Only In America
American-born to immigrant parents, I was always trapped in the white space between a traditional Arab lifestyle and the American dream. I spoke only Arabic in preschool and, with a name like mine, had suffered through never being completely understood. In grade school, I tore of pieces of pita bread sandwiches from within my mom-packed lunchbox. “What kind of bread is that?” they’d ask. Neither wanting to explain it nor hound my mother for so-called American bread, I resolved to gnaw on bit-sized chunks in humble secrecy. And in college: imagine the irony of store-bought pita and hummus as a student delicacy. My mother’s sandwiches were rendered gourmet: a snack staple was suddenly exotic.
I coursed through my youth, raised as traditionally Palestinian as a New Jersey resident could muster. My brothers and I were blessed with Arabic names – and rare Arabic names at that, perhaps barring my eldest brother. Indeed, to George was the gift of never needing to spell his name nor repeat it several times, nor internally battle with the courage quota required to correct a stranger. For the record, this experience is always uncomfortable. And in the limbo of judgment where mispronouncing strangers freely roam, I weighed the expiring value of correction against just taking it.
In America, we were asked to spell our names. We were asked to explain where it came from, and what it means. Teachers assumed my failure with the English language, saying, “This grammar might be hard for you to understand.” I felt unordinary and exotic, and all I committed for the sake of assimilation just made me weirder. Like a monkey at a circus, crowds formed and we were asked to speak Arabic to vacuous strangers who would forget instantly what they heard. We were asked to speak on behalf of our people. In every direction, my identity was being highlighted as different, my lifestyle rendered exotic, and my being was marketed as diverse. I was told I was the beauty of America.
In a perfect world, constantly being the token Arab had its benefits. After all, I was speaking on the behalf of an entire people.
Yet still I was robbed of the opportunity to find purpose on this pedestal. While I was being constantly reminded of my non-American identity, even still, they asked me to be the same. “Can’t I just call you Ian?” they asked. And with my refusal to assimilate, they forced my simple name through tongues incapable of feigning exoticism. They imagined accents in an insincere and unsuccessful attempt to be accommodating, as though I wouldn’t understand my name Anglicized otherwise. They asked us to see their movies, praise their stars. They asked me to describe my parents’ whirlwind West Bank love story, which must be anchored in an arranged marriage and shrouds of mystery and rituals of the orient. They asked me to validate my nonexistent immigrant story. “…but, just making sure: you’re a citizen, right?” And worst of all, they asked us to eat loafed bread.
They repurposed us for advertisements and marketing, to show difference and uniqueness and specialty as some imagined testament to acceptance and their purported wide-appeal. I looked at myself, a gimmick on college brochures. Tan and bearded, aquiline nose and thick eyebrows was supposed to juxtapose the university sweatshirt, casual backpack, and blinding smile. Look! said the caption. We can even educate them!
Barbaric as I was, I did not grow up in an American home. My house was a sacred ground for the smell of Arab foods, books written backwards and Arabic TV channels. It was Little Palestine—rather, Little-er and far less democratized. Outside of that, I found home in nowhere else but the West Bank.
And so when I dismounted a plane that landed me squarely in Jordan, mastering the obstacles to reenter the Palestinian Territories, I expected a wave of mass acceptance and understanding. Welcome back, they would say to me, giddy, as I floated majestically above the cobblestone streets with thermos in hand and a hookah slung over my shoulder.
Obviously this was not the case.
First, they expressed sympathy at my traveling and demanded of me the opportunity to re-explore, in ultimate detail, the adventures that I had most recently undergone. And then they prodded at me for being quiet, and then they asked me where I came from.
Well, obviously, here. They would laugh at that, telling me, “You’re American now.” I never really found out whether this was an honor, or was said with a smirk.
Attempting to avoid and then downplay anything potentially mistaken for arrogance, I said little. They looked me up and down, first at my shoes and then at the way my hair was done. “Your Arabic…” noses scrunched up, “…rusty.” Strangers responded to inquiries in perfect Arabic with laughter first, followed by a reply in proud (yet indiscernible) English. And though I could understand Arabic, their decision in favor of difficulty rendered me incapable of understanding, incapable of replying, and therefore, an idiot. And with this I was knighted American: monolingual on one shoulder and assimilated on the other.
They assumed that I had found undeserved wealth in America. “Do you eat this?” they asked, as though my mother had never cooked an Arab dish before, or worse, that I forgot the taste of braised lamb meat. They asked me what black people were like, and about the habits of cowboys. I didn’t even consider myself fully American, and yet I brought with me a window to the foreign policy strategy of the United States. And best yet, an inability to answer, all of my failures and successes, came down to the presupposed cause of my identity. “It’s because he’s American.”
On the third day, they presented me with a bottle of their finest Israeli ketchup, with the warning, however leveled in sarcasm, that it wasn’t as good as American ketchup. Too pained to tell them that I don’t eat this American condiment, I accepted their thoughtfulness with a warped smile.
The first night, I laid in the dark of a makeshift bed on the floor, head heavy on a pillow, and cried. I came back to find home, but found myself a stranger. I was in an alternate America, where everyone asked the same questions, judged the same way, and projected the same stereotypes bright on my nakedness.
On both fronts I battled stereotypes of what I was like and what I couldn’t have been. Americans found me exotic and strange, and yet my trial back home was little else than the shock of a new culture. In America, my Arab tastes were taunted; in Arabia, they were stale and nonexistent. I never wanted to shut down questions or curiosity; after all, I was always proud of my multi-faceted identity, my power in bilingualism, and my experiences in abroad travel. But I no longer wanted to play the token. I was simply bad at it. I could not educate on what wasn’t mine. I was not accepted in America, but did not belong in Palestine, and yet, the opposition demanded I provide an impossible native-like insight to the other.
In other words, I was wedged between two cultures that neither fully accepted nor wholly rejected me, judged on both fronts and never feeling entirely whole. The cosmos of my identity, homeless, had been rattled. It was as though my human confidence, up to that point, was secured by the assurance that I was Palestinian living in America. But when I switched fields, it was not the rock-solid assurance upon which I grew my self-worth. I wasn’t as much Palestinian as I was American.
In the end, I did away with seeking any type of acceptance on either front. I smeared peanut butter and jelly in my pita-bread pocket and mastered written Arabic. But it’s this struggle to get here, to dig and find this resolve upon which to lean that made me stronger. This is what it’s like to be Arab in America, and there’s a glory in it.