Category Archives: The Civil Arab

An Arab Thanksgiving

As an Arab-American, Thanksgiving is an especially wonderful holiday.  I have even more things to be thankful for than the average non-Arab-American.

America is the place where my parents came and found a new life after becoming Palestinian refugees.  My father was exiled from Palestine at the age of one month, and my mother was exiled from Palestine as a young teenager.  My father, after being raised and getting a college education in Jordan, came to California to complete a PhD at the University of California-Berkeley, where he met my mother, who had been in California since the age of 12.  They did not meet in the traditional Arab way.  They met in California in the 1970s.  I’m not saying that there was something special in the hookahs back then, but who knows.  Luckily, my parents’ marriage is one of love.  It is still beautifully, and sometimes annoyingly, obvious.  For that, I am thankful.

After getting married, my parents left America to move to Jordan, where my dad was to become a university professor in chemistry.  For the first two years of his tenure there, he was highly popular with his students.  During that time, I came along.  When I was born, my mother was already a US citizen, so I was immediately naturalized as an American.  For that, I am extremely thankful.

In 1979, my father was exiled from Jordan.  He was the victim of one of those superfluous displays of power by Arab dictators that too often characterize the Middle East, and especially the Arab-Israeli conflict.  He re-learned the lesson that every Palestinian knows and lives: Being a Palestinian means you can live anywhere you want… except here, wherever “here” happens to be.  Palestinians live the ongoing existence of a “guest”, even in their own land.  After spending dozens of generations as a people tied to their land, Palestinians now are a people tucked in every corner of the world.  Only a Palestinian can say, “I live in America, my brother in Jordan, my sister in Australia, and my other brother in Mongolia.”  We rack up more frequent flier miles than anyone else.  Airlines love us… most of the time.  Nevertheless, my father, because of his education and impressive résumé, found a job just outside of Philadelphia, and that’s where I grew up, with all the pleasures of an American life.  For that, I am thankful.

My mother and father went through a lot to get to America, although it was not by choice.  My dad was raised in a makeshift neighborhood in Amman, with none of the basic daily amenities we take for granted here everyday.  He had to finish in the top of his class in high school, college, and graduate school, just to have the chance to succeed.  And he did.  I’m kind of thankful for that, because while his hard work is the main reason I had the relatively easy life I did, it was nearly impossible to impress this man.  He came from nothing…  I remember bringing my tests home when I was a kid.

Me: “Baba, here’s my test, I got a 96!”
My dad: “Where are the other 4?”

What he and other Palestinians have been able to do is amazing.  Going to foreign lands with foreign languages, and somehow succeeding.  If you look at Palestinians as a whole, they are usually very successful in whatever they do.  Whether they run a body shop, or a multi-million dollar corporation, they are the best.  Why are we always successful, no matter where we go?  Is it genetic?  It is because we’re related to Jesus?  Then I got it.  It’s because we don’t have a Plan B.  We have to make it work, and so we do.

Arabs love Thanksgiving.  We are already obsessed with food.  The only 2 questions Arab mothers have for their sons are “When are you gonna get married?” and “Did you eat?”  To have a holiday completely obsessed with preparing and eating food makes an Arab feel very at home in America. And for that, I’m thankful too.

So, on this Thanksgiving, like every Thanksgiving, I feel lucky.  But I have to say, I feel a little weird celebrating Thanksgiving as a Palestinian.  It’s not only because there’s a lamb next to the turkey and hummus next to the cranberry sauce. This is a holiday where we all take a 4-day weekend, and commemorate when light-skinned foreign people pretended to make peace with dark-skinned native people, then kicked them out and stole not only their land, but their recipes too.








White? Arab? Help!

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.


Obama: Publicly Christian

There are a few things I know about Barack Obama. I know that he was born in Hawaii. I know that his father was Kenyan, and that his mother was white. I know he graduated from Harvard Law School. I think he’s a Christian. I don’t know for sure. I mean, who does really, and what would it mean? Barack Obama can say he’s a Christian… so did Hitler, George W. Bush, and all those molesting Catholic priests. Is this some elite club? Apparently. You can’t be president without proclaiming your membership.

Today, Fox News, CNN, & MSNBC all reported that Barack Obama went to church “publicly.” I’m not exactly sure how one might go to church “privately.” I don’t go, but I hear there’s usually other people there. I know for a fact that my people, the Arab people, go to church very publicly. For us, church is a fashion show/meat market/speed date/social event/gossip session… with prayer.

