On being a Christian Arab-American woman in America
I remember the first time I had to decide which box to check under “Race/Ethnicity” on an official form. I was sitting for my PSATs during my sophomore year of high school, and the empty boxes were severely escalating my present state of anxiety. I stared at them as they sent my brain reeling, searching for any recollection of who I was. I checked “Other”, erased it, and then checked “White”. If I checked “Other”, I would have to specify and I couldn’t think of an existing word to describe my race. In that moment I felt invisible.
Every summer since my family first moved to the United States in 2000, we would visit our grandparents and extended family back home in Lebanon. Despite the ever-deteriorating situation in the Middle East, our vacations were always perfect. Between the delicious Lebanese food and the dangerously over-populated family reunions, there wasn’t a wasted moment. Every night we would sit on my grandparents’ balcony, breathing in the cool mountain air that seemed to detoxify the clouded minds we arrived with. My senses heightened, I would try to memorize how it felt to be so geographically and emotionally elevated — it was home in every sense of the word.
I remember one summer far more vividly than the rest, however. On July 12, 2006, the seemingly distant conflicts brewing in the Middle East snuck up, tapped my childhood on the shoulder, and knocked it unconscious.
The day after my ten-year old self and my family arrived in Lebanon, war broke out and Lebanon’s only airport in Beirut was forced to close. The seaports were blockaded and roads and bridges were destroyed. We evacuated on a Canadian ship, became refugees on the tiny island of Cyprus, and eventually made it safely back to the United States. That’s the extent of what I was able to put together, from my own memories as well as from the stories I have heard my mother telling her concerned friends.
What I know now, after hours of uncomfortable research, is that the war that ruined my childhood summers has a name; the 34-day military conflict is called the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, known in Lebanon as the July War (حرب تموز, Ḥarb Tammūz). Wikipedia tells me the primary parties involved were the Hezbollah paramilitary forces and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). On paper, the war ended on August 14th with a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, but in reality, it ended on September 8th when Israel lifted its naval blockade of Lebanon. Between 1,191 and 1,300 Lebanese people were killed (mostly civilians), as well as 165 Israelis (44 civilians). The month-long struggle, which mostly consisted of Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanon and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel in response, left Lebanese civil infrastructure severely damaged and displaced approximately one million Lebanese people.
As always, one is more likely to believe a place has changed rather than admit that they have.
We wouldn’t return to Lebanon for another five years after the war. The country was unstable and my family was shaken; we could not justify risking our lives just for a summer vacation. As always, one is more likely to believe a place has changed rather than admit that they have. This time around, my grandparents weren’t the only subjects I observed scrupulously. My two sisters and I, five years wiser, became critical of so many things we had overlooked in the past. For the first time, we noticed cars, like sharks maneuvering their way around each other, completely disregarding the traffic rules we had assumed were universal. We found ourselves increasingly on edge whenever we left the solace of our grandparents’ home in the mountains to descend to the urban coastline. It wasn’t so much that the drivers on the road seemed shockingly reckless, but rather that their behavior was considered the norm; it was expected. We found our personal space and even our privacy consistently violated, even by people who shared our blood.
Distant cousins of my mother’s pinched and kissed our cheeks (always 3 times, thanks to Lebanese tradition), actual strangers stood millimeters behind us in line at the grocery store, security guards searched our bags as we entered shopping malls, and armed military personnel examined the trunk of our car at checkpoints on designated roads. Once again, the most shocking part was that this was all normal, routine. It is no coincidence that this was the year we felt, for the first time in our lives, a tinge of relief as we boarded the plane for our returning flight.
The moment we finally touched down in New York, five years after the evacuation, was the moment I realized that I was a Lebanese-American. For me this meant that I was a Lebanese immigrant in America and an American outsider in Lebanon. Can one consider two different places to truly be one’s home? If not, did that mean that I’d be left without either, or worse, that I’d have to choose one?
To this day, I am not sure how to answer those questions. But I have realized that I am not half American and half Lebanese; I am entirely both. Growing up in America, I knew I was Lebanese because I could only see my grandparents on summer vacation, because I could speak French and understand some Arabic, because my hair was darker and curlier than that of all my classmates, and because my mom cooked different food than my friends’ moms did. I was only so sure of my belonging to Lebanon because of the American environment I was surrounded by; it was only from the vantage point of revisiting Lebanon that I was I hit on the head with my inherent American-ness. Although I was older when I returned to Lebanon after being away for five years, I had regressed. I couldn’t even read the road signs in my so-called home country, let alone pronounce the names of dishes whose taste I could recall so vividly.
