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.


About Amer Zahr 181 Articles
Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."


  1. Great article Amer. Humorous in some areas, while very insightful in most others. You are very witty indeed.

    I too wish more non-Arab Americans would realize the many contributions Arabs and people of Middle Eastern descent and/or nationality have contributed to America and to Dearborn, however small minded racists will see what they want to see, no matter what we tell them, no matter what positives they see Arabs doing. These Archie Bunker types we will never covert. But I am sure that we can convert some of the ones sitting on the fence and I try my best to do this every day of my life.

    It is sad for me to know many people who I really care about, who are otherwise fine, decent people, yet become bigots when it comes to Arabs. They get an earful from me when I hear those anti-Arab remarks. I know that some of them are now more understanding when I show them the proof. For what it’s worth my friend…

    Michael D. Albano

  2. i think it is really important to be clear that arab americans ARE WHITE . . . under u.s. law, they are classed as semitic caucasians, just like persons of jewish descent

    why do i think this is important? because it prevents arab americans from receiving the legal protection and social interventions of being a racial minority, even though they are discriminated against and excluded as an ethnic minority . . . latinos in this country, who are also racially “white”, do receive the protections and benefits of minority classification on the basis of their ethnicity, but that is because they had the political clout to make it so

    this situation has been especially frustrating for me as an independent filmmaker, since the actors union uses government minority classifications to determine whether a projects meets low-budget diversity standards . . . thus, if i want to do a low-budget film about arab americans (which i do), i must either raise additional millions to hire actual arab american actors, or simply do what the rest of hollywood does: hire “look alike” latino-, indian- and pakistani-americans, who have legal minority status

  3. Nice article….I agree with most of it. Yes, Arabs came here for freedom (just for men it seems). I don’t think they will give up stealing freedom from women.

  4. yea, i think you hit some important issues here…your two identities story isnt actually all that bad, keeps you on ur toes lol…loved the “Tom: “I would totally hit that.” Abdul: “… Me too.” looool

  5. I could totally relate to your suggestion that we are Americans overseas and Arabs here. Always in limbo, never really being able to fully identify with either group. When I go to the Mideast, I feel like a complete foreigner and cannot relate to the locals. Having been born and raised in the U.S. I cannot entirely relate to white Americans either. I’m not the only one who feels that way, in fact amongst my cohorts we all feel the same. Which is why when the census came I had a hard time checking the “white” box even though technically we are white. We need to come up with a new term for those who feel that way…maybe Arabicans

  6. Well Amer, why care much for what people think. Those are all labels and don’t identify who we are. Beyond these labels, we are all the same…. You are who you are, and you belong in America, in the Middle East and in this whole world.

    P.S. People may not like Arabs not because of personal reasons mostly, but because they are ignorant about this race. Let’s not react to their ignorance!

  7. Story of my life.
    “My left friends think I’m right and my right friends think I’m wrong”!
    My Arab friends think I’m American and my American friends think I’m foreign.
    I like your humor— even with the distortions.
    I was displaced from my home and birthplace, Haifa Palestine and came to America on my 12th birthday, August ’47.
    I’m proud to be Arab and have spent a lifetime, promoting Palestinian Liberation and Human Liberation. GLOBALLY— WE ARE ALL ONE PEOPLE!
    I enjoy that you put a humerous twist to it. It helps break up the internal conflict.
    I spent last New Years Eve in Gaza.
    Ckeck out my web/blog. http://www.yusif.org

  8. Great post. I’m not Arab, I’m actually Mexican, but I dated a Palestinian for a few years and know we have a lot in common.

    Question: there’s a kid in my class who’s Lebanese. Somehow, his personal info describes him as being East Asian. Is that correct? What do most Arabs mark on the census? White?

  9. I can relate to being viewed as White, Im Lebanese background and I also have blue eyes…It doesn’t bother me though, because the truth is the “Old World” was never a static boxed in area. The Romans owned vast swaths of the ME 2000+ years ago…Surely they mixed with the locals. And for that matter, the ME is only a stones throw from Black Africa – perhaps thats why alot of people in Saudi Arabia look black. The ME is a mixed race place really – what unites us is Islam.

    Allahu Akbar.

  10. Not sure if the blog owner still reads this but I can completely relate. However I’m mixed race. My mum is English and my dad an Arab. I’ve been described as looking Italian or English with a twist. Growing up I used to get embarrassed by my middle name, when the other kids would be like “wow your not English” “I couldn’t tell”. I love my country England and have never been back to my country of dads origin. I have noticed that the Arabs that grew up in the states or White areas have a completely different to the Arabs from the middle east.

    Some really funny parts regarding politeness and Arab protocol. I find myself frequently paying for other people’s meals with little resistance with my White friends,girlfriends family. On the other hand when me and my cousins went for a meal we almost started a riot when all of us wanted to pay.

    Sadly some of the more humorous and truly wonderful aspects of the Arab nature has been lost. It has been lost in a growing number of young Arabs embracing a twisted extreme ideology. And Many non Arabs just assume all Arabs belong to that extreme ideology

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.