Monday, May 20, 2013

Am I a "Beginner Arab" and Other Questions of Cultural Identity

A few weeks ago, my five-year-old daughter was comparing the color of my skin to hers and noticed that mine is slightly darker.

Mommy, she said, my skin is lighter than yours, because I am just a beginner Arab.

Later, she added: You are a middle Arab and Teta is an advanced Arab.

I laughed, and we have joked about it since then. But I can't stop thinking about it. I am haunted by this sentence: I am a beginner Arab.

Teaching my daughter to roll out Arabic bread.
That is because those words are sharp to me.  To my daughter, who has spent her whole life in America, they are simple, clean words, as careless as her crumpled napkin.  She has been hearing about my homeland since she was little, but has never been there.  She is learning a few words, a bit about this history, about the food.  So, in her mind, since she doesn't know that much, she is just a beginner. 

I wonder if these words will always be careless for my daughter.

These words became sharp for me when we moved from Cairo to Jerusalem.  In Cairo, we had lived the expat life, going to British school and English-speaking churches, swimming at the international hotels and playing with little British children.  My mother cooked simple, basic Arabic foods - rice, vegetables, cooked meats, salads, yogurt.  But once we moved back to her land, so many things changed. Suddenly, I was surrounded by cousins and grandparents. I was expected to (learn to) speak Arabic. We spent our time with our Palestinian neighbors, friends, relatives, sharing large meals around long tables with plastic chairs. And almost all of these foods were new and foreign to me, piles of steaming, stuffed vegetables. There was no more spaghetti or pizza. 

Why don't you speak Arabic? everyone asked me. 

I couldn't explain why my tongue didn't work any more than I could explain why my skin was brown. I didn't have the words to tell my story, which started, of course, before I even had words.  All I knew was that I was broken.  I was an Arabic-less half-Arab.  And now here I am, too old to really learn.

I just can't, I would say.  My answer was as bitter as the spring green almonds that children stole from our almond tree.

And so, I ate the food.  I dipped my bread in the labani and the olive oil, I braved the mansaf and waraq dawali heaped high on my plate, and then I ran outside with the children to play under the fig trees.  I learned new words.  I listened.  I sat with my grandmother and watched her crochet, helped my mother snap beans for dinner and fried the nuts for the rice. 

That was many years ago, now.  I find myself asking, as I stir my pots of Palestinian foods, can you be a "beginner" Arab? Is my Arabness (or Americanness) something that I can learn, that I can progress with, that I can advance in, as I learn more?  Am I more Arab if I cook Arab food? If I study Arabic? If I go back to Palestine more often?  If I am more educated on our politics and history?  Is my Arabness something that I possess, that I can become more proficient in, or is it my birthright, a gift given to me at birth?

How do you answer this question?  You who are like me, who know what it is to grow up between worlds, how have you answered this?

I would love to know.  I am not sure that I have an answer. 

I do know this.  Somehow, I am okay with this question now.  There was a time when the question itself was too painful to even speak out loud, to admit.  I might not have the answer, but what I do now have is peace in my identity:  I have my story of someone who ran from that question, then ignored the question, and then through years of walking down dusty roads of faith, has found peace.

UPDATE:  NPR is running a special series of articles from the Race Card Project, in which it highlights real stories of people's thoughts on race. You can find them here:  NPR's Series, The Race Card Project.   I particularly related to the one titled, Living in Two Worlds, But With Just One Language.  To read more six word race cards, or to submit your own, go to .


  1. Hello, Bint Rhoda. I do so enjoy your blog. I have tried some of the recipes and will be trying more.
    I find your question poignant. We, who are of more than one culture, face this question in different ways from different people, often.
    For me, and for the way I experience other people, I see that we make our own culture. Truly. There is Arab, yes. There is whatever you identified with in Egypt. There is you who lives now in the US. I don't think it makes us any "less". I think, if anything, it might make us "more", if we have to use this kind of terminology. But it does produce challenges, doesn't it? I think taking a label is an easy way out of the challenge of making decisions. How can I express the many cultures residing within me? I don't feel a need to claim One Culture or ethnicity. I am so happy with many different parts of the many cultures I carry. Some things I am not so crazy about. I am not a "Culture", I am me. If I need to claim a culture, I claim my own, which is an amalgam of all I've experienced and inherited.
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Your posts are extremely thoughtful, informative, thought provoking, and inspirational.
    Your friend and admirer,

  2. I would also add that the added experiences might enable us to be more compassionate and understanding of culture differences, as well as enjoy and participate in many different ways of experiencing the cultures we love. I understand the fear of leaving or "disrespecting" the cultural identity we cling to the most, perhaps given to us by our parents but I think it is a false dichotomy to feel one must choose. I think, also, that our children and their assumptions and own identities challenge us: I used to fear and be stressed by the fact that my children don't identify with my father's origins as we did growing up and as I wanted them to. The truth is, however, that while my father came from another country, my mother was of northern European heritage, leading to children who are, as a "mixed" friend of mine calls it "half and half". Having myself, married and procreated with a man of similar heritage to my mother's, my children are now only 1/4 of the ethnicity which cause people to think I am different from them, the "average American". When I was growing up, people frequently stopped to ask me where I was from. Someone once remarked to me: "You look ethnic". Aside from the silliness of that statement, no one will ever say that to my children. They look like "Average Americans". How we look is part of our cultural identity because it partially defines how we are viewed by and allowed in to the dominate culture. That gets diluted with time and living in America.
    Wow. That was a lot of words. I wanted to have a discussion with you on this topic, not write a dissertation. Anyway, thank you for bringing up the topic. And thank you again for your thought provoking and thoughtful posts.

  3. Thank you, Ceci, for your kind words of encouragement. I think you are right - our culture is a blend of cultures, and we simply must accept that. I do think it will be a bit easier for our children (my daughter will essentially grow up American). The challenges usually lie in the first, not the second generation of third-culture kids. For me, I think it was hard because I was grew in homogenous cultures, where I was not the norm. Now I live in a much more multi-cultural city, so no one bats and eye at me and my children. But when I was a child, this was just one more way that I absorbed the culture's message that I was inadequate. I was very much handicapped by not speaking the language. But I wonder if even if I spoke Arabic, there would still be additional "barriers" or expectations that "real Arabs" do this or that.

  4. I just came across your blog today, and have been so happy to find your recipes. Although I grew up eating these foods, I cannot always remember how to make them just the way my grandmother and my great-grandmother made them...but I can see that this is exactly right. My family is from Lebanon but lives in the US; I myself am another generation of immigrant, living in the EU. I have cried reading this entry, seeing so much of my experience in your words. I just want to say thank you.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story with me. I am so grateful for readers like you who help me understand that my experience is not as lonely as it sometimes seems. Thank you.


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