I remember the unmistakable moment of fear when I realized that I couldn’t just turn on my Lebanese switch when I arrived in the Middle East and flip it back off when I returned to school in America. There was no way of neatly shifting gears between the two cultures because they had been interwoven within me as I grew up.
Today, depending on my surroundings, I can feel myself becoming white or becoming a person of color. When I step onto the metro in East St. Louis, I feel white. If whiteness were a quantifiable attribute, I’d say I feel extremely white in that setting. However, when I sit down for lunch with my wealthy, white friends who participate in Greek life, I automatically feel less white. I feel as if we could not possibly belong to the same racial category.
Here, race means so much more than the biological because it is so indivisible from socio-economic status. To be a person of color in America typically equates with being a person of lower income due to a number of debatable factors that I will not get into. What’s important to me is that sometimes being white feels great, and at other times it feels wrong.
One of my mother’s tired hands grips her steaming coffee mug as the other sweeps disobedient bangs away from her stunning hazel eyes. I was always a bit envious of my mom’s appearance — her bright eyes, her light brown hair, her fair skin. I think some of these physical traits are the reason we perceive our identities so differently.
It’s also possible that our experiences were just drastically different. I grew up poor, first in Lebanon and then in America. She grew up really wealthy in Lebanon, living comfortably and traveling the world on family vacations. But she also grew up in a war-ridden country, her childhood tainted by the sound of air raids and screams.
As she took a sip of her coffee, both hands on the mug now, I hit the record button on my phone. I say, “Mom, can you tell me why you think you’re white? I’m really curious.” She swallows, thinks for a bit, then begins.
“Lebanon is one race: Lebanese. And because it’s a country that was conquered by many, how you look just depends on which genes you got.” I smile as I catch another glimpse of her hazel eyes. “In this country we go from Semitic-looking to very blonde and blue eyed.”
“Right,” I reply, “but personally, what was your understanding of ‘whiteness’ while you were in Lebanon?”
She replies right away. “The Lebanese, we think we are white. We never question that. If we are in France, they think we’re French. If we are in Italy, they think we’re Italian.” I nod. “In Lebanon, if you are not Lebanese, if you are from the Far East or Africa, you’re usually there for work; you’re helping in the house, working on construction sites, or something like that. And so, when we came here, of course I thought I was white.”
I’m already glad I decided to initiate this conversation. At this point, she looks like she might say something else. I recognize this look — mouth slightly ajar, eyes intensely focused on nothing in particular — she’s translating her thoughts into English for me.
“When you grew up here in Locust Valley, you kept on asking me what we were,” she says. I make a noise for confirmation. “It was the first time I realized that you might be thinking of those things.” She furrows her eyebrows. “It was very weird.”
I grew up in a predominantly white, upper class, Christian neighborhood and had peers who drove cars the price of my house. They spoke quickly, with a Long Island accent that I tried very hard not to pick up. Many of them were unaware of global affairs or anything else happening outside of our little town.
Again, if whiteness were quantifiable, I would say that my classmates were very white. In contrast to their lifestyles, I definitely did not feel white. But I also did not feel like a person of color. My skin color may have been slightly darker or more olive-toned than that of some of my friends, and my hair was definitely thicker, but for the most part I fit in appearance-wise. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly made me feel less white than the other kids at my school. I guess to me whiteness equaled wealth and American-ness, whatever that meant.
I can definitely say that feeling less white did not feel good. It wasn’t really about fitting in, because I was proud to have a different background (and different hair). I think it was about not having a label to identify with. If I was known as the Lebanese girl, I would probably be okay with that. But if I was known as the Arab girl, I probably wouldn’t. To me, the first sounds exotic and unique, while the latter sounds derogatory and restricting. But why?
I often find myself with two options: I can either pass as white and reap the benefits, or embrace my ethnicity and try to flip people’s negative associations with the word Arab. Passing would be so much easier, but I feel like I have a duty to choose the more difficult option.
I feel that my cultural values, financial status, and general lifestyle choices align more closely with non-white people. So if I have the ability to choose which race to identify as (either white or non- white), is race really as biological as our society believes it to be?
My fluid cultural identity allows me to “do” race in different ways. For example, I could wake up one day and decide to wear my hair curly and speak in only Arabic, and the next day I could straighten my hair and speak fluent Long-Island lockjaw. And the important part here is that both are true to me; in neither situation am I being anyone but myself.