All this is happening amidst what seems to be the never-ending question over whether or not Obama is (or ever was) a Muslim. And unfortunately, our main commentators know just about nothing on the matter. Franklin Graham, one of the leading figures of the religious right in this country, was quoted a few weeks ago, describing Obama’s lineage. On this pressing matter, he said:

He was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim; the seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim; his father gave him an Islamic name… you can be born a Muslim. You can be born a Jew. But you can’t be born a Christian.

It’s almost painful to dissect the idiocy here. Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, religion can make you say and believe silly things about your own faith, and even sillier things about others. Let me qualify myself a little bit. I’m not a particularly religious person. Both of my parents are Palestinian refugees, and neither of them is too religious either. My father is a Christian, and my mother is a Muslim. Or at least they come from those roots. I am of their seed. I’d like to see how Graham would describe me. I clearly wasn’t born a Christian (Prof. Graham says that’s not possible), and my Muslim DNA comes from my mother, not my father.

I know, it’s confusing. But growing up in my house was pretty fun. We celebrated Christmas, Easter, & Ramadan. Well, I guess you don’t really celebrate Ramadan. Not eating during daylight for a month is nothing to be bouncing off the walls about. Plus, we didn’t fast. But we had the party at the end of Ramadan like everyone else. I guess you could say the same thing about Easter. I didn’t even know what Lent was until I had painted Easter eggs for about 15 years. We were celebrating all the time. One year, we even celebrated Rosh Hashanah, just out of habit.

But let’s get back to Graham. I eventually received an MA in Middle East Studies, and in the process, I became an academic authority on Islam (sounds cool, huh?). Let me say clearly… there is no such thing as being “born” Muslim. Becoming Muslim is something that comes about as a matter of what you believe. In this sense, it is identical to Christianity, and starkly different form Judaism. There is no Muslim DNA. It is not passed through any seed. That concept may exist loosely in a cultural sense in Islamic societies (much like it does in Christian societies), but religiously, in a doctrinal sense, it is simply not true. This is why no religious duties are incumbent upon a Muslim until he reaches the age of reason (i.e. puberty), because it is at that point that he is considered to be of the sufficient intellect capability to understand what he is doing and why. I could go on and on, but let’s conclude this part of the presentation by simply saying that Franklin Graham doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about.

And that’s really the most dangerous part. Unfortunately, when he opens his mouth, a lot of people listen. And when he professes to know something about Islam, people believe it. Religious leaders tend to see themselves as authorities of not only their own religion, but all others as well. Doctors don’t do this. If you ask your podiatrist a question about your heart, he doesn’t try to answer it for you. He calls his cardiologist friend. But religion is different. It’s competitive. It’s a zero-sum game. It seeks not only to advocate for itself, but also to oppose and resist all others, many times using instruments of misinformation and fear. No religion actually exists in harmony with other religions. It’s like football. A die-hard football fan can tell you how awesome his team is. And the main reason him team is awesome is because all the rest suck.

So it is in this atmosphere that Obama’s people call the news outlets before he goes to church. He’s declaring his allegiance to the Christian team because, whether he actually believes in it or not, he has no other choice. This is all too stressful for me. I like it better my way, celebrating everything and nothing at the same time.

By the way, when is Yom Kippur? It always sneaks up on me.


The Great Democracy of Israel

Israel attacked (not surrounded, not redirected… attacked) a ship bringing supplies to Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel for 3 years now. Why did Israel blockade Gaza? Because it was unhappy with the democratic decision of its people to elect Hamas to power.

Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.

Israel arrested two Palestinians, who are Israeli citizens by the way, Omar Said and Ameer Makhoul, and proceeded to accuse them of spying for Hizbollah. Makhoul was denied access to a lawyer for 2 weeks following his arrest. Makhoul and Said are prominent human rights activists, working inside Israel. Israel has still not presented any evidence against him. Why did Israel arrest them? Because it was not happy with what they were saying. Both Makhoul and Said have been deprived the most basic fundamental legal rights. Their real crime is being Palestinian in Israel.

Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.

Israel’s official languages are both Arabic and Hebrew. Recently, however, Israel has started to change the names of Arab cities on street signs, replacing their Arabic names with their Hebrew names, transliterated into Arabic. For instance, when describing Jerusalem, instead of writing “al-Quds” in Arabic (its correct name in Arabic), they are now writing “Yerushalim” in Arabic (its Hebrew name). I know, this does not make sense to normal people like you and me. But Israel isn’t normal. It’s not as if the next generation of Palestinians will stop calling it “al-Quds.” We’ve been calling it that for a pretty long time. But Israel is simply doing what it has been trying to do since before 1948: eradicate any sense of Arabness in Palestine. This might work… except… oops, Israel still has more than 5 million Arabs under its control.

Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.

Jewish towns and roads are pumped with government money, while Arabs ones are left to languish with no help. Jews are granted building permits with no hassle, while Arabs must jump through numerous hoops in hopes of even getting one. Infant mortality among Arab citizens of Israel is two and a half times higher than it is among Jews. 50% of Israeli Arab college graduates are out of work. Arabs make up 6% of the civil service, but are 18% of the country’s citizens. Arab elementary and middle school students trail Jewish pupils in math, science, and English, and the gap is widening. Arabs suffer much more poverty, and the national education system spends considerably more per Jewish child than per Arab child. I haven’t even talked about the Law of Return, which grants any Jew in the world automatic citizenship to Israel while denying the rights of Palestinians living inside Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere.
To Israel, being Palestinian simply means one thing: You can live anywhere in the world you want… except here.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Middle East’s only democracy, told us that the activists on the flotilla boat “deliberately attacked” the Israel soldiers who were dropped from helicopters onto their ship in international waters. Wait a second… the Israeli commandos undertook a surprise attack on a ship full of unarmed activists, then got “deliberately attacked?” That’s like saying, “A burglar broke into Amer’s house… then Amer proceeded to deliberately kick his ass.” Maybe in Middle Eastern democracies, “deliberately attacked” means something different than it does in America.

In our democratic America, our leaders have spent the last 24 hours doing damage control, trying to keep strong language out of the UN Security Council’s resolution condemning the attack. President Obama, we have bigger things to worry about. When they ask you about Israel, just say “No comment… I got a hole in the Gulf of Mexico, the economy is shit, and they’re rounding up Latinos in Arizona… I can’t deal with crazy bitch Israel right now.” Israel is like our drunk friend… she always get wasted, does something really stupid, then we apologize for her… “Sorry guys, Israel was so drunk last night… she usually doesn’t kill activists in public like that.”

Except she does. Israel is much more scared of international human rights organizations like Free Gaza than it has ever been of Hamas. If Hamas does something counter to Israeli interests, Israel can simply bomb them, kill a few innocent bystanders, apologize, and move on. But non-violence is something Israel has no idea how to deal with. Branding as terrorists those who challenge Israel in a non-violent manner is nothing new. Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Hanan Ashrawi, have all gone through this. Killing those who use their intellect to confront and defy Israel is nothing new for the Israelis either. Simply ask the families of Naji el-Ali and Ghassan Kanafani.

In the Middle East’s only democracy, democracy is dead. Or more accurately, it was never even alive.

A Letter to Rima Fakih

Dear Rima,

I’d like to give you my number, but that would be way too forward and Arab of me. So I won’t.

Congratulations. We are proud of you. Arab-Americans are very excited about your win. We had viewing parties. We all started calling and texting each other as soon as you won. I was at an after-party for a comedy show I did last night. All the attention was on me. Then my phone (and everyone else’s) started blowing up. “Hey everyone, that Arab girl won Miss USA… Why are we here again? Amer who?” I’ve never been upstaged by someone in a different city. But it’s OK, I forgive you. Don’t let it happen again. We don’t get to celebrate like this very often. So for that, we thank you.

And tell Donald Trump we claim him too. Sharp suits, great hair, declaring bankruptcy and still driving around in $100,000 cars… he’s one of us!

We live in a funny time. Arabs in America are seen as suspect. Our existence is highly politicized. Everything we do, good or bad, has a lot of gravity to it. Your win is no exception. For every column congratulating you, there is another expressing outrage. There are those who denounce your win as “affirmative action,” “Islamo-pandering,” and so on. Since your roots are Arab and Muslim, many people will see your win as un-American, as some sort of threat to the working order of things.

See Rima, racism against us is different. When white people see blacks or Latinos, they’re afraid they might lose their purse. When they see us, they’re afraid they might lose their freedom! And people will give up their purse, but they might kill for their freedom.

So your win means something more, even if you don’t want it to. In this age where we are fighting for an identity, trying to get a box on the census form, attempting to withstand the impending theft of hummus, and having to prove our patriotism over and over, you are now a symbol. So, congratulations… embrace it.

You have become one of our jewels. You will get invited to Arab events all over the country now, although maybe not too many Islamic ones. I’m not sure those bikini photos will go over too well with CAIR, the Council on America-Islamic Relations. I don’t think those are the “relations” they’re referring to. By the way, if you need some arm candy for any of those events, let me know, I’ll free up my busy calendar.

