Reclaiming My Identity in an Islamophobic Culture

Lately I’ve been deconstructing my confusion. I have been reflecting on my upbringing and the words and experiences that have shaped who I am and how I view myself today. My mother is white but she raised us Muslim. We were raised primarily with Arab culture the best she could. My mother converted. I feel like some converts may have a tendency to overcompensate. As a child I never felt half of anything I felt Muslim and Arab only. We grew up with pb&j on pita bread, I used to watch Adam’s world videos, we picked fresh mint from our garden for breakfast, and she even tried to make us eat dinner at 3pm. She really went all in.

My father is Palestinian. To say the P word in this country comes to some as being overtly political or anti-semitic. I am neither of those things. I am just a woman who happens to be of Palestinian descent.

I remember walking around the block in my little suburban town one sunny day. I had a beautiful new thobe my father had brought back from Jordan. A nice bright cotton dress with colorful embroidery. I felt good in it, pretty. I was wearing a peach scarf to match. There was a house on the corner with three freckled faced boys who were usually outside on their scooters and bikes. The middle one yelled “Towel Head” at me. I was mortified. I never felt like such shit about myself. I felt stupid to have been smiling two minutes earlier, being proud in my ethnic clothes. I’m pretty sure it was many of these moments that broke my spirit and confidence growing up, encouraging me to blend in.

Visiting my mothers family we were reminded we were different. They treated us like foreigners. We lived 20 min away. I remember my aunt making fun of my sister’s name. I’m sure they were annoyed with my mom. She requested these gatherings be pork and alcohol free. We didn’t go over there if it wasn’t. After my parents divorced everyone was estranged for awhile. As a young adult I sought out communication with them. It remained the same. An obligatory gathering once a year, usually Christmas, but I was still being treated like a foreigner. I was confused. I didn’t cover my hair anymore. I wore western style American clothes. I never had any accent except a New Jersey one. One of the first visits I picked up on something, but I kept it to myself, I assumed I was being paranoid. All the family photos were out. I felt like it was to explain how this Arab was related to this nice white family, like I was so extraordinarily different from them. It didn’t stop there. The following years I would be introduced to my cousins kids over and over again. They knew who I was, they were my age. It was always weird, insulting, and awkward. I tried to ignore it.

Three years ago I bought my newborn daughter to my cousins house. We were all siting around the dinner table sipping coffee and picking at dessert. He told a story of how a young girl in Saudi Arabia was left to drown because the only available lifeguards were male. He then directed the conversation towards me and asked “What do you think about this?” HUH? Ummm yah that’s bad… I was so thrown off. I turned to another cousin and we exchanged glances. After I went home to process this I was pissed. I had been trying to avoid these conversations my entire life, trying to blend in, and I realized that it wasn’t working, it never worked. They, my own relatives, still viewed me as the other.

Around the time of the Oklahoma bombing when everyone assumed it was a Muslim Arab was when we finally went to Jordan. My mom said she wanted us to go learn our culture instead of being influenced by American stereotypes. Jordan was a huge change for me. When we first got there I didn’t want to go to school, I just wanted to go home. It was also the best thing that ever happened to me as far as confidence and accepting myself. Living in Jordan helped to shatter the stereotypes of my own culture and identity that I grew up with in America and was ashamed of. It was the first time I never felt out of place. I felt a safe sense of belonging I never felt in America or around my mother’s family, who kept us at a distance.

Jordan was also the first place that I realized that there are plenty of Arabs in varying levels of religiosity. Not everyone covered, most people were modest, not everyone was well-behaved, most people were happy. The stereotype had broken because I was actually there instead of only hearing scary stories on the news or my father idealizing the old country trying to convince me that everyone listened to their parents and followed the rules. After we came home from Jordan my life was turned upside down.

My parents fought a lot. They hit us, they hit each other. It was a toxic negative environment and it was both of them. During the divorce my mother painted my father as the abuser and herself as the victim. Once the dust settled they both checked out. They talked badly about one another to the children they had. I stayed with my mom. I was separated from my younger siblings because I was the oldest and I had started using drugs. My father remarried and buried himself in his work. My mother started partying and treated me like a roommate. My mother would refer to my father as barbaric, an animal, abusive, violent, and all the same things the media likes to stereotype Arabs and Muslims. “When your father came to this country he was brushing his teeth with a stick!” Living with my mother and her bashing my identity had a huge impact on me during such an influential stage in my adolescence. I became a self hating Arab and wanted to dissociate myself from the culture and community. I hated it. I didn’t want to be seen as an animal from some backward culture. On the other hand I was completely disowned by my father. Zero communication. There was no one in my life to counteract the negative things my mother was saying about my father and our old way of life. My entire childhood and identity had been uprooted and dehumanized. I was 13.

