In Support of Multiculturalism: “The Man Who Danced on the Stairs”

In Support of Multiculturalism: “The Man Who Danced on the Stairs”

At a recent scientific conference, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of an accomplished biologist who had immigrated to Canada from the Middle East eighteen years ago.  As we began chatting, it soon became clear that we shared interest in a variety of intriguing issues. We naturally talked about Middle Eastern politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but our conversation moved to speculating about reasons why those from the Middle East immigrate to Canada. Without hesitation, my new friend openly shared his own experience with me.

“Quite simply,” he said, “I had to leave.” He went on to describe the ordeal he had endured during three years in prison, for alleged political assertions made against the Sadam Hussein regime. He was physically, mentally, and verbally assaulted many times during those years. He concluded, “Although originally I held no wish or desire to emigrate, eventually I had to look for a harbour that would accept me.” 

What my friend admitted next moved us to the heart of our discussion. He went on to say that, in spite of those terrible experiences, he nonetheless remains loyal to the environment that he still refers to as home. “My immigration to Canada does not alleviate the sense of loss for what I gave up back home,” he said. “Yes, Saddam Hussein and his partners, together with what happened thereafter, have stolen my motherland but never taken away my identity. They robbed me of a dream, but it is a dream I can never forget and a love I cannot ignore. The passing of time seems not enough to keep this deep feeling away from my consciousness. Childhood memories, like quantum physics, have a subtle but very strong force on us.”  His voice quavered as he sighed.

“Now I have gained mature experiences, and I have become unfit for some of the younger ones,” he went on. “Yet it seems that homesickness is a chronic, unresolved condition. Although I am growing older, I still ponder the intriguing mix of emotions I experience that includes a feeling of guilt about Canada. Canada provided me with a safe haven, and has given me much, and continues to offer me many good things. This country deserves much from me; indeed deserves more from me. But although I have strong respect and honour for Canada, I am unable to empty from my heart my childhood and adolescent memories and at times an almost overwhelming longing for my motherland, and so I end up feeling guilty. I wish I could amend both the past and the future,” he concluded.

I asked him if he had considered medical help. “You know there are Immigration Psychologists,” I remarked hesitantly.

“I know,” he replied with confidence. “And I’ve searched the literature; certainly there are many well-written articles on the subject. I also know of good work on issues such as concepts of social norms, and of the melting together of the Anglo and the non-Anglo cultures; the so-called ‘one culture pot’ theory.”

 He paused for a moment, then asked me a question: “Do you think there will be a chance one day to have an Arab-Anglo culture?” He continued without waiting for my answer. “In my opinion such a possibility will remain but a far-fetched dream, because of the current security problems. Do you know that the Canadian immigration exam asks no questions in this area, on the psychology of immigration and its relevance to people emigrating from different parts of the world?” he asked with a full throat.

Both his ideas and the strong sentiment attached to his expression of them pierced my heart with a mysterious flood of raw feelings. I realized, with something of a twinkle of amusement, that my own experience actually ran quite parallel to his. Both of us agreed that, despite our achievements in North America, we remain highly emotional with regard to our motherlands. We accept immigration –not to switch cultures- but to gain freedom to practise an existing one and add new social values. Unfortunately there is that subtle pressure that with time we are expected to melt into the new culture to be seen socially equal; he concluded. On occasions, we admitted to each other, this feeling actually overburdens our emotions. Our mutual experience of the feeling of incompleteness brought to mind an Arabic idiom and I said to my friend, “We are like the man who dances on the stairs.”

I then explained how this idiom describes the person who cannot find satisfaction and fulfillment in spite of hard work. The dancer must perform for two groups of people, one group on the ground floor and another on the upper level. The dancer’s dilemma is indecision over where to dance, above or below, and as a result of that indecision he ends up stranded in between the two floors and so dances on the stairs.  The idiom thus refers to the person who is reluctant to go all the way up the stairs so the audience on the upper level can see his performance yet at the same time is hesitant to go all the way down so his dance can be seen by those at the lower level.  In a metaphoric sense, this symbolizes the struggle of the person who, because he cannot make up his mind, fails to fully enjoy the rewards of his accomplishments.

 My friend thought for a moment, then spoke. “It is my humble opinion, then, that many immigrants are ‘stair dancers’,” he said. 

Together, we explored this notion further. We agreed that as immigrants, as we accumulate more successes in North America, we move up the stairs.  But we never make it to the top, because all the way up we keep looking downward, to where we came from. And during stressful times and on occasions when our sense of social minority becomes stronger, we simply rush down the stairs with those feelings. Yet although we may then withdraw to within ourselves, we never have the courage to make it all the way down to the bottom of the stairs, because love for our adopted mother country pulls us upward again.

 As the conference progressed, my friend and I got together several times to continue our discussion over coffee. I told him about a bold idea that had entered my mind:  “All of us—all human beings—are simply dancers on different flights of stairs. This Earthly life is constantly filled with challenges, and we all are faced with making serious decisions. At one time or another, each one of us has to make difficult choices. And, unfortunately, few are able to make up their minds without going backward. The majority (and I am among these) prefers to linger or perhaps I should say dither on the middle part of the stairs, to ‘carry the stick from the middle’. We are afraid to lose what is at hand and are uneasy about making changes that involve the unknown.  Taking on challenges may mean successes but it may also mean failure, which can be hurtful. Therefore, many of us become hesitant to even consider making changes. We prefer to remain in a comfort zone from which the unknown appears as a high risk.”

I continued, “Emotionally speaking, all of us are moving up and down the stairs of life as we cruise through its great variety of challenges. Said another way, life calls on us to dance on its stairs for as long as we engage with it. Yet despite the weariness and pain that sometimes overtake us, the dance is a good thing and is useful because it keeps us active and interested. It energizes us to produce. Indeed, we must be grateful that we are dancing on these stairs!”
My friend expressed understanding and agreement with what I proposed, and I then drew us back to our original conversation that had triggered all that followed. “If all of this is so,” I concluded, “then as Arab immigrants, you and I face both a challenge and a duty. The challenge is how to ‘belong to’ this ‘new’ place without losing our personal identities and previous culture. And our duty is to gladly be part of the mix in, and willingly give our support to, the large multicultural pot.”

At the conclusion of the conference, all delegates were requested to stand on the stairs for a final group photograph. “Please stand still for a few moments on the stairs,” instructed the photographer. From the corner of my eye I glanced to catch my friend’s reaction to those words, and saw that he was looking at me with a conspiratorial smile. I was sure that he was thinking much the same thing that I was: “At least we were allowed to stand still on the stairs even briefly and simply reflect on the joys of life’s many ups and downs!”