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Why Reconnecting with My Arab Culture is My Greatest Act of Self-Care

As an independent millennial moves back in with her family during the pandemic, she discovers that reconnecting with her Arab culture is the greatest form of self-care

Roísín Tapponi

Roísín Tapponi photographed by Desiree Mattsson

“At the start of 2020, I was settled in my nice London life, with many international work trips ahead of me and summer plans to a family wedding in Jordan marked on my calendar. That is, before Covid-19 came and killed the dream. My dad works on the NHS frontline at a London hospital; I didn’t know when I would get to see him again. So, for the first time in years, I moved back home with my parents. The new lifestyle took some getting used to. In an obscure, suburban town far from anyone I knew, along with my dog Seamus, my MacBook was my only friend. Yet, four months in, I am still here, voluntarily. Restrictions have largely eased in the UK, but I have since terminated the rent contract of my London apartment.

Roísín Tapponi

Roísín Tapponi in Hertfordshire, UK during lockdown. Photo: Supplied

I am Iraqi-Irish and have lived in London for four years. I work at The Mosaic Rooms, a gallery for contemporary Arab art, and run Habibi Collective, a female MENA filmmaking platform. I socialize with friends from the region, and eat bamia on Edgware Road. And while I never studied medicine, law, or engineering, my work life has taken priority over my love life. My lifestyle differs from what is expected within traditional Iraqi culture and perhaps that is why I spent most of my life unlearning it. I regularly traveled to the region for work or to visit family and friends, and these differences can sometimes be excruciating. Firstly, my Irish genes very much won the identity crisis – I have thick, curly red hair, green eyes, and freckled skin. Whether I like it or not, I am the elephant in the room. Secondly, my family is Iraqi-Christian. While most of my friends are Muslim, I was raised Catholic; though my most spiritual practice is tarot reading. I am self-sufficient, a workaholic, and educated. I will always remember my grandma asking what I wanted for my birthday when I was a child. ‘A book,’ I answered. ‘A book?’ she exclaimed. ‘Have some jewelry.’ Nevertheless, over time, my family has adjusted to my ‘strange’ habits. Many of my relations have now moved to the West and are similarly experimenting with maneuvering two identities at the same time.

Roísín Tapponi

Tapponi as a child in Ireland. Photo: Supplied

Regardless of where we’re from in the world, we’ve all been roped into the practice of self-care engulfing our social media platforms. From mindfulness apps to online yoga classes, daily reminders of self-care rituals dictate our virtual realities. Profiting off trends of wellbeing, technology companies ordain what we need to do in order to feel good about ourselves. It is an individualistic trend, focusing only on enhancing the wellbeing of the self. It does not teach us how to find harmony through others but encourages us to retreat from the world. Nor does it necessarily offer an instruction manual on how to bring that same cosmic energy back into our social interactions. This corporate concept of care is vastly different from its humble origins. The traditional premise of care is not built on an individual’s ability to consume products promising to ‘enhance’ the self. Rather, it is a practice stemming from tribal collectivity where careful acts create a connective tissue between ourselves and others through feelings of sympathy and empathy. In turbulent times such as these, care for others is one of the most anarchic acts we can practice.

That’s where Arab culture comes in. With 22 countries in the region, our cultures are as diverse as our people, religions, and dialects. But structurally, Arab culture is largely built upon similar foundations of community and kinship. Even when money is involved, we are not rewarded with the self-gain of stronger abs or a slimmer waist that the fitness programs we buy into promise. Instead, we are rewarded with the gratification that our small act of care benefited others. Ramadan traditions of fidya, kaffarah, and eidiyah are testament to that. The care we offer is socially radical precisely because it centers others and benefits members of the community.

Roísín Tapponi

The writer with her mother on holiday in Italy, 2019. Photo: Supplied

Back in London, I cooked alone, late at night (if I ate dinner at all) and it was usually a five-minute ordeal involving kale and noodles. Since returning home, cooking is now a social activity. Often, over the course of a few hours, we meticulously prepare pots of bathinjaan malfoof, dolma, and tepsi. The only arguments concern music – whenever I want to play Arab rap I am quickly counteracted by my dad shouting ‘Fairouz.’ Sharing stories as we peel onions, we sit around a table together and help ourselves from one big pot. Radical, I know. But for me, this simple daily custom has not only improved my diet but my appreciation of collective activity, the subject of food also giving me something to talk to my parents about.

Having lived alone for years, I cannot ignore the incomparable domestic support imbued into family life. At times, life in the Western metropolis had become so busy that I would sooner go out and buy new underwear than stay at home for hours, waiting for the washing machine to finish its cycle. My mother has since reminded me about the substantiality of care in slow living and shared routine. In the mornings, when my parents return from their walk, I make them Arabic coffee. In the evenings, I wash dishes with my dad, giving my mother time to watch her soap opera. In London, I lived with people I barely knew – this is commonplace. Now, amid family members, redistributing the most banal of daily routines sees the day freed with more time for work and leisure.

Roísín Tapponi

Tapponi in London with her father during lockdown. Photo: Supplied

Outside of our new commune, my parents and I share little in common. At times, I do find it difficult navigating some facets of my identity while living with them. With no access to daily interactions beyond my family, I have turned to my online network, which is extremely far-reaching. I have developed friendships in most corners of the globe; the heart of these interactions are within the Arab region. Not distracted by the activity of my own life, I take more time to check in with friends and family. This not only strengthens our bonds but makes me more aware of what is happening outside of my London centric circle. Influencer culture is far more popular and trendy in the Arab world than it is here – if anything, this shows the validity of online interactions in contemporary Arab social life. Switching (poorly) between languages, I also find myself sprinkling more ‘blessings’ into my speech. I have begun communicating with warmer language and with more care than I granted myself when groggily navigating the tube in the morning, cursing with thousands of equally peeved bodies.

These lessons in collective care and reconnecting with my Arab culture within the home have strengthened my own sense of well-being better than any half-hearted attempt at self-care ever did. The change has been radical and I believe the routine of communal living has the ability to transform my life in the long-term. Our ancestors knew best – the heart is in the home.”
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