Bob Marley

America or Africa was the anticipated reply to their question of ‘Where are you from? However, my response of the name of the tiny island in the #Caribbean always...
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America or Africa was the anticipated reply to their question of ‘Where are you from?

However, my response of the name of the tiny island in the always drew ‘deer in the headlight’ stares… then furrowed brows.


Blank stares.

Fidgeting with my necklace, I always picked my brain for a word that could be synonymous with my place of origin.

Ah, yes- this should work.


Blank stares with mounting frustration.

I must have said it wrong- I don’t know.

Standing there impatiently, but still prepared to wait for even the tiniest clue of where I was from, I was often pinned between a rock and a hard place with little time.

Not thinking that this reference marker would make much more of a difference than the others, I stated: “Bob Marley”

Instantly, and I mean I-N-S-T-A-N-T-L-Y, there were sighs of exclamation and affirmation.

It didn’t matter how old or young they were. They all knew who Bob Marley was and from where he came.

Now, while I am not from Jamaica, I am from the region in which Jamaica does exist. And so, even though I did at times feel guilty that they didn’t quite still have a grasp of where I was exactly from, at least I was grateful that they could identify the region.

This is not an isolated incident or exclusive to Turkey either.

I remember a colleague of mine recounting a story of many years ago, when he was travelling through a Middle Eastern country and for some reason got ‘sent to the back’ as he as going through immigration. In other words, pulled aside and questioned.

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A big burly man my colleague was, so when he started off by saying that he was so scared that he was shitting bricks, I was really surprised.

He relayed that very much like you see in the movies, he sat in a small bare room with 5 or 6 officers standing around him with stern and confused faces.

When asked where he was from, he told them.

They still were not impressed.

“Yes we know from the passport” they seemed to say in their own language.

Honestly, my colleague couldn’t understand what the problem was. If his place of origin was  known and he had done no wrong, then what was the issue. It is probable that he had dual UK citizenship though.

After a solid 30 minutes of enduring each other’s limited discourse, to diffuse the tension, he quickly thought and said,

“Bob Marley.”

It was as if he had deflated a balloon with a single pin prick.

Their demeanour instantly changed from militant to amiable. He quickly became their best friend even without the ability to speak each other’s language.

United by the their love and respect for reggae, no explanation was given or further sought as to why he was identified and questioned. Rather, from that point on he was afforded VIP treatment- tea, coffee, juice?


Although these anecdotes of identifying a person’s place of origin, are common, they, for some, also highlight a malicious agenda albeit subversive.

I belong to a Facebook group which is made up of people like myself- avid travelers some of whom live overseas.

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Quite recently a question was posted by a member of this group.

They wanted to know if and when it was appropriate to ask someone where they are from.

The question got quite a number of responses. And not the kind that I would have expected.

Many suggested that it was offensive to ask someone about their origins, nationality etc., because the question was an act of racial profiling.

In other words, it was thought that people treat you according to the stereotypical perception of where you are from.

If you said, America you would be certainly be treated differently than someone who said Brazil.

Furthermore, this was contextual. Who asked the question? Which country were you visiting or living in?

Middle Eastern countries can spot an expat like nobody’s business. The first or second question is always about your place of birth or ethnicity. Furthermore, I really do believe that there are only two answers to that question: American or not American.

I have found, though, that despite the shaky relationship between the and the West i.e. America, their interest in confirming whether you are American or not is not necessarily always political.

I have found in my own experiences, it is economic.

In a restaurant, especially those mom and pop places, or in a small family store, your nationality can sometimes determine price.

American- pay a lot more.

British/European – pay more

Other places- not so much, but a little bit more than the local person.

Stereotypes are real.

Read Petra’s Blog: East Meets West

ColumnsPetra In The Middle East
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