top Gear’ instead of ‘all that rubbish’ on the news. And yet, he assumed because I was Arab, speaking Arabic that I was Muslim and then asked me one of the most polarizing, politically divisive and awkwardly inappropriate questions.
Deceptively simple as it may be, the question is anything but simple. It would have been easy to say to the handy man from my perspective, that the issue of sectarianism in Islam and generally the Arab world, is redundant. I consider myself a well-educated Arab, but I’d never been aware of the issues pertaining to sectarianism in Islam or the Arab world until my early twenties. Where I grew up and how I was raised, different sects and religions intermingled and intermarried. I can accept though, that my worldview might be a privileged one.
The issue of sect or religion never affected me personally until the last ten years. And by ‘affect’ I mean that the topic has been in the forefront of trying to label and frame the Middle East in the media, causing me to look at sectarianism in Islam and the Arab world from a universal perspective. Unfortunately for many living in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries in the Middle East the issue isn’t an intellectual one, but one that determines how and if they live.