Even if I can personally claim to be white and American, there will always be people questioning my authenticity (American-ness) because of my Middle Eastern origins. My feelings as other in America will persist as long as I stay true to myself. In James Baldwin’s essay “On Being White…And Other Lies”, he argues that America had, really, “no white community” — only a motley alliance of European immigrants and their descendants. He claims that “becoming white” means that these people were forced into American culture and changed into what was socially accepted.
Mom takes another sip, although I’m pretty sure her mug has been empty for the past couple of minutes. “In Lebanon, when you say you’re white, it means you’re not Asian, you’re not Indian, you’re not African…you’re Lebanese.”
Another sip. “In America, white means a culture. And since you didn’t fit into that culture, you thought you were not white. You thought your race was Lebanese, not white.”
I laugh. “Yeah, I definitely thought that.”
“I didn’t think we were a different race,” she adds.
“Now do you think we are?”
“Yes. I think you’re Middle Eastern.” She laughs, and adds, “Notice I said you, not me!”
The first house I remember living in is the first place we lived in America. Salim, the elder of my mom’s two younger brothers, had moved to America just months before us to receive a bone marrow transplant surgery he couldn’t get in Lebanon. The doctors thought he was dying, so his wife and kids followed him here.
My family, on the other hand, came to America for a different reason. Dad had spent all of his and my mother’s money on himself — he bought luxury items like pricey shoes and lavish fountain pens and hid them away — while keeping everyone under the impression that he was running a successful car garage. Turns out he didn’t know anything about cars or business, and eventually it caught up to him.
We were broke, and my mom was tired of leaning on her parents for financial support. She wanted a new life for us, so she sacrificed the career she had in Lebanon and the proximity she had to her friends, family, and everything she knew, and decided to start over in America. Salim, who goes by “Sal” now—going by Salim in the workplace drew too much attention after 9/11—let us rent out the bottom floor of his home. It was tiny and the ceilings were low, but we were grateful.
The kitchen was almost a third of the size of the miniscule bedroom I shared with my two sisters. The five of us — myself, my two sisters, and my parents — could barely sit together at the table for dinner. We had no dishwasher, which seemed to perplex a lot of the friends I brought home. “Wait,” they would say, confused. “How do you clean the dishes?” My mother’s hookah on the floor in the living room was also a subject of scrutiny. “Is that for drugs?” I was weirdly defensive about the hookah in the house. I loved correcting people: “It’s actually called arghile, not hookah.”
I stopped having friends over after a handful of these types of inquiries, and began making excuses so that I would never have to host a playdate. I was much happier playing a Wii game I couldn’t afford in a finished basement the size of my home than defending my foreign enclave. I always made sure to be home for dinner, though.
My mom did not allow an empty seat at dinner. It was always my job to set the tiny table; I would dance around my mom as she rushed to finish dinner and fill our growling bellies. Some of my friends said their moms didn’t really cook, and I wondered what they ate for dinner, and where.
After dinner, my sisters and I would bathe while my mother cleared the table and washed the dishes. We always fought about who would get to shower first, because there was never any hot water left for the third person. My dad would sit outside and smoke his pipe or lock himself in my parents’ bedroom to nap. I don’t remember him ever not smelling like tobacco; I always held my breath when he came close to kiss me goodnight.
When my mom kissed me goodnight, I inhaled as much air as I possibly could. Some nights she smelled like watermelon and mint, and other nights she smelled like sour apple. I now know these smells are two of the most common tobacco flavors smoked with argileh. Every night, even with our bedroom door closed, my sisters and I would be lulled to sleep by the faintest bubbling sound the argileh made as my mother inhaled over and over again. At my first sleepover away from home, I stayed awake for hours, longing for the smell of sour apple and the sound of tiny waves in the distance.
There’s only one set of words, phrased as a question, that can get my heart beating faster than a jackhammer. “Where are you from?”
I always hesitate because I don’t know if people are asking where I live (New York) or where I was born (Lebanon). More often than not, I reply “New York,” and sometimes it’s the answer they were looking for. But other times, they respond with something like, “oh, but where are you from.” If they caught me on a good day, I’d be intrigued and flattered by their curiosity. But on a bad day, I’d get irritated by their uninvited interest in my non-American-ness.
To be clear, there’s nothing I love more than meeting and conversing someone who is genuinely interested in the Lebanese culture. But if I say I’m from New York, it’s because that’s where I’m from. If a fair-skinned white person answered their question with “New York,” that would probably be the end of the questioning (despite the possibility that they could’ve emigrated from a different country). Like Baldwin says, no one is originally from America (excluding Native Americans of course). Everyone’s ancestors immigrated at some point, and made a moral choice, according to Baldwin, to join a “synthetic racial elite.”