But while we are ecstatic over your win, we’re not really surprised. We Arab-Americans are smart and beautiful. We have some of the highest rates of college graduation of any ethnic group. We have a doctor in every family, or so it seems, even though our women exaggerate about it a little bit. I’ve had this conversation before:

Me: “What does your son do?”
Proud Arab Mom: “My son? Oh, my son doctor.”
Me: “Oh, what’s his specialty.”
Proud Arab Mom: “Well, he doesn’t have specialty yet.”
Me: “Oh, ok… where does he go to medical school.”
Proud Arab Mom: “Well… Umm… he doesn’t go to medical school yet.”
Me: “Huh?”
Proud Arab Mom: “He’s 8. But he’s gonna be doctor.”

And your win is a little racially ironic. You competed against a few black, Latina, and Asian women, and lots and lots of white women. Of course, if any non-Arab minority won, it would have been celebrated as a moment of American inclusiveness. Your win will spark debates on politics, terrorism, Islam, and the such. And out of all the mintories that were represented there, you’re the only one who the US Census Bureau classifies as white! But of course, we’re not white! And you need to tell them that. On the next census form, they can even call it the Rima Fakih box. I’ll check it.

Our women are better than white women, for a bunch of reasons. Arab women are more family-oriented, highly educated, great cooks, and they never, ever… press charges.

So Rima, congratulations. You are not simply Miss USA Rima Fakih, you are Miss USA Arab-American Rima Fakih. Enjoy it. I’ve always known that Arab women are the perfect combination of beauty and intelligence. Now everyone else does too.

Like I said, I won’t leave my number. That would be pathetic… So e-mail me and I’ll give you my mom’s.


Faisal Can Denounce Himself

Invariably, a crazy Muslim or Arab does something crazy every now and then. We have our share of crazies like everyone else. And just as invariably, Arab-American and Muslim-American organizations rush to “denounce” those crazy acts. This is nothing new for these groups. It has become common practice for these groups to “apologize” every time an Arab or Muslim does something crazy or stupid. Whether it’s Faisal Shahzad (the Times Square guy), the guys from Ghana last year in New York, or any dues-paying member of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, Arab and Muslim organizations find themselves constantly denouncing and apologizing.

As an Arab-American, I have found that I am sometimes asked some pretty weird questions. Right after 9/11 (and sometimes still today), I got a flurry of interesting ones. I never knew how to answer, so sometimes I got a little sarcastic.

“What did you think of 9/11?” It was bad.
“Did you know those guys?” Only 2.
“Why do they hate us?” You know who Paris Hilton is, right?
“Tell me about Muhammad.” Which one? I know about 100 of them.

An Arab-American finds himself in the sometimes undesirable position of being the representative ambassador of everything Arab/Muslim. For a glory-seeking people like us, this can sometimes be dangerous as every Arab-American thinks he is an expert on us and our history. Most, of course, are not. “I don’t know,” however, is usually not part of our vocabulary. As my friend Jimmy Goson (a long-time Arab-American comedian) would say, “When was the last time you heard an Arab say, ‘I have no opinion on that.’” But our desire to always want to give an answer to a question is another problem for another day.

What we are talking about here is the constant apologizing we are doing for people like Faisal. We have allowed a certain environment to develop, one where we are expected to condemn every idiotic act of every idiot who happens to be Arab or Muslim.

Enough already.

It is not required of us to subjugate ourselves like that. By constantly denouncing, condemning, and apologizing, we are in part buying into the idea that these crazies somehow do speak for us. We always cry out that they do not represent us, yet every time we voluntarily denounce them, we somehow are saying that they do. If someone asks me, I’ll condemn him, I guess. Anyone would, right?

Maybe our organizations should each just create a new position, Director of Denouncing. It would make things a lot easier. They could just fill in the blanks, and boom… a perfect condemnation. This would get every apology out in 5 minutes instead of the usual 30 (Maybe “boom” was not the best choice of words.) Or better yet, in the interests of efficiency, every September 11, they could just issue a blanket apology. “We condemn all the inevitably crazy things our people will do for the next 12 months. See you next year.”

We need to stop condemning and denouncing. Arab-Americans live in a paradox. We are saddled with the bad acts of our people, but never the good. Arabs are constantly forced to apologize for the acts of every idiot, and never praised for acts of our intellectuals. We find ourselves constantly proving and re-proving our patriotism. When the default assumption is not that you are not loyal, you trick yourself into thinking that you need to verify, confirm, and demonstrate it over and over.

It needs to stop. We’re the only ones doing this. It’s a club that I don’t want to be a part of. I don’t see anyone else apologizing. When are white people going to apologize for mayonnaise, the Jerry Springer show, Paris Hilton, and Sarah Palin?

Until that happens, Faisal can denounce himself.


