A sharp, sweet smell gushed through my nostrils. It was eight in the morning. The chatter of the grown-ups and the cries of the babies echoed in a tiny house in the village of Al Rawdah. That recognizable smell was a precursor to something we were all eagerly awaiting. Everyone froze in place and paused whatever they were doing to behold her arrival. Oozing with an African herbal aroma and carrying two glass jugs, there she was. Everyone stood up and rearranged themselves in rectangular formation in respect to my grandmother and in preparation for this post-breakfast drink. The thick smell of thyme emanated from the jugs, filling up the room, triggering one of my favorite and most memorable childhood memories.
My grandmother used to wake up at five in the morning and walk about a mile and a half to the farm to milk the cows. I was lucky to wake up one day to pee and saw her leaving, so I decided to accompany her to the farm and see her work behind the scenes. She didn’t talk much, but occasionally she would say something in Swahili to put my Swahili to the test. Though, to no avail, as I barely understood Swahili at the time. I was inspired and ashamed simultaneously. Inspired by her hard work and pragmatism, but embarrassed that I did not connect with the Swahili language and culture that was so dear to my grandmother. I don’t understand how I felt both emotions at the same time. This was during a time when I was exploring new cultures and languages by taking Spanish and German classes, and I realized that if I truly wanted to explore a culture, I should start with my grandmother and the culture closest to me. I asked myself, how can I search and understand what is beyond if I don’t first understand myself and search for my own identity?
It is the traditional collectivist culture in the countryside that shaped my childhood, and it will remain one of my most prized values. I went through many experiences, but almost never alone. I lived them with my brothers and cousins. We were together every step of the way, and these feats created an unbreakable bond between us. The terms brother and friend are synonyms to me, as I believe that relatives are the best type of friends one can have. I remember our fascination with fiction, especially with The Lord of the Rings and the Middle-earth universe in general. We watched the new Hobbit movies as soon as they were released in cinemas, and we read the books together. We even used to take long walks across the mountains and farms just talking about the orcs and the dwarves, sometimes even theorizing our own parallel universe to The Lord of the Rings. It did get a little violent at times, as we imagined sticks to be swords and swung them at each other, occasionally clipping one another’s fingertips.
These thoughts came to me on my most recent camping trip in the desert. In my Toyota Hilux, I picked up three of my friends from their houses in Muscat and drove for two hours to reach Khubbat Al Ja’adan, a local term that translates to “Dunes of the Camels.” It was a long trip, but time passed by with ease as we were enthralled by the thumping bass of Arab music. The bed of the pickup truck was loaded with tents and grilling paraphernalia.
Soon, we were chilling by the bonfire, sharing jokes, and just reflecting on our high school days. Amid the sinister silence of the night, the cozy warmth of the crackling bonfire, the numbing-cold tickles of the sand granules beneath our feet, the stinging smell of Arabian coffee, I lay there on the ground, scooping up a fistful of sand and letting it sift slowly and steadily between my fingers. Barren and pure, the desert had no secrets to hide, for where could it possibly hide them? There was nothing but us. No background noise, no other people. The vibe was pure, as pure as childhood itself. Everything naked, not sugarcoated, stripped of any facades. I empathized with my grandfather and my ancestors. They lived a Bedouin life, away from civilization. No wonder families felt so connected and bonded; there was nothing to worry about but themselves. The desert was devoid of outside noise and distractions.
Somehow, these thoughts only struck me after I felt the absence of that collectivist bond that had always nurtured me. Never have I felt alone back home. My family is always there. If they aren’t, then my friends are. If they aren’t, then God is, and that is the closest I have reached to feeling alone. In fact, I reached that last stage very recently when I came here to the United States and lived alone in the dorms for a couple of months. In a way, it feels like people are disconnected here, ironically, in an age where it has never been easier to connect. You might say: “Well, of course they would be! We’re in the middle of a global pandemic.” But, no, I think it is something deeper. I can’t help but notice students in the dining hall staring down at their phones and wearing earphones, practically rejecting any outside visual or audiological influence.
Admittedly, I sometimes do this myself. I have also grown so accustomed to my family and circle of close friends back home such that even the thought of creating bonds with new people seems like a burdensome task. Whenever something interesting or funny happens, I grab my phone and think about how I will relay it to my family and friends, rather than letting go and enjoying the moment. This may sound a little presumptuous, but I realized that many people in the United States prefer to lead individualist lives, particularly people living in urban areas, as city life can be so busy.
I am usually introverted, but my longing for togetherness has challenged my social skills. I have tried to breach this barrier of disconnect by making small talk with other people in the waiting lines. Was I a wolf searching for its pack? Or a sheep looking for its herd? I often ponder: am I where I want to be? Do I feel like I’m “supposed” to be somewhere else? If I could just snap my fingers and be wherever I want to be, I would probably still feel this way. I suppose I shouldn’t be so hung up on where I’d rather be that I forget to make the most of where I am now. Perhaps I should just… live a little.
This memoir is in the spirit of collectivism. I have tried to demonstrate how significant it is to me, as it has been an integral part of my life. Whether experienced through sharing breakfast weekly with my extended family, bonding with my brothers, or camping with friends, the sense of belonging toward some bigger collective is always there. Living in solitude in the United States has truly taught me to appreciate those moments of communion.