I would much rather be asked, “what is your ethnicity?” or “where do you live?” than “where are you from?”, but then again I don’t think it’s fair for me to expect people to read my mind or to assume social invidiousness on their part. Over the years, I have learned to embrace and encourage any sort of curiosity towards my culture, because it means I am becoming less invisible.
It would be weird if Natasha didn’t interrupt a conversation I was having with my mom, especially considering her interest in this particular subject. I let her speak although the middle child in me was itching to pounce. I kept my phone recording.
“Iranians and Iraqis and Palestinians and Lebanese are all different. But Americans want to categorize them all as one thing: as Arabs, as Middle Eastern, whatever. Brazilians are different from Dominicans are different from Mexicans but people want to say that they’re all the same. Why is it that it’s okay for Italians and Germans and the French to all be perceived as different? Is it because of the languages? It can’t just be based on appearance, because they look more alike than we and the Palestinians do.”
My mom and I look at each other, unsure if we are supposed to answer or not. Natasha continues. “So who is it that gets to decide what the racial categories? It’s the people in power. And who has always been in power?”
“White people.” Mom beat me to it, although I’m pretty sure it was a rhetorical question.
Mom gets up and brings her mug to the sink, finally coming to terms with its emptiness. I turn to Natasha. “Do you remember filling out the PSAT boxes about race?”
“Yeah,” she says, suddenly succinct now that the question is directed at her.
“Well, was that weird for you?”
“Yeah,” she says again, “and you just had to say, you know, that you were White. And in parentheses it said that you were not Latino or Latina. But there was no Arab.”
Mom, now in the living room, chimes in. “That’s why I think we’re white!”
Natasha continues as if she didn’t hear the distant remark. “White is almost a term for someone who’s not something else. White is you’re not Latino, you’re not Black, you’re not Indian, you’re not Asian…We were white by default.” She starts using her hands to animate what she’s saying, which is when you know she means business. I decide to stay quiet.
She says, “Whiteness is used in a way now where it’s associated with being better. If you’re white, you’re better. So it’s easier to want to be white. Because celebrities are white. Media is white. America is white. Those are the people in power, you know?”
A simple nod suffices, and she goes on. “And then it comes down to the individual. Do you associate with that? Are your experiences associated with that, with privilege? Or are your experiences associated with,” she pauses to think, “adversity?”
In elementary school, my best friend was half Honduran and half White. In high school, my best friend was Honduran; he was born and raised in Honduras and moved to America when he was twelve. My two closest friends at WashU are Asian — one was adopted and raised American, and the other moved here from Taiwan just before high school. Now that I think about it, the one thing myself and my four close friends had in common was that our families struggled economically. These were the people who understood what I meant when I said I couldn’t afford to go out to dinner more than a couple times a month, the people who felt the same immense pressure to succeed as I did, as I imagine all children of immigrants do. I didn’t pick my friends by the color of their skin, but rather by the struggles we had in common.
Mom brings back some Lebanese candies from the living room — classic. Natasha doesn’t even notice. She’s leaning across the table, a little too close to my face now. “You know, that’s where identity comes in. It’s beyond the color of your skin, it’s your experience. Is your experience white? And maybe our experience is now, but I don’t think it was when we were younger.”
I’m glad mom is here for this part. “It honestly could have been just because of the way other kids didn’t understand what we were eating or why our hair looked that way.” Something changes in her eyes as she spots the pile of little candies on the table. She pops one into her mouth and leaves the table.
Today in Lebanon, people are known to be from a certain village, which is known to be either Christian or Muslim (and within the Muslim community as either Sunni or Shi’ite). In Lebanon, when I tell people I am from Rabieh, they automatically categorize me as Christian and middle class, and they are right.
I have no problem with that. But in America, when I tell people I am a Christian Arab, many get confused. They do not know what to think of me because this category is invisible to them. Some people might even think the term “Christian Arab” is an oxymoron. Every time I explain to people that half of Lebanon is Christian, I feel that category becoming less invisible, however marginally.
Though many believe that the solution to the Arab-American invisibility problem lies in a census category change, I disagree simply because the problem did not originate there. Although my first encounter with the Race/Ethnicity boxes on the PSAT exam did make me feel invisible, it was only a validation of feelings I had been already been dealing with as a result of interactions with other people in America. Instead, I think it is my job as an Arab American to redefine people’s stereotypes of me and make my voice heard in a way that will make it impossible for me to be invisible.