My teenage years were spent doing hard drugs, navigating roach motels with my mother, and constantly being on the brink of homelessness. A couple of stints in different rehabs kept me alive, putting a roof over my head and food in my mouth. My early 20’s consisted of survival and strong atheist beliefs. I was working to live and partying when I could. I couldn’t fathom putting my trust or faith in anything besides myself. I was free from violence, instability, and my parents destructive divorce. I put myself through college with the intent to finish rather than grow. Once I hit my 30’s life started to slow down. I had become established in my personal goals and didn’t feel like I was catching up or trying to prove myself. Survival mode had ended and I began to self reflect. Even now I still feel slightly uncomfortable questioning my existence and the experiences that led me to to where I am today. At times it seems frivolous and pretentious. Other times I feel exhausted and angry, finally able to process the past and reflect on the effects it has had on my actions and beliefs.

As an adult I have experiences where some people disclose their discomfort with Arabs and Muslims but are “OK” with me because I am some sort of exception. It doesn’t feel good. They also become uninterested when I talk about, defend, or even attempt to share my heritage. These confrontations have become commonplace since the rise of the T word. Looking back I feel I may have subconsciously allowed these conversations or relationships out of habit. I had become desensitized to Islamophobic comments hearing them from my own mother and seeing the stereotypes on TV. Many of these interactions became heightened when it was no longer shameful to be openly xenophobic.

In the past I felt I had no other option, identifying with my mother and forming relationships with people similar to her. I didn’t feel welcome in the Arab and Muslim community due to my lack in fluent Arabic and my lack of religion. My father disowning me got into my head that I was somehow disowned from the entire culture. In reality I just wasn’t reaching out. Social Media nowadays makes it a lot easier to find people who share similar backgrounds. During the early 2000’s I was just restricted to my immediate surroundings.

I understand my mother was angry but her careless and hateful words had permanent effects. They affected my self identity, my sense of belonging, and my ability to negotiate safe and meaningful relationships. Many people can hate their exes without attributing it to their race. I am sure many children of divorced parents experience negative effects simply based on their parents hating each other. For children of mixed races and cultures this source of identity is magnified. Add to it the popularity of sheer hate for Arab and Muslims in the US and you create internalized self hate and impossible ambitions to assimilate to a culture that will never fully accept you. The goal becomes to erase that part of oneself. Muslim and Arab-Americans begin to internalize these negative stereotypes believing they are true about themselves and their peers. The end result is someone who feels lost and rejected by both communities.

Today my mother has dementia. Her way of life caught up with her quickly. Communication is limited and there is no reconciling the past. There are no answers or apologies. She is as she always was, a helpless victim too frail to take any responsibility or provide comfort and guidance.

I have become more visible with my Arab and my Muslim roots. I just feel so much more unapologetic about my ethnicity. Every little step I take towards asserting my right to take up space as an Arab woman gives me more confidence. I don’t feel so willing to make people feel comfortable about my heritage. I don’t go out of my way to convince them, I’m not like those guys you see on TV. By being confident with myself I am forcing others to confront their own prejudice. I don’t know why its so scary to be seen but I am just moving forward with it regardless. There are too many voices now. I still feel outnumbered most times but I know that there are many of us speaking up and the support and comfort within that community is enough for me to stand on my own.

Here is a fun music video that exposes common Arab and Muslim stereotypes and prejudices while reclaiming them to take away their power.

Barbarian – Mona Haydar

And here is an exceptional article that explains the effects of Islamophobia on Muslims in America

Exploring the Faith and Identity Crisis of American Muslim Youth – Omar Suleiman

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3 comments

  1. It is not easy to listen to the abuse from parents. I know that when my mother and father divorced, my mother did a lot of things she should not have done. She ended up with a terrible man that was into drugs and drank a lot. The man she was with was a horrible man that was very abusive. I listened to my mother say mean things about my father and whenever I was with my father, which was not often he said horrible things about my mother. It sounds like we have a lot in common and I wish I did not have to say such a thing. But I do see the strength that you have and you have overcome the things you went through. Stay strong always sweetie and know you are better because of everything you have lived through!

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