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White? Arab? Help!
Amer Zahr
Amer Zahr
Monday, October 4, 2010 - 11:18 am (10 Comments)

When Aladdin came out, I was a teenager.  I thought it was awesome.  Finally, Disney made a movie about us.  There was Aladdin, our hero, a cute little Arab guy… a fez-wearing, ballad-singing, fair-skinned, bare-chested young man, who jumps around town with an adorable pet monkey. Then there was Jafar, the big bad wicked villain… an olive-skinned, full-bearded, turban-wearing, tall, skinny man with a hook nose, mysterious accent, evil parrot, and a plan to take over the world.   Talk about foreshadowing.  Disney must have known something we didn’t.  Jafar was Osama bin Laden before Osama bin Laden was Osama bin Laden.  As I look back on it now, that might have been my political awakening, seeing Disney portray our people as either an evil terrorist or some sort of hummus-loving Justin Bieber.

See, as an Arab-American I have dealt with this identity problem my whole life.  Am I an Arab? Am I white?  Am I both? Can I be?  I have lived in America since I was 3 years old, and as much as I really do love living here and everything that comes with it, I have never felt truly at home.  And I have visited the Middle East many times, and as much as I love everything there, I never felt fully at home there either.

Here in America, I see the differences all the time.  For instance, when you tell your white friend’s mom that you don’t want anything to eat, she actually doesn’t bring you anything to eat.  At my white friend’s house, my politeness only buys me hunger.  When we’re all sitting outside at my white friend’s house, we go inside when it’s cold.  That’s confusing to me.  You mean your dad doesn’t have a sawed-down modified steel barrel that he fills with sticks, logs, and lighter fluid, then lights on fire and places in the middle of the driveway?  Arabs love the outdoors so much we start fires just to stay outside.  Our moms encourage us all to do this for one simple reason.  The longer we’re outside, the less time we are inside dirtying up the house, one half of which we can never enter or touch anyway… and the half we’re allowed in is usually covered in plastic.

But being in the Middle East is just as bewildering.  The kids there aren’t like the kids here.  Hot political issues here in America affect everyday citizens in the Middle East sometimes more than they affect us here.  Kids in Ramallah would walk up to me saying “You think the Republicans will filibuster health care?” Damn.

As Arab-Americans, we live in a sort of limbo.  We don’t belong here, and we don’t belong there.  We’re Arabs here, Americans there.  And being Arab here is no fun.  Now not all of us look like Jafar.  I am fair-skinned without a hook nose.  I usually get mistaken for being just about everything except Arab.  People ask me, “What are you? Greek, Italian, Armenian, Asian?” Asian?  Really?  They will guess everything except Arab.  Guessing that someone is Arab is just plain insulting.  I’ve actually heard correctly identified Arabs respond by saying, “How did you know?”  That doesn’t help us with the whole “We’re not all part of secret terrorist cell”-thing.  When I inform people of my true heritage, they sometimes say, “Wow, you don’t look Arab.”  And since I’m a polite person, I usually reply by saying, “Thank you.”

Sometimes I’d rather just be the stuff I get mistaken for.  At least if I were Italian, people might ask me questions like, “So, what do you think of the Sopranos?”  Now, they ask, “So, what do you think of al-Qaeda?”  If I were Greek, seeing me might remind people of something they saw in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  Now I just remind them of something they saw on Fox News.

Sometimes, I don’t know what I want to claim myself as.  Most people encounter situations in their lives with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  For me there’s no angel and devil. There’s an Arab guy and a white guy.  Abdul and Tom.  For instance, I’m out to dinner with a couple friends, and the check finally comes.  Abdul immediately jumps on my shoulder… “Pay it! Pay the whole thing!” Then here comes Tom.  “Well, I only had a burger and a water.”  Sometimes visitors stay at my house past my bedtime.  Tom tells me, “Tell them they have to go!”  Abdul quickly responds, “No, tell them they can stay as long as they long as they want… invite them to sleep over.”  Or imagine when I see a beautiful, tall blonde in a bikini.  Tom: “I would totally hit that.” Abdul: “… Me too.”

But the toughest struggle comes when we encounter someone doing or saying something racist.  Tom and Abdul are fighting in just about every Arab-American’s mind.  Because of appearance (remember, some of us look and talk more like Aladdin than Jafar), many of us can just stay white.  Every white person knows a lot more Arabs than he thinks he does.  Some of us are in the closet.  And why not?  Who would ever choose Arab over white?  I mean, yeah, hummus and grape leaves are better than boiled hot dogs and Hamburger Helper, but that’s about it.

See, a white guy might cross the street when black men are approaching cause he’s afraid they might steal his wallet.  He crosses when Arabs are coming at him because he’s afraid we might steal his freedom.  You won’t kill for your wallet, but you might for your freedom.

But that’s all so ridiculous.  What they don’t understand is that almost all the Arabs that are here came for the same reason the people on the Mayflower did: to get away from a shitty government.  Arabs came here because they had freedom envy. They don’t hate it.  Like just about everyone else, they love it.

So to all the white people, you shouldn’t be afraid that we’ll steal your freedom.  Your women though… well, you should protect them.


* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

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