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Man Ana? Facing Assumptions About Being Arab and American

posted on: Sep 7, 2016

Image Credit: PRI

BY: Bushra Alfaraj/Ambassador Blogger

“Do you like hookah?”

This is a question I am often asked the minute a fellow Millennial meets me for the first time. Perhaps my headscarf is a dead giveaway of my being a Muslim or from the Arab world where, smoking hookah is a pastime enjoyed by many people across the region. Just as the hijab is not exclusive to Arab women, hookah is not exclusive to the Arab world; it overlaps with South Asian and broader Middle Eastern nations. This perception of hookah as being from only one place is analogous to the ways many Arab Americans are understood by others.

My reluctance to smoke and be around hookah never motivated me to thoroughly investigate its origins. But something about the water pipe being a default conversational piece always reminds me of how mainstream Arab culture and entertainment were never an eminent part of my Arab identity. I like the smell of oud and some bukhoor fragrances, but I am semi-clueless when it comes to classical Arab music. However, I do listen to alternative Arab rock bands like Mashrou’ Leila and JadaL. Do these interests count for anything?

Mashrou’ Leila

Being the product of more than one cultural influence may not be the single most defining aspect to a person during their formative years. Yet, as people mature, they may become more cognizant of the effects their upbringing have had on them throughout their lifetime, which is the case with me.

As an American-born Arab who has spent most of her life among diverse cultures and nationalities within the Arab world, I was not ambushed by culture shock upon my return to the U.S. in my twenties.

When people ask me where I am from, it is the circumstances of our meeting that determine how much I will divulge about my background. In Saudi Arabia, where I spent my entire childhood and adolescent life, I would simply respond with the name of the town where my family is from or the city where we actually resided in – sometimes both if I want to paint a clearer picture.

When I moved to the United Arab Emirates for college, simply saying that I was Saudi would suffice.

In America, however, I am always tempted to respond, “How much time have you got?” before deciding what would be a satisfactory answer.

Much like the assumption that all Arabs smoke hookah, Americans and Arabs alike are often shocked at how “Americanized” I seem, despite the fact that I lived in a “miniature American” residential compound within Saudi Arabia’s desert climate; a sanctuary that was quite different than the mainstream Saudi Arabia that exists beyond its gates.

Naturally, we had lives and obligations taking place outside of our little suburb. On the surface, it may seem like a strong Arab-Western dichotomy. But living a Western life in Saudi Arabia was always a matter of fluidity, rather than contradiction.

Someone is always trying to give me a hard time for not being “Arab” or “American” enough, but that has only strengthened my identity as a person who feels equally Arab and American.

Referring to myself as Arab American is the only identity that I have ever felt comfortable with. What does it mean to be Arab American, anyway? Or to be one of the two identities, without a direct connection to the other?

The assumption is that Arabs are generally conservative, and remain that way while the rest of the world moves forward. Having watched and lived with the effects of internalized stereotyping and discrimination throughout my lifetime, I can confirm that there is some truth to this assumption.

What truly fascinates me is the resistance and perseverance that has been exhibited by Arabs for centuries against certain “cultural norms” or expectations. This resistance has been documented throughout history in the form of literature from hapless Bedouin lovers with unequal social hierarchies to underprivileged, but skilled, poets writing about political injustice. In recent years, the Internet has given us access to expressing ourselves further within cultural and political stances.  Present-time Arabs express the same level of passion or frustration by sharing their artwork or written pieces to address issues that only they – as Arabs – know first handedly, as opposed to a non-Arab making vague generalizations about how Arabs are or how the region functions.

We can be proud of where we come from while acknowledging some of our less-favorable aspects about our roots. At the end of the day, being Arab can mean whatever an Arab wants it to mean to them.

Being Arab American means being as unique an individual as anyone else, regardless of ethnic roots. I often hear phrases such as “too Eastern for the West, too Western for the East,” and I fully understand the connotation given my experiences being rendered as one-or-the-other by people coming from only one of those two identities (or neither). But is this East-West identity category really as outlandish as outsiders believe it to be? Yes, we always will be seen as outlandish, if even to a slight extent.

Yet, the fact remains that we are not alone in this.

Much like our Bedouin ancestors before us, our concept of “home” is not limited to a single place, just as our individual identities are not restricted to overgeneralizations of our ethnicity. It is imperative to remember where we come from and how that influences us, but it is even more important to hold on to what makes us individual and complex humans who interact with other people the same way we expect to be treated. It is borderline ridiculous that this concept still must be actively preached, but given tolerance and bigotry’s perpetual battle against one another, emphasizing what makes us human must not go unappreciated.

Bushra Alfaraj is an Arab American interested in identity inclusivity and representation. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.