A while ago, I was meeting an English friend for coffee. I mean, it was, very possibly, sometime in the beginning of October. We were chatting about plans for winter, plans for Christmas, whether we were staying in Doha or going home, when I asked her if she had finished her Christmas shopping already.
Well, yes, I am almost done, T responded and I chocked on my drink.
I was, naturally, being sarcastic. But I should have known. T is extremely organised.
Now, we are at the end of November. And, do I even need to say that I have not started any Christmas shopping yet?
But, in my defense…
There are a few excuses I can choose from.
First of all, just like with pretty much everything else, I have to be in the mood. And how do you try and get in the Christmas mood in the Middle East?
We spent last two Christmases in Doha. I was a bit unsure at first. Every single Christmas ever since I’d got married, we spent in my in-laws house, where everything was prepared, cooked and decorated; and I just had to show up and enjoy. (Not bad, eh?) What if I could not re-create the proper atmosphere for my kids here, in sunny Doha?
I did my best. I made sure I decorated the house as well as I could. From an American friend, I picked up a hint on how to brine and roast a very tasty turkey, from an Irish one-how to cook a fantastic ham a la Nigella Lawson; and from an Italian one I got a fabulous Tiramisu recipe. My big girl sang in a choir and we attended a tree lightning ceremony in a hotel, and the Carols singing in the British embassy, with mulled wine and mince pies…It was all great. Yet , it just did not feel like proper Christmas to me. All my attempts seemed a little unnatural. Just like those of the local shops right now, with their snow flakes and winter coats in the window displays, trying to convince us all it is winter outside. But then (and this is my second excuse…) I reminded myself that I am, after all, not from the country that celebrates Christmas. Maybe that is why it feels like I am just playing the game.
I was listening to a Russian song this morning, for a change. The rainy morning made me a bit nostalgic so I put it on. It was Zemfira’s Don’t let go.
And I thought, as I sang along, that the melody was very Russian.
‘Listen, I just realised something important’, I told my friend afterwards. 'I don’t think I am Azeri?! OK, I am technically Azeri, but really, deep inside, culturally, I am probably Russian.'
She laughed. ‘If I did not know you better’, she said, ‘I would have thought you were constantly on dope, the stuff you come up with!’ But she knew what I was on about. She pointed out that, compared to real Russians, I was not Russian.
The truth is, of course, is that I am an odd product of a bizarre, complicated cocktail of cultures mixed up in the pre and post Soviet eras, that leaves me unclear about what I am. And removes, in huge chunks, the sense of belonging anywhere in particular.
Do you not think though, I asked my friend, that people like us, you and me, who don’t quite belong to their own culture for various reasons, are more adaptable to other cultures? Are we more flexible, because of that? Is that why we find it easy to live abroad, in places that are very different to our homes, like Qatar? And not constantly moan and whine about it like many other expats we know? Is this why we marry into completely different cultures, and adapt easily, raising our children celebrating Christmas, brining Turkeys and filling stockings when we were never brought up to do it?
So really, it isn't that bad. And I don’t really mind not belonging anywhere properly. But, this year, I decided to take my children back to the UK for Christmas. Back to their roots. Back to their country. Where the air is chilly and fresh and filled with the smells of wood burning stoves, real pine and the holiday anticipation. Let me try and give them that sense of belonging that I don't have; and what they choose to do with it later on in life is up to them. But at least, I played the game.