Why Barack Isn’t Getting My Census Form

On the 2010 Census form, as on almost every other form that asks one to identify his race, there is no box for “Arab-American.” Now, we all know race doesn’t really mean race in any biological or anthropological sense. If it did, there would only be 3 boxes: White, Yellow, and Black. Then, Latinos would be white, but we all know they’re not. In America, when one is asked to define his race, he is really being asked to identify his spot on the social totem pole. And I know it seems ironic, but Native Americans are somewhere near the bottom. I know, as if the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and Thanksgiving weren’t bad enough!

Just about every other group has a box. But we don’t. Even some obscure ones get some sort of shout-out on the Census form. Trying to decipher the whole thing, though, is a bit of an adventure.

When one finally reaches the “race” section of the form, he first encounters question 8: “Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”

OK, so before we even get into anything, we need to know if you’re Latino. If you score well on that question, you then get to narrow it down by specifying whether you are Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, or Cuban. And if you’re none of those, you get to write in your own origin. They even give you suggestions. Well, nothing fit me, so I failed that question.

Once you’ve figured out you’re not a “Question 8-er,” it’s on to question 9. This is where it starts to get interesting for us. There are many choices. I couldn’t find my box right off the bat, so I started to play the process of elimination game. “Black, African American, or Negro.” OK, I know I’m not that. Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian. No, No, No, No, No, No. Guamanian or Chamorro. I don’t think I know what that is. Oh, Guam. No. Samoan. I’ve heard of that, but I don’t really know where it is, and I’m generally good at geography, so I’m definitely not that.

Then I came to an interesting one. “American Indian or Alaska Native.” I wonder why they don’t write “Native American.” But I agree with the decision. It might confuse Texans, Toby Keith, and Sarah Palin. I think they might think they’re the “Native Americans.” But I really thought about checking this box. There’s actually a lot of perks to being Native American, and it’s hard to prove, so I might as well get the ball rolling, for my kid’s sake. I hear they get great deals on tuition. But real estate, not so much. So I decided this one was not for me.

I glanced back over “Black, African American, or Negro.” Well, in the strictest sense, some Arabs are Blacks, some are African-American, and I didn’t know we could still say “Negro.” But I had a strong feeling that this box was not for me. No one else who checked it would be OK with me checking it. Don’t get me wrong, we’re very similar. We get profiled, blamed for stuff we don’t do, love watermelon, have huge family reunions, and might be older than one of our uncles. Most importantly, we scare white people. But that’s also how we’re different. See, white people are scared of black people because they think they might steal their purse. They’re scared of us because they think we might steal their freedom. So this is not my box either.

I started to get frustrated. Then there was “Asian Indian.” How confusing! My first thought was “India’s in Asia, right? “ “Asian Indian” just sounds weird. All this chaos was caused because up there they just had to say “American Indian,” and now down here they have to say “Asian Indian.” Plus, I always thought “Asian” meant you were Chinese or Japanese, or at least looked like you were Chinese or Japanese. So I gathered that this box meant Indians from India (which is in Asia), and that’s not me either. My people did not create that annoying sitar in the beginning of every Indian song.  I also know I’m not Indian because Indian girls won’t go out with me. I’ve tried many times… although maybe the first thing out of my mouth shouldn’t be “I loved Slumdog Millionaire.” Aishwarya, I’m sorry! Please return my calls!

Then I saw something promising: “Other Asian.” And here they suggested “Pakistani.” Since I couldn’t find a box for myself, I thought I might as well just check something I get mistaken for.

Me: “I’m Palestinian.”
White Guy: “You don’t look Pakistani.”
Me: “I’m not Pakistani, I’m Palestinian… we’re the ones on the news, throwing the rocks, fighting against the Israelis.”
White Guy: “Oh, you’re the ones that are doing all the suicide bombings.”
Me: “Hey!!!!… I said I was Pakistani…”

But I resisted the urge. I didn’t check this box either.

That left me just 2 choices. First, there was “White.” Even though many times we are told to check this box, I immediately knew this was not for me. Here, the rule is easy. If white people don’t think you’re white, you’re not white. And I know they don’t think I’m white. See, I can get away with being quasi-white, like Italian or Greek, and when white people think I’m white, they say really racist things around me. When they find out I’m not, they stop. So I’m not white.

So that leaves me with the last box. The “other” box. And they don’t even make you feel good about checking it. It’s labeled “some other race.” It’s like they’re saying, “If you haven’t found a box yet, we don’t really care.” Many people in our community have encouraged us to check the “other” box. But we are much more identifiable than “some other race.” When you get falafel, you’re not getting from a “some other race” restaurant. They don’t take me off the plane because they think I’m from “some other race.” CNN didn’t report that 19 “some other race” terrorists took over those planes on 9/11. “Other” is dismissive. It means you’re not important enough to get a box.

