CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 18. . . .May 2, 2008
Reema Al-Khoja's story is unique in its details but not uncommon for bicultural and biracial youth growing up in rural or non-metropolitan parts of Canada. Although born in Baghdad to Elizabeth, an Acadian Canadian mother, and Ali, an Iraqi father, Reema grew up in Canada in a single-parent household, knowing little of her father and younger sister, Tamara, who remained in Baghdad when the parents separated. When the viewers meet Reema, she is a high school senior who laments the fact that she looks too Arab and doesn't fit in as well as she would like in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia.
Now that Ali Al-Khoja is working in Jordan and making a good income, he pays for a family reunion and holiday in Cairo in the summer of 2004 following a 16 year separation. Some of the footage comes from Reema's video diary, but the filmmaker also interviews both parents separately. They believe the reunion was a success and that Reema and her sister Tamara got along very well. Reema's interpretation is distinctly different. She confesses that her sister "drove her nuts" as she wanted to be with her yet their lack of fluency in each other's language and their cultural differences proved to be huge barriers. She also admits to culture shock and decries the unfairness of men being allowed to wear shorts and t-shirts while many women that she saw endured the heat wearing all-covering burkas. Nevertheless, Reema is sufficiently intrigued by her paternal side of the family that she agrees to join them in Jordan over the Christmas holiday. Here she is introduced to more members of the extended family that includes not only a stepmother but also grandparents, and an uncle—a sharp contrast to family that she has known that consists solely of Reema and her mother. After completing high school but uncertain about what to do next, Reema returns to her father in Jordan for a couple of months. Ali wants Reema to remain in Jordan for post-secondary education, obtain a good job and eventually marry. Until then, she can benefit from the pluses of an extended family that is looking out for her. It is unclear exactly how this is supposed to work since Tamara and her grandmother are still living in Baghdad, Iraq. Ultimately, the cultural differences, particularly the lack of personal freedom for females, leads to Reema's return to Canada where her feelings seem to echo those of her mother who so many years before had fled from an unsatisfying marriage in which she too "felt boxed in." Tamara goes on record extolling the freedom she believes women in her culture enjoy, yet the cultural divide remains. Reema expresses disgust with the gawking attention she received from the local men when she walks down the street in her low-rise jeans and t-shirts, and she aspires to be more than just a housewife.
Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and collection liaison for English, history and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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