New Essay

18 Mar

I’ve written about the Boston bomber; about the US government’s attempts to deport my brother, which kept him in jail for weeks, and about Israel detaining me– a US citizen– and denying me entry in March of 2012, but the essay of mine that has sparked the most impassioned responses is one about…


The volume of the published response to the essay– a personal opinion piece– was surprising. Guys in the Washington Post and the Atlantic wrote whitesplanations about how cultural mixing is a good thing, other men on racist blogs called me a moron, Daily News Egypt published a response by a non-Egyptian, non-Arab woman. G Willow Wilson wrote in defense of me (and since she’s not an angry woman of color, her argument is being touted as reasonable and sane), Muslimah Media Watch did a roundtable about the piece, and some dancers are saying they need to do better. 

There were amazing, supportive, beautiful emails from Arab-American sister writers.

There were also violently angry emails & tweets that, in a typically sexist and fatphobic way, criticized my appearance and my size.

I have been called a fat camel and a hairy ape and a dirty terrorist ever since I moved to the US at the age of 13, so– I’m used to it. But call some people out for wearing genie pants & makeup that’s supposed to make them look Arab, and they go nuts. 

In my essay, I historicized the appropriation of bellydancing, but I naively thought people knew about the British empire, about US imperialism, about how these have fucked the Middle East for centuries.

And bellydancing is one of many appropriations… it can be argued that it’s so low on the scale. I mean, dancing? But look at how people are reacting to it. What happens when we start talking about Israel appropriating land illegally and settling on it? About America’s colonization and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the effects of those wars, about the current drone campaigns, and on and on?

I’ve read the following arguments, all of which ignore the systematic racism by the dominant culture:

-“So black women can’t be ballerinas?” If black women were part of a dominant culture that had colonized Europe starting at the Italian renaissance, and later colonized France and Russia, and if, after all that, black ballerinas danced in bikini tops, then yes, this argument would work. But it doesn’t.

-”I’m Egyptian and I love white bellydancers!” Good for you. Come live in America for 23 years, have people throw lit cigarettes at you and make fun of your mother’s accent and sneer at your muhajjaba aunt and try to deport your brother, see a white woman be applauded in a bar while dancing to “Walk Like An Egyptian” in a “Nefertiti hat,” and if, after that, you still feel the same way, cool, write your own opinion piece about it.

-”You’re an idiot! America is a melting pot!” Yes, America pretends to be a melting pot, but this means everyone has to adhere to a cultural norm, and in the process, minorities are negated and further made invisible.

-”It’s appreciation, not appropriation!” No. Please read this for more about appreciation vs appropriation.

-”But Korean Tacos! Mixing cultures is delicious!” Again, if the person making and serving those tacos is from a dominant culture that, for centuries, colonized Korea and Mexico, and then served those tacos to you in a Conical Asian hat and a Mariachi outfit, with a bikini top underneath, then, yeah, this argument would work. Again, it doesn’t.

-”You’re a racist!” Please, save us both time, watch this, and learn how that’s not possible.

-”You’re appropriating White culture by using a computer right now!” I can’t even honor this level of idiocy & entitlement with a response.

-”If you don’t like our multiculturalism, go back to your own country!” Umm, doesn’t multiculturalism imply an acceptance of people from different cultures? Also: I was born in Chicago. This is my country. I know it’s hard, but Ay-rabs are Americans, too. Also: okay, let’s say I humor you and try to go back to another country: Whoops, I don’t have one, because I’m a descendent of Palestinians.

Many other arguments kept centering white people in the discussion, asking what they’re allowed or not allowed to do. Ultimately, that’s not the discussion I want to have. And one person can’t stop anyone from doing anything: white women will continue to bellydance. What I’m asking is, when you are part of the dominant culture and live in a country that subsidizes the theft of land & resources from Arab people; in a country that supports & financially aids Arab governments that silence and even imprison democratic protesters; in a country where kids don’t feel safe telling schoolmates that they’re Arab-American– maybe think twice before you put on some genie pants and kohl and call yourself Samirah Layali?

How difficult is it to examine one’s own privilege without calling the person asking you to do so a douche bag? Evidently, it is very, very difficult.

At the end of the day, it’s not belly dance that people are protecting. It’s the right to take anything they want and not be criticized for it.

I’m thrilled that something I wrote on my dining table in a few hours, one I thought a couple hundred people would read, has sparked such a discussion. I refuse to sit quietly in the margins & only speak when I can “calmly” educate & teach. I’m fucking angry, y’all, at decades and centuries of dehumanization, and belly dancing is just the tip of it– hate mail be damned.