The number of Arab-Americans is estimated to be anywhere from 2 million to 5 million. That is higher than many of the other groups explicitly mentioned on the form. We deserve a box. The reasons we don’t have one are complicated. Much of them are from within. Our organizations have thus far failed to win this battle. There is also a disturbingly significant portion of our community that is more than happy to keep checking the “White” box. And an Arab can pass for being white just fine, until he finds a flaw in every hummus except his mom’s, organizes a wedding, fights over the check, yells while talking about the weather, speaks in only hand gestures, drinks yogurt, takes off his shoes when he enters the house, calls everyone “cousin,” realizes his wife is his cousin, gets picked up at the airport by 25 relatives, curses people out in Arabic, covers his furniture in plastic, lives in a house for 6 with china for 200, struggles to find the beard-chest borderline, especially when he dances. So whatever we are, we are not white! And we are definitely more than “some other race.”

So Barack, give me my box. Then I’ll return the form, I promise. I’ll even insert my mom’s hummus recipe… but remember, hers is still the best!



Is Israel “Irreplaceable”?

Something funny is happening in Israel. There’s trouble in paradise.

Last week, on March 10, CNN ran a front-page story on the death of Rachel Corrie. Rachel was killed seven years ago when an Israeli bulldozer crushed her to death while she was protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes in Gaza. Her parents have finally gotten their day in court, as they have sued the Israel’s Defense Ministry in connection with their daughter’s death. CNN’s coverage was related to that occurrence. (Incidentally, Israel has refused to release the name of the driver who killed Rachel, even after clearing him of any wrongdoing.)

Things are changing in Israel and America. Not too long ago, this story might have not have made it to the American press at all, as the facts surrounding it make Israel look at best incompetent, or at worst, malicious. American media outlets have made it their stock and trade to shield Israel from such criticism… but things are changing.

Also, on March 9, all major news outlets reported on Vice President Joe Biden’s scathing denunciation of Israel’s decision to build 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem. He said that the “substance and timing of the announcement… is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.” In the days since then, numerous American officials have echoed his statements, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling the announcement “insulting.” Prime Minister Netanyahu has apologized for the timing of the announcement, but has stuck to its substance, saying that building will go forward. Senior White House Advisor David Axelrod fired back, saying the announcement “seemed calculated to undermine” the so-called “proximity talks” the Americans are trying to set up between the parties.

Since this all happened, Palestinians have not been saying much. You know why? Our jaws have fully dropped. We Palestinians have never this seen kind of mudslinging between the Israelis and Americans. And we kinda like it. We’ve never seen an American administration talk like that to the Israelis. It’s pretty cool.

There is no longer that basic unconditional American defense of all Israeli actions, no matter how barbaric or idiotic. The rules are changing. Palestinians are seeing it, and wondering… Is it a dream? Are we on candid camera? Are we getting Punk’d?

Well, it’s not a dream. This is all happening in a rapidly changing global political hierarchy.

American presidents and politicians have always unequivocally supported Israel, mainly because the strength of the Israeli lobby in the US meant that their unwillingness to do so was political suicide. As American administrations were stoutly supportive of Israel, and since America was the single superpower with no one else even a close second, other nations had to either fall in line or get off Israel’s back. That was how we were operating for 60 years.

The collapse of the American economy has changed things. See, we never needed all the other countries before. Now we do. We need China, the EU, India… we need everyone. The field has widened, and we are no longer the undisputed champion. We now need not only the participation of other nations to help us recover, but also their respect. What the current American administration is realizing is that our unwavering support for Israel is something that the rest of the world sees as dim-witted. It is a crutch to dealing with the world on an equal level. While our “special relationship” with Israel was once something the global community of nations had to fully accept, it is now simply an embarrassing hindrance to being taken seriously. In other words, instead of the American position molding the worldview on the subject, it is now the other way around.

Maybe the next step will be for Congress to slash the more than $5 billion we are still giving the Israelis annually. If we seriously want Israel to stop building settlements, we can just stop giving them the money to do it. That $5 billion might better be used right here at home for, well, I don’t know, say, healthcare. When it comes to Israel, we hold the purse strings. That’s why Palestinians are still weary. While they love seeing America make Israel sleep on the couch, they won’t believe the hype until we puts our money where our mouth is.

