Last weekend, I attended the Arab Students’ Summit here at the University. They asked me to facilitate a talk on taboos (I wonder why?). We all sat in a circle: I, my co-facilitator, and a dozen or two Arab-American kids in their late teens and early twenties. Many were Dearbornites who spoke about their frustrations going back home and being asked if they moved to Ann Arbor because they got married. Some of them declared that they didn’t believe in pre-marital sex. Many voiced their frustrations with the older generation of Arab-Americans and their frozen idea of what being Arab is.
I tried to get them talking about patriarchy, and about strategies to fight it, but was met with crickets and more groans about parents who just don’t understand. I asked if any of them were considering a career in the Arts, and many said they felt they wouldn’t have their family’s support. We talked about how lonely it can be when you choose to do something no other Arab American in your town is doing.
The Summit was a real eye-opener for me. I have never lived in an Arab-American community. I didn’t know that girls in Michigan have to roll their seats back when they’re in a car with a boy, because otherwise people on the street will talk about them. I had no idea there were guys here who think it’s OK to fuck a stranger, but when it comes to marriage, they want a nice muhajjaba girl. I didn’t know that Arab-American communities were so conservative– I thought these were silly stereotypes about our community. Then again, the only Arab-American community I am a part of is that of writers and artists.
We also talked about the taboo of being Arab. I asked them, “Ever tell your hairdresser you’re Arab, and have her say, ‘Well, that’s OK!'” They laughed. It’s crazy to live in a world where some people don’t even know what an Arab is; or what an Arab looks like. I asked my writing students the other day when the last time they saw an Arab or Middle Eastern family was, and they all looked back at me blankly. It’s so comforting to be in a room full of people who at least get where you’ve come from, even if you all disagree about where you are headed.
Later, I went to Dearborn with my 11-year-old kiddo and a few friends. I pigged out on kibbe and felt lucky that at the end of the night, I would end up at my own house, living with the rules I’ve created under my own roof. It feels great to be an adult, and it feels even greater to know I’ve escaped the rolled-back carseat, in a way.
And yes, sometimes, it’s lonely.