“What Makes an Arab, Arab?” or, Arabs in America

Elections in the United States are just around the corner, and the event is on everyone’s lips, or Twitter feeds, for that matter.

There are these series of promos on Al-Jazeera Arabic, with young Arab-Americans speaking about the elections, the outcome, the future of the United States, etc. They wear professional business suits, with the United States Capitol in the background, and speak in accented Arabic.

One of the men in these recurring promos is a corpulent Lebanese-American by the name of Abed Ayoub. Abed looked very familiar to me, and I realized that he was one of the speakers on a panel that we attended at Georgetown University, during the early days of the MEPI program.

The reaction I had when I attended this panel is the same as when I watch these promos; why should Arabs care about what  ‘Arab-Americans’ think about America?

I remember the other speaker at the panel, a woman named Maya Berry. Ms. Berry spoke about her role in the Arab-American Institute, and about the challenges Arab-Americans faced. I remember her saying, “My mother is of Lebanese origin, so I can talk about this,” and then gave a nervous chuckle. Because, if you have some sort of Arab link, you have a licence to involve yourself in their affairs when you want, right? I’m being sincere here.

But I look at these people, and they make me wonder. When I hear them talk, it’s clear that they love the United States. So why do they work so hard to retain an ‘Arab’ identity? Is it pressure from a family that doesn’t want to forget their roots? Or a personal conflict within themselves?

Now, you’d probably say,(if you had lasted this long in my rambling)  Nada, why can’t a person be both Arab and American? It’s their identity, their right to define who they are.

I’ve struggled for years with this identity thing, denying I was an Arab because I was so ashamed, and then trying to throw away the Western behaviour because I wanted to fit in. I always hated when people labeled me. So I shouldn’t be doing it to these people, right?

But the honest truth is, I just don’t see them as Arabs. Everything about them screams ‘American’, and I don’t feel any particular connection or link with them. I may be going beyond my jurisdiction here, but I think other Arabs feel the same. I don’t believe you can juggle two differing personas, the ‘Arab’ and the ‘American’. One of them will dominate, and that’s the one people will identify you with.

Knowing Arabic does not make you an Arab. Being able to dance the dabkeh, or being able to pronounce it, for that matter, does not make you an Arab. So what does?

If I knew the answer to that, life would be much easier for me. The best answer I can give you is my friend Mary, (check her out on the A7kili (talk to me) blog.).

Mary is an Arab. Strongly Arab. You just get this vibe emanating from her. She sings Faryuz songs at the top of her lungs. She speaks Arabic at 50 words a minute. She is uncomfortable around American food. When she talks about the Middle East, her eyes are fire. She doesn’t apologize about it. She doesn’t make excuses, or try to put the blame on someone else. She doesn’t pretend to act like a Westerner.

I think this is what an Arab is.

I don’t resent Arab-Americans. I admire that they love the United States. I think it’s nice that they are so patriotic. But I cannot see why they identify as Arab.

Part of me has this dreadful idea that they have been bought, by a government that wants to give off the impression that they are multi-cultural and tolerant no matter how many wars abroad they are involved in.

I recall reading a short story by Stephen King called “Everything’s Eventual”, about people who have supernatural abilities, and have been hired by a company to assassinate people with these powers. What do they get? A house, a car, a weekly allowance. In short, a life of comfort and security. At some point in the story the main character reflects on how he killed over 200 people, and it only cost the company a small house, a Honda and 70 bucks a week.

It that it, then? Can you hire a person and nail them to the facade you wish to show the world, and it’ll only cost you a business suit and a couple of interviews on T.V.?

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