The US has been apologizing for Israel’s embarrassing and abusive actions for too long. We give them the money to build the settlements, and then an Israeli politician says that American criticism of Israeli settlement policies is meddlesome, uninvited, and “sheer chutzpah.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. That would be like us trying to dictate things to China if we owed them over $2 trillion. Oh, oops.

We are now having to admit to something we really already knew, that our “unique” relationship with Israel has affected our standing and credibility with everyone else.

Well, we can’t be Israel’s battered victim anymore. We’re going on Oprah! We want our life back! We’re dumping you! It’s time to call the cops, and this time, we’re pressing charges! Israel, to the left, to the left!

Maybe Palestine can catch America on the rebound… and you know what they say about Palestinian guys… well, that’s for another day.


When A Palestinian Comedian Goes Too Far

Less than a week ago, I was performing at a private party for about 75 Arab-Americans in the suburbs of Detroit. The setting was a restaurant where one half was reserved for this private party while the other half still had regular customers. The side with regular customers was within earshot of my routine.

About 3-4 minutes into my act, I told the following joke, which I have told dozens of times before:

Sometimes I accidentally bring out the racist in people… I don’t mean to do it, it just happens. Once, I was sitting in an airport bar because my flight was delayed, not because of me this time. There was this white guy sitting next to me, and since were both lonely, we started chatting.

He eventually asked me, “What’s your name?”
I said, “Amer.”
He said, “That’s an interesting name… where are you from.”
I said, “Well, I grew up in Philly, but now I live in Michigan.”
He chuckled and said, “No, I mean, where are you from from.”
This is what white people say when they want to find out where you’re REALLY from.
So I said, “Oh, from from… Well, I’m from from Palestine, I’m Palestinian.”
And he said, “Really?!”
And I said, “Yeah.”
And he said, “REALLY?!?!”
And I said, “Yeah, I didn’t say I was a fuckin’ unicorn, I said I’m Palestinian… we exist.”
So he looked over both his shoulders, then turned back to me and said, “That’s cool… I don’t like Jewish people either…”
And so I got upset… I said, “Hey man, that’s racist! It’s racist of you to assume I’m racist just because of my race… that’s racist!”
And he said, “Fine, man, calm down… you mean you don’t hate all Jewish people?”
And I said, “Well, I’m just sayin…”

And that’s the joke.

A couple minutes after I told that, the manager of the restaurant (a complete idiot) came up to me, tugged on my sleeve, and told me, “Don’t tell any more jokes about Jewish people, you offended some of my customers.” Apparently, some Jewish customers who were not in the private party I was performing for heard the joke and got a little bent out of shape. In the interest of keeping the peace (and since I was performing for a group of people who were going to keep partying long after I left), I simply smiled, assured I would not offend any more customers, and kept performing. I continued and my crowd was having a good time. After about ten minutes, during which time I was squeaky clean and un-offensive, the manager reappeared and asked me to step down. “You’ve offended everyone,” he told me. In shock, I asked, “Who?” He said, “Too many people.” I looked at the organizer of the party who invited me, and she did not seem like she wanted to make too big of a deal out of this. So I stepped down. Many attendees of the private party approached me immediately, and expressed their outrage at my stepping down.

Apparently, the few Jewish customers who were offended by the above joke would not stop complaining until I was removed from the stage. Now let me tell you all a little something about that joke. It is not about Jews. It is about some of the incredible things that happen to me as a Palestinian in America. It is about how some white people try to associate with minorities in any way that they can. And finally, it is about how we, as Palestinians and Arab-Americans, sometimes cannot bring ourselves to say we are OK with Jews. At the worst, the joke is offensive to white people and Arabs, but not Jews.

But this is what it means to be Palestinian. You can live anywhere you want, except Palestine, and you can talk about anything you want, except Palestine. You see, the Jews I “offended” that night were not offended by my joke, they were offended by the fact that I am Palestinian. They didn’t even really hear the joke. They probably heard “Palestinian” and “Jews” and said, “Hey, now wait a minute!”

You see, supporters of Israel are offended by the mere presence of Palestinians, by the mere recital of some sort of Palestinian narrative. In some way, it makes them very uncomfortable. It’s kind of like that when you know you’re doing something wrong, but you do it anyway. Any Palestinian in the room makes them uneasy. Talking about Israel and its policies makes them edgy. I guess I understand. I mean, I’m sure the slaveholders didn’t like talking about slavery either.

