[Published in The Timberjay, January 1, 2016]
“They deny me my birthright!” The taxi driver’s eyes flash. He’s upset, and the trilled Scottish r’s of “birthright” roll on his tongue. “I was born here.”
It’s 11 pm on a cold, wet Saturday night at the Glasgow bus station. My partner and I need expert help to find the odd little hotel where we’ll sleep a few hours before flying back to Minnesota.
The taxi driver glances at us in the rear view mirror as he drives. He offers to stay up all night so he can get us to the Edinburgh airport at 4 am. He rarely works Saturday nights—even though drunks tip well—because someone usually gets rough with him. We nod our gratitude.
At 4 am, he’s waiting at the desk and we set off. It happened again, as it usually does, he says. A drunk who got into his taxi told him to get out of Scotland, that he has no right to call himself a Scot.
Even when he’s angry, he never slips into the distinctive South Asian retroflex consonants. He declaims like Robert Burns, but he looks like the famous Indian actor Dilip Kumar. Dilip Kumar’s birth name was Mohammed Yusuf Khan, just as Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky.
His name is Mohammed. Before the partition of India and Pakistan, his Punjabi parents lived in Mumbai. During the horrific riots of 1947, they walked from Mumbai to Pakistan but soon immigrated to Scotland, where they were entitled to citizenship because they had been citizens of a British colony. His parents believed what the law said—that they could be Scots. Their son Mohammed was born in Scotland.
Linguists know how tight the language-identity bond is. How people talk demonstrates who they know themselves to be. Farm kids who go to college stop saying “I done it” because they see themselves as college educated, not because they got A’s in grammar class.
Of the three of us in the taxi, who is the real Scot?
My partner and I were on a heritage trip. In Ireland, we met his first cousin and visited the grave of his great-grandparents in Galway. In Scotland, we remembered his grandfather, who worked as a child in mines near Glasgow. In Edinburgh, we attended services at the 14th century church where I was baptized. The Rev. Moira MacDonald preached on Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 Jewish children from the Nazis. Helping today’s refugees, she said, is the same as rescuing those children.
Sitting in the pew, I remembered the Book of Judges. Around 1000 BC, the Gileadites wanted to figure out which men crossing the river Jordan were from their own tribe and which were Ephraimites, enemies they would kill. It was a death sentence based on “tomato” vs. “tomahto.” They required each man who crossed the ford to say the word “shibboleth.” If he used the “sh” sound when he said the word, he was one of their own. But if he spoke like an Ephraimite and said “s” instead of “sh,” he was slain. The scripture tells us that 42000 Ephraimites were killed.
I was born in Scotland but have never lived there; my father was a young Presbyterian minister studying theology for one year at the University of Edinburgh. I have some Scottish blood mixed with French Canadian, Welsh, English, Irish and German. My partner’s grandfather moved from Scotland to Detroit in the 1930s to work in the car factories and never yearned for the poverty of his Scottish childhood.
Before this visit to the British Isles, I learned a little Gaelic—enough to read road signs and to introduce myself politely. An ancient language with difficult spelling, Gaelic has an elaborate case structure that reminds me of Native American languages. The melody of its intonation patterns floats through the varieties of English spoken by the Irish and the Scots. But in Malleig, a fishing village close to the Isle of Skye, a Scottish woman explains why she will not allow her son to study Gaelic in high school. “It may be what my grannie spoke. But he can learn the pipes for his heritage. There are no jobs to be had for speaking Gaelic.”
Are genes the truest definers of identity? My grandfather researched five or six family lines so my grandmothers could join the Daughters of the American Revolution. But he only looked at the most useful line for each grandparent. What of all the other relatives, the ones whose names no one remembers? My grandmother prided herself on her northern European heritage. After all, racism was commonplace in the 1950s. Years later, blood tests revealed a surprising Mediterranean strain in that branch of the family, and we readjusted who we thought we were.
We tell ourselves stories about who we are. If the tombs of the clans at Culloden Field make me weep, does that come from an ancestral Scottish identity? It might, but nowadays millions of us have profound links to cultures that have nothing to do with our genes.
Forty-five years ago, I went to college in India and married an Indian Muslim. Later we divorced and he died. When I visited India in 2006, my former mother-in-law hadn’t seen me for 30 years. She was a veiled Muslim woman who spoke no English at all. By the time I visited her, she was lost in raving dementia. But on that morning inside the zenana, the women’s quarters, when she saw my face, her eyes cleared. She reached up to pull my head close and said in Urdu, “My real daughter-in-law has come home.” She claimed me as her one of her own.
Years ago I attended a U.S. Naturalization ceremony in Madison, Wisconsin. There were Hmong, Somalis, Mexicans and Europeans. The judge who administered the oath wore black robes with starched white tabs like a minister’s. Everyone in the room cried at the hope that citizenship offered.
We are no longer just members of our tribes. We are people of hope. Hope brought my ancestors to Quebec and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, brought my partner’s grandfather to Detroit’s factories and brought Mohammed’s parents from Pakistan to Glasgow. Hope brings families across the desert from Mexico and across the Mediterranean to Europe.
I am not a Gileadite. Like the burnt offerings demanded in the Book of Leviticus, tribal law from 3000 years ago means nothing to me. I do not stand on the banks of the River Jordan—or on the beaches of Italy—waiting to kill the men of another tribe. Tribal identity may be wonderful history, but what I trust today is the intuition of the individual.
People know who they really are, and they tell me their identity. When Mohammed says he is a Scot, I bow to his self-knowledge.
Our human tribe burbles with complex and rich flavors. The broth that binds us is our shared humanity. We cannot move ahead using ancient tribal rules to kill hope.
The tombs at Culloden Field give me goose bumps but so do the stories of Louisa May Alcott, Maya Angelou and the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib.
When I hear Mohammed’s Scottish burr, I feel the fizz of crossing cultures. It’s a mixed crop, a new harvest of surprising fertility that rescues all humanity.
That is why we must bring blankets, not swords to the borders. Maybe I am more Indian than Mohammed the taxi driver. Surely he is much more a Scot than I am.
–by Jean Gendreau