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.

4 thoughts on “

  1. OMG I hear echoes! It sounds so much like the Korean American community as I knew it, ten to fifteen years ago (it may have changed). I remember talking to a friend who said she’d lost her virginity to a stranger hundreds of miles away…but I couldn’t DARE tell anyone because she feared others in the KA community would know and then she couldn’t marry a KA dude.

    I thought it was so bizarre.

    But then I did go on a blind date with a KA dude and he asked me (point blank!) “How many boyfriends have you had” and then almost coyly, “How many of these boyfriends did you ‘love?'”

    Good for you, for being a rule breaker!

  2. I’m *so* happy to hear that. I believe that many minorities share the same taboos. We’re def. a sister culture. I always wonder, though, why some people decide to break the rules, and at what cost. Thanks for the comment and the solidarity, chica. Means worlds to me.

  3. yeah, when arab americans get to talking about strict parents, i think about the time my dad made me wear an enormous tshirt over my bathing suit when i was thirteen (“cover yourself!”). lucky for me he was all the way down in dallas when i was growing up in michigan!

    i always felt like, because i have one white parent and because i grew up in an almost all white town, i had this freedom to be myself that i might not have had if i grown up around arabs. don’t get me wrong, this has caused me plenty of other issues, and i don’t mean this as a slight to arab americans who grew up in dearborn. i just wonder if i would have been as likely to get into the things i got into (punk, riot girl, zines, art, etc) if i had grown up in dearborn. i think up until going to university and finally having arab friends (who weren’t related), i had very narrow definitions of what arab americans are, and i didn’t see myself as fitting that mold. like a friend of mine said recently, if you are thinking of your group as a 2 dimensional monolith, of course you won’t find inclusion or a reflection of yourself there because you know you are complex and 3 dimensional. like, i’m not like anyone in my family, or the media stereotype and or the rich beautiful chaldean girls in oakland county, so how am i arab?

    anyway, this comment is getting long! so i will just say one more thing: i really loved your column in the newest make/shift. and on the arab identity tip, it was therapeutic for me, as an (arab) survivor of partner abuse, to read it. thanks so much.

  4. Hi Nadia! Welcome and thanks for the comment, sis. I really like what you’ve said here about 3-dimensionality – it’s possible that when you’re not truly immersed in a community, that aspect gets lost? also, the idea that if you’re not one thing or another, you can’t be arab, is one i’m obsessed with and i’ll probably write about it in fiction till the day I die.

    I grew up around Arabs in the the Middle East, and I still got into all this cool shit, because even though you *think* the culture as a whole doesn’t support individualism, you have to remember that no culture really does, even if it claims to. My kid is into everything his friends at school are into, for example, but he has these things he keeps his own. That’s how I was as a kid; I had my own imaginative life and music and books that were tied to it. It was lonely and freeing at the same time.

    Thanks for commenting– I’m glad you liked the make/shift piece! Hope to hear more from you in the future.

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