By Guest Contributor Sara Yasin
The Arab Spring shattered everything that I thought I knew about the Arab world. As unrest broke out in the region, and regimes fell, I realised how little I knew. As a Palestinian-American, it has been routine to reference my heritage, from explaining why I do not look like Princess Jasmine, or distancing myself from suicide bombers. The politics of the land of my parents always frustrated me, and I suppose what I understood was mostly gleaned from exhausted conversations overheard in our home or headlines.
To my shock, even though I proved to know very little about what caused the Arab Spring, many seemed to automatically think that the first half of my hyphenated identity automatically made me an authority on the region. While I feel tied to and interested in the struggle for change across the Middle East and North Africa, this is not my Arab Spring.
I last visited my family in Amman around 1995, as a pint-sized feminist homesick for cereal and episodes of Boy Meets World. While I seemed to be fluent in some Southern variation on Arabic, my cousins lived in an entirely different world than I did. The most noticeable difference involved religion; my own culture seemed to incorporate more Muslim values, and I remember my cousins being shocked at my declaration that I would soon wear hijab. Visiting my relatives made me realize I would forever be caught between two worlds.
Despite being identified through my Arab identity in the United States, I was “the American” abroad. Growing up in my hybrid Muslim and Arab American communities, my peers and I routinely referred to new immigrants as “boaters,” swearing that we would never marry a “FOB” (fresh-off-the-boat), in fear of a wife-beating stereotype who could not speak English. Since I never felt that I could entirely belong to the Palestinian or American communities, I launched myself into the world of the mosque, and – particularly after 9/11 – I spent much of my time harping on the fact that Muslims were diverse in faith and views, and blamed a lack of progress on culture, rather than religion.
I eventually learned that the lines between religion and culture could not be as easily separated as I would have hoped. The Arab Spring, as well as meeting friends that actually grew up in the Middle East made me realize I was projecting my own experiences onto an entire region. It did not occur to me that the world that my parents spoke about, and perhaps many of the cultural norms they adopted were part of a world that they left long ago – one that grew and changed after they left. Their views of culture are stuck in nostalgia, embalming their history and identity in a foreign world.
My parents, and many of their friends, had resigned themselves to the fact that the Arab world was rife with corruption and inconsistencies, and that mentality was passed along to us. I did not think that would change, and I suppose I thought that the Arabs without hyphens resigned to the same inevitability. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, I remember calling my stunned father, who said that he never thought he would see such a thing during his lifetime. While attempting to express his trademark amount of pessimism, I swore that in that moment, I heard hope in his voice. That was when I realized how out of touch he and I really were.
Though previously disengaged with the politics of the region, I feel passionate about expanding my understanding. However, I think it is important to make a distinction between my own culture, and that of those in the Arab world. As the children of immigrants, our lives are complicated by a number of cultural notions, rules and norms that can be tied to the lands of our parents, but they grow and change on an entirely different plane. Therefore, my lived reality is far different than that of a cousin living in the West Bank, despite our shared heritage. It is dangerous to fall into the trap of thinking that my shared heritage would automatically make me understand the situation better, or have the authority to speak on it.
I think it is also important to make this distinction, because I feel that many changes need to occur in the respective Arab and Muslim communities that I grew up in. I am proud of the victories of the Arab Spring, but I do not take ownership of them; not only because they are not my lived reality, but also because we need our own shake ups and changes in many Arab-American communities. We cannot claim those victories as our own – if anything, they just show how much work we have left to do.
While I still have an opinion, take an activist interest in the Arab Spring and continue to learn more, this still is not my reality. My childhood involved a world of hummus, fried chicken, Islamic studies, Southern Baptist churches and a world away from war and dictators. While being identified as an Arab in the United States is a large part of who I am, treating me like a voice of Arabs across the globe encourages a static notion of culture, a detrimental thing to reinforce when thinking about issues of history and identity. Treating me like I am not American, only serves the right-wing, closet-Jihadi fantasies of the Anne Coulters and Newt Gingrichs of the world, and only serves to hasten our Arab-American Spring.