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Family roots: do they still matter to the British?

By Dr Jehad Al-Omari

When I was very young, I took up photography as a serious hobby. For a while I then spent most of my pocket money on buying film, developing photos and upgrading my cameras and lenses, as well as buying the whole array of filters that were available before digital photography simplified all that with a click of a button, or rather a tap-touch on an option. Nowadays I’m quite content to use my camera phone. For people like me it does the job 95% of the time. It’s true that you cannot produce memorable portraits or take stunning micro shots but with all the options that a good smartphone gives you, along with all the moods and filters, you can’t go far wrong. At least the budding photographers of today, even those who possess a proper digital camera, don’t have to fork out lots of the folding stuff before they ever see their photos developed. If the final product isn’t to their liking, they can erase it and start afresh at zero cost. Trial and error and shooting hundreds of photos in order to achieve the desired result is now a very inexpensive option thanks to modern technology. Sharing photographs with friends and family also comes at zero cost via WhatsApp or whatever application you happen to be using.

So, given this long-standing interest in photography, I now subscribe to a number of pages on Facebook that specialize in old photographs: anything from old London views to English cottages, World War I and II shots, Middle Eastern adventure scenes from bygone days and archaeological records. A couple of weeks ago, on one of these pages I came across a person who had published an old photograph of a London pub (see above) which used to be owned by his grandfather. This person happened to be called Keeble – a fairly familiar British name, though not all that common. My attention was drawn to a comment left by another person with the surname Keeble, who said he was delighted to discover this ‘family connection’. What then struck me was the lukewarm response to this Keeble ‘reunion’. It drew just one ‘like’ and no comments at all from other site visitors.

As an Arab, it still surprises me that surnames don’t carry the same value for most people in Britain as they do in Arab society. Although I’m descended from a tribe whose name is shared by some tens of thousands of people across the Arab world and I would certainly not befriend anyone and everyone who shares my family name, I do nevertheless subscribe to several Al-Omari tribe pages here in Jordan and across Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Palestine. The fact that tribal connections are still a driving force in Arab society is something which continues to characterize – some would say bedevil – the region. Such connections are celebrated by some and criticized by others.

During my first year at the University of Surrey, I made friends with a young man called Tony Goya. The friendship proved to be an educational experience for me as regards roots and identity. Tony’s father was Italian and his mother Spanish, but he saw himself very much as a Brit and a Londoner. For a long time I didn’t feel very comfortable about this. Although he was born and raised in London and had never lived in either Italy or Spain, I still saw Tony as Italian, or at the very least as a continental European, since to me his ‘roots’ were not really British. At first we used to have many heated arguments on the subject and it took me a long time, in fact several years, to accept that the place you feel you belong to and call home may have nothing to do with your family antecedents. And I have to admit that, many years later, when I’d settled in Guildford, a small town some 30 miles southwest of London, I myself came to feel that I’d become a ‘Guildfordian’. I still remember the day I was loading up the truck to move from my Guildford house to London and a lady, my neighbour of 10 years, with whom I had only ever exchanged a polite “good morning”, stopped to ask whether I was moving. When I confirmed that I was, she replied: “Oh what a pity”. Thirty years later, this incident still plays on my mind. How can you live in a community and apparently be liked when you only have the most minimal interaction with your neighbours? What a contrast with my experience in Amman where, within a few months of living in the Rabia area, all my neighbours knew everything there was to know about me! There was no escaping my (now-deceased) neighbour, who would be sitting outside day-in, day-out throughout the year and repeatedly insisted that I come and share tea and sweetmeats with him.

Another example of the ‘roots’ question that took me many years to get my head around concerns my ex-partner. Coming from a small village in the Norfolk area, she had a very unusual surname - Attlesey - which piqued my interest. My first question to her was what the surname meant, where it came from and where her family hailed from ‘originally’. This is the sort of question that came to me naturally as an Arab, and still does. People in the Arab world are interested in the meaning of their surnames, given names, and where their roots derive from. Which village or region someone ‘originally’ comes from seems important, given that not so very long ago most of the region’s population lived in rural areas or even in the desert, and for many people the modern city is a very new phenomenon. For example, although I was born in a city, the fact that my father was born in a village automatically means that I am classified as being ‘from’ that village. Personally I have a rather ambivalent relationship with my father’s village today. I sort of feel I belong there, as my roots are there and that’s where many of my cousins still live but, at the same time, I don’t really see myself as belonging there. Today I feel more like an Ammani, and also an ex-Londoner.

However, that wasn’t how I felt twenty-five years ago, much less forty years ago when I asked the young lady from Norfolk about her roots. Apart from her name, I was even more astonished that she had no idea of her antecedents beyond her maternal and paternal grandparents. An Arab would typically roll out the names of several generations of great- and great-great-grandparents, and many people are able to trace their roots back several hundred years. For example, my family originally comes from the Hijaz region in present day Saudi Arabia. According to our elders, we can trace our descent back almost 1500 years and our surname refers to Omar, the second successor (Caliph) to Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, as Commander of the Muslim Faithful.

When, a few years after we first met, my partner introduced me to her parents and her great aunt, I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to ask about their family roots. However, all I was able to glean from the great aunt was that they came from the English West Country and had relatives in Canada: that was the extent of their tribe! It was at that point that the great aunt proudly showed me the family bible, in which she had recorded the birth of every family member. This might seem impressive to some, but it was a far cry from the typical family trees you would normally see in an Arab home or tribal madhafa. A madhafa in Jordan (elsewhere known as madheef) is usually a large hospitality space that is kept by the head, or members, of a tribe, where they can receive guests, accept condolences, meet and, on some occasions, celebrate weddings. In the old days, before hotels and modern transportation, the madhafa also served as a place where guests would eat and sleep for the customary Arab hospitality period of three days, though sometimes for much longer periods.

An Iraqi madheef made out of bamboo

The reader will probably not be surprised to hear that I showed great interest in that family bible, but imagine my astonishment when the aunt then decided to bequeath it to me, as no other member of her family seemed at all interested in the heirloom! So what conclusion can one draw from these ruminations? That we in the Arab world may be just too traditional in our attitudes? That we ought to grasp modernity and stop looking back eternally at our glorious past? Or perhaps that in some societies – such as Britain, for instance – modernity has become so hard-edged – brutal even – that it has left people in those societies devoid of basic communal feelings and a sense of their roots and origins?


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