As Palestinians, our legitimacy depends on whether or not we “recognize” Israel. But supporters of Israel are not required to even acknowledge that Palestinians exist. For an Arab to be taken seriously, he must be “tolerant” of Jews (whatever that means). When a Jew is tolerant of Arabs, he is “open-minded and forward-thinking.” At the essence of the Palestinian question lies this complete inequality, this absolute and utter disparity in status. It is almost surreal for the oppressors to be demanding “tolerance” from the oppressed. But it is not without precedent. In America, whites in power demanded that blacks “behave” before they considered “giving” them rights. In South Africa, black had to conduct themselves “civilly” before they were taken seriously.

This sort of calculated framing of the debate by Israel and it supporters serves to silence any Palestinian narrative. Well, guess what? I don’t need anyone’s permission to be Palestinian. I don’t need your go-ahead to tell my story. And you thinking I do kind of pisses me off.

I never wanted that joke to get stale. I was thinking of eventually retiring it. Not anymore.

An Open Letter to Jon Stewart

Jon, I’ve been watching you

First, thank you for airing the interview you conducted with Mustafa Barghouti and Anna Baltzer.  I’m sure your staff received thousands of letters from Arab-Americans thanking you for airing that piece.  I’m also sure you received many letters from viewers chastising you “allowing” such voices on the air.  You might wonder why we were so jubilant that something like that got on TV.  Well, it’s because nothing like that ever gets on TV.  So, thanks!

And like I said, I’ve been watching you.  Aside from being a comedic influence on me (Yes, I watched “You Wrote It, You Watch It”), I rarely miss an episode of the The Daily Show.  I always notice the remarks you make about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I pay special attention to anything you every say about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  You are always levelheaded, fair, and funny.  As a Palestinian-American, frankly, I get excited listening to what you have to say.  And your words have a greater weight because you a re a recognizable American voice, but more importantly, because you are a recognizable Jewish-American voice.  As you know, whenever a Jew or Palestinian speaks on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it has a different sort of gravity.

There’s something important to understand about us Palestinians in America.  We are constantly disappointed, constantly feeling slighted, constantly getting misrepresented.  Frankly, whenever we hear a Palestinian voice is going to be on TV, we immediately assume it will be attacked, trapped, or discredited.  Your willingness to provide an open and honest forum for Barghouti and Baltzer to speak was not only a breath of fresh air, but also a courageous act, whether you meant it to be or not.

So Jon, I’ve been watching you… and all I have to say is:  Come out of the closet, already!  Come over to our side!  It will feel better, I promise.  I see it in you.  You have a nagging attraction to truth and justice.  You’re perfect for us!  You have what many people find to be an annoyingly high level of humanity and conscience.  C’mon, you know you really want to openly hold Israel responsible for occupation, and separate the legitimate and just cause of the Palestinian people from their incompetent and corrupt leadership.  My commitment comes not from the fact that I am Palestinian, but rather from the strong belief that I’m on the right side.  It lets me sleep better at night.  You will too!

As you well know, in a sort of wicked irony, the Palestinian experience has come to mimic the Jewish experience.  Palestinians and Jews now share more than just a political conflict that has stretched for much of the past century; they also share a history of refuge, discrimination, diaspora and powerlessness.  The Palestinian has inherited the Jewish political soul, made to feel like a foreigner in his own land, battered by his enemy, abandoned by his protectors, and left to fend for himself against incredible odds.

Jon, as you also know, the problem in most analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that they rest on faulty assumptions.  The first is an assumption of parody, and Israel knowingly forwards this misconception.  What we are talking about when referring to the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis is not the relationship of one nation with another, but rather of a military occupying power with a civilian occupied populace.

Also, Jon, most speak as if the Palestinians and Israelis have equal control.  In other words, most discourses revolve around the incorrect supposition that the Israelis control Israel and that the Palestinians control Gaza and the West Bank, while in fact Israel exercises complete military control in most of the West Bank and Gaza and complete discretion in the rest of it.  This is evidenced every day as Israel demolishes homes, places leaders under house arrest and sets up degrading and protracted checkpoints for Palestinians as Israeli settlers travel freely.

Finally, Jon, as you know, the most damaging misconception has its nexus not in Israel or Palestine, but rather right here in America.  Most analysts who speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict talk as though our officials in Washington and around the country can be even-handed.  The facts are that American politicians and policy makers aid the Israeli military and government to the tune of $5 billion yearly.  Israel is the recipient of the largest amount of aid we dole out every year, eating up about one-third of our annual foreign aid budget.  How many people could we give health care with that?

Jon, stop making me beg, especially when deep down, you’re already there.  I can gather all the Palestinians I know (it’s a lot) and we can have a sit-down.

It’ll go something like this:

You: “Hi, my name is Jon.”

Us: “Hi, Jon.”

You: “And I support justice for Palestinians.”

Us: “Welcome.”