New interview

24 Feb

I chatted with Other People with Brad Listi Podcast this week. It was super fun, partly because I’d never done a podcast interview before & got to be myself (=swear like a sailor). Topics discussed: Sex-positive dads, Palestine, Singing in falsetto around the house, Racism, Flâneurs. Interview starts at 6:32. Give it a listen here

New Short Story

14 Jan

Outside the restrooms, each door bore the standard gender symbol denoting male (♂) and female (♀). She stood in front of them and said, “When I come out, I will need you to write something. Please get the notebook,” and disappeared into the women’s room.

When she finally emerged, she stood in between the two wooden doors and shouted, “See how the female symbol is docile, upright? It stands there, arms akimbo, as if asking, How can I be of use to you? How can I comfort you, help you, give of myself to further you? Meanwhile, the male symbol is virile, a penis pointing outward, always exploring, moving forward, the arrow saying, I am busy, I am important, I am on my way to conquering something, someone, somewhere.”

I have a new short story out in Booth, about a young woman who goes to Seattle to intern for a bad feminist. It’s called “How Can I Be of Use to You?” Read it here.


Have a very Muslim Xmas

13 Dec

Have a very Muslim Xmas

Growing up in Kuwait, we never had Christmas trees, but one year, my mother found a fake one about two feet tall and, although we had nothing to decorate it with, we improvised and posed “underneath” it for pictures. When we moved to the States, my mother began buying fresh trees every December and decking them out. Her mother was a Greek Alexandrian and so my mother had grown up celebrating Christmas. Sometimes I imagine how lonely my grandmother must have gotten in the Fifties and Sixties after her friends and family moved away to all corners of the globe, since Nasser’s Egypt had no room for “foreigners.” I imagine she was lonely. So, once every few years, I get inspired to pick up a fresh Christmas tree– here in Central California I assume these trees come from the Sierras. We light candles, bust out the Latin edition of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, listen to the It’s a Charlie Brown Xmas album, and decorate the tree with Dollar Store ornaments, since I don’t want to buy too much into the Capitalist Xmas Frenzy. It’s festive and pagan and helps me honor my kid self, who always loved the idea of a Xmas tree, and my Yia Yia, who I never met, but whom I’m told was a badass. Happy holidays, everyone.

Twelve years

11 Sep

My son on 9/11 was told lies by his white teacher & for years, when flying solo between my home in TX & his father’s in NY, was terrified of Arab terrorists.

Now, he knows better.

He knows better because he was selected randomly for a screening at the age of seven.

He knows better because his uncle was almost deported & sat in jail for months.

He knows better because in his lifetime, wars have begun & kids who look like him have died in Iraq, in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, & in Yemen, in Pakistan, soon, in Syria.

He knows better because he hasn’t told any of his friends he’s Arab.

To be Arab-American is to be reminded every single day, including today, of one’s unbelonging, of how where one is “from” is where war is always heading.

Back to School

29 Aug

This week, I taught my first set of classes– I’m teaching a graphic novels class to graduate students, and an MFA workshop. So far, my students are lovely. I adore them, and I’m excited to read and write and discuss writing with them.

The funniest part of being a professor, I think, is the bureaucratic element. This is the aspect of teaching that is not often spoken of– committees, meetings, paperwork, etc– but can take up as much time as the teaching and the prepping.  I’ve found the best way to deal with this is the way I deal with almost everything- with humor. So here’s a picture of me handing paperwork to a skeleton in the nearby Anthropology department, where a committee I’m in held a meeting. 


Good luck to everyone out there who is teaching or taking classes or working on a writing project. Fall can be such a wild & inspiring time.

Postcards from Buenos Aires

7 Jun

I recently visited Buenos Aires for a week to celebrate the beginning of Summer. There, I went to incredible cafes, like Tortoni, and saw El Ateneo, a gorgeous bookstore in a 20′s cinema palace. 970678_10151403642667056_401026238_n 431858_10151403642737056_2127005677_n6468_10151403642932056_1581048580_n 485698_10151403637437056_1670539898_n 487214_10151398025867056_492372546_n 971211_10151399715207056_178021087_n 944553_10151399715042056_51826750_n 602448_10151403642992056_478566038_n 487355_10151398023827056_1285376394_n 484789_10151395244222056_2124318760_n I also saw a room lined with unicorn heads, Evita’s tomb at the Recoleta cemetery, a statue of Mafalda, one of my comic book sheros, and visited the Teatro Colon as well as museums such as the MALBA and the PROA. Traveling makes me feel alive, and inspires and informs my writing. As challenging as writing a book is, there’s nothing like taking a trip away from it to see it, and yourself, anew.


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