I learned way back then that Chaldeans find their roots in Iraq. I also learned that they are Catholics, even possessing a rite in the Catholic Church. I actually remember feeling invigorated by these new discoveries. I had found more Arabs! Yes! The fact that they were smart, successful, and good-looking was of no surprise to me. They were Arabs. We are all like that. I was delighted. I was thrilled. But most of all, I was proud.
But then, something weird happened. As I was having lunch with one of my Chaldean friends in our dorm cafeteria, one of her cousins, whom I had never met, came by to join us. After we complained how the food was nothing like our mom’s, we started talking about our parents, how they can’t speak English, how they exaggerate, and how they are sometimes just outright unbalanced. I said, “Yeah, Arab parents are crazy.” My friend’s cousin quickly sniped back, “We are not Arabs! We are Chaldean!” I was frozen. I had no idea how to respond. Here was someone whom I thought was just like me, and she was telling me, quite loudly, that she wanted nothing to do with being “Arab.”
As I have remained in Michigan over the last 19 years, I have, through my work and activism, come into contact with all the communities here in the Detroit area, including the Chaldean community, which is most likely the largest anywhere outside of Iraq. And I have encountered this sentiment over and over. It should be said that not all Chaldeans feel the same way as my friend’s cousin did back then. In fact, for every Chaldean I meet declaring that he is not an Arab, I meet another declaring that he is.
I have performed comedy for many Chaldean audiences. And they laugh, because their moms save bags too, and their dads can’t pronounce “P” too, and they’ve been discriminated against too. But, although they always enjoy my shows, I have gotten many lectures from Chaldeans after my performances for them. “Good job, Amer. You’re funny. But remember, we’re not Arabs.”
For those who have proclaimed that they are not Arabs, the platform has always been the same. “Yes, we come from Iraq, an Arab country, but we are not Arabs, because we are Christians and we speak our own language.” The “we are Christians” argument can be discarded pretty readily, as Christianity was born in a place that is today inhabited by Arabs. My hometown of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown as well, is currently packed with Christian Arabs. I come, in part, from a Christian Arab background. Some of the leading figures of Arab nationalism over the past century have been Christians. An individual may be Christian and Arab at the same time. And Chaldeans know this.
And yes, most Chaldeans do speak Aramaic. However, they also speak Arabic, especially if they grew up in Iraq, an Arabic-speaking country. In fact, the Aramaic that many of them speak at home is not read or written in any meaningful capacity. Chaldean-owned radio stations, television channels, and newspapers, established here in America and aimed at the Chaldean community, are all broadcast and written in Arabic.
So why are some (maybe most) Chaldeans so intent on making sure everyone knows that they are not Arab? Could it be because American media and politicians have promoted the belief that Arab=Muslim, Muslim=Terrorist, Terrorist=Un-American? Who would want to be an Arab in that world? In a society where being Arab is many times as some sort of threat to the American way of life, it can be tempting to find an “out,” or a way to extract one’s self from all that ugly “Arabness.”
And why do I care? Well, I must admit, my motives are a bit selfish. Chaldean Americans are smart and successful. They are overachievers. They are strong models of what hard work and dedication can produce. They are examples of the American dream. So I want them to be Arabs. And whether they like it or not, I am going to claim them.
So to my Chaldean brothers and sisters, I say: Come on home. I am not a particularly religious person, but as a Palestinian from Nazareth, I love Jesus deeply. And I am reminded of when he said something like, “That which you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.” You are my brethren.
Politicians and the media routinely engage in the ugly activity of using “Arab” as a dirty word. Let’s not do it to each other.