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More Arab than you?
Michelle Nasrine Kemp
by Michelle Nasrine Kemp
June 11th, 2014 (8 Comments)
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I was recently at a friend’s party and I heard someone say, “Because I’m Lebanese.” That was her answer to another lady that asked her why she was so tan.   I immediately gravitated towards her and started asking her a ton of questions! I was so happy when I found out that her dad was Lebanese and her mom was American, mostly Dutch roots. I’ve found a kindred spirit! One of us! One of us!

After asking her some questions I started to feel less and less camaraderie. She was not like me at all. I asked her what her favorite Arabic food was, and she said she hated them all and that her body would convulse at the thought. I asked her if she knew the language and she shook her head “no,” like this concept of learning Arabic was strange.

This made me think that maybe it’s different for us half-Arabs to have a mother that is Arab than a father that is Arab. So I did some research. I googled all kinds of things that would help me figure out why some of my cousins with one Arab parent seemed more immersed in the culture. I didn’t find anything on the internet, but I did my own study with a huge test demographic: my own family!

Here’s what I found out:

Some of my cousins that were raised by an Arab dad and American mom felt that they didn’t get the full Arab experience because their dads were busy working and their moms were at home. They didn’t eat the food growing up as much as they would have liked because their moms did most of the cooking. As much as the moms would have loved to learn how to make Arabic food, it’s a hard thing to learn mainly because Arabic mother-in-laws didn’t write down the recipes. That might change now that everything is on YouTube! (Watch out, teitas everywhere!)

My “half-half” cousins felt that they would have learned more Arabic at home if they had more time with their Arab dads teaching them the language. Since Arab dads worked all the time and spent little time at home with their children, it was a lot of work to train their kids on how to speak, read and write Arabic, unless he brought them to work with him at the store and taught them throughout the day, but this was a near impossible task.

Some of my cousins were lucky enough to have Arab dads that knew how to cook and raised them on the customs. They felt that they were really immersed in the culture.   They were not lacking in knowing more about the Arab culture at all.

Well, that just blew apart my whole theory! So, what makes us feel like we are more Arab than other half-Arab people? If it’s not our moms versus our dads raising us up in a mixed home, then what is it?

I think the more cousins I asked, the more I started to realize than it all depends on the individual. I was given a choice to embrace the customs and culture the older I got. If someone is not interested, then I think he will not gravitate towards the Arab side of his heritage.

I have always leaned towards learning more Arab traditions and language, and I teach them to my own children. I thought it was because my mom was Arab, and if I had had an Arab dad, it would not be this way. Now, I’m thinking that it really has nothing to do with it all, and that it’s only up to me.

It’s not a competition, and there is no trophy for winning the “Most Arab” award. We can all be proud that we have inherited a culture rich with great music, food and traditions.   Besides, we all know I would totally kick my cousin Joy’s butt if there were an award for Arabic karaoke singing!

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* Michelle Nasrine Kemp is a wife, mother of 2, advertising sales rep, and writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Comments (8)
  1. This is a great article Michelle. I am also Half Arab, but on my dad’s side. My grandparent’s never taught their kids Arabic so I didn’t have much chance to learn the language. I was fortunate that my American mom embraced aspects of the Arabic culture.

    I thought I had a normal American childhood until about 4th grade. That was when I realized that most American kids don’t have 100 cousins that they see every week and don’t eat leaves off the grape tree in their backyard. The older I got, the more I grew to appreciate my Arab ancestry. I joined the Middle Eastern cultural club at home and at college and I took Arabic courses to try and learn the language. I was even fortunate enough to travel back to the old country and visit the house my Jidu was born in. What an amazing experience!

    While I have never been able to learn much Arabic, I married a wonderful woman from Syria and we are raising our son to be as Arab as she is. I have grown to embrace the culture more than some of my fully Arab cousins. For me, I think it’s the fact that I wasn’t fully immersed in it growing up that drew me to the culture. I wanted to learn more about it and I wanted to connect with what I felt I missed out on as a child. I understand your point well. It really is completely up to the individual.

    • Good for you, Joe! It’s all about choices and being Arab is part of our identity. I love the part about 100 cousins and eating leaves from the backyard! LOL! You get me, you really get me!!

  2. Judy Hirdes ... June 12th, 2014 - 07:42

    I love your writing…..very interesting stuff about your family & heritage!

  3. Arabic karaoke? Now that sounds interesting! Watch out Joy, you may want to stay out of karaoke clubs for awhile!

  4. Oh my sweet cousin… I sang choir for years. I would SO have you in karaoke….. just they have to write it in english… lol

  5. Speaking of more Arab :-) I am a British-Pakistani with Syrian ancestors. I spent a number of years in Saudi Arabia with Lebanese neighbours, so picked up language, food and customs. Now it’s a real interesting situation when I meet Arab Americans and am told I am more Arab than some of them :-)

  6. Robert Sweiss ... June 19th, 2014 - 00:57

    Nice article. It certainly does come down to choices if one will maintain their Arabness or not or a hybrid-of-a-sort. I have seen & met a variety of people who had a set of Arab parents, one Arab parent, and no Arab parents! The ones who had no Arab parents I found most interesting. They made a choice to learn about Arab history, Arabic language and culture. They have become Arabized or if you will Arabists. They certainly could shame the children that originate from one or a set of Arab parents. My parents are from Jordan but growing up in America my siblings and I were disconnected from Arab families and Arab culture. I made a decision at age 19 in college to learn the classical Arabic language and to learn Arab/Islamic history. Today, I am married to a non-Arab and have a daughter. I do see and feel the challenge once again in educating my daughter about her Arabness. In her early years i had her enrolled in Saturday Arabic classes and I continue to converse with her in Arabic. The challenge is to get her to want to learn about her heritage on her own. I do take her to Arab conferences, community events and parties. The next trip is to the Middle East to help reinforce all that I have been saying and educating. During Arab Heritage month, I give an hour lecture about Arab contributions at her school. I have been asked to lecture elsewhere but I have to monitor my time. That’s my $.02 cents. Good discussion. Keep up the good work.

  7. Thank you! Inshalla, one day I’ll go visit my cousins in the Middle East one day too! I love those terms “arabist” and “arabized”.


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