Not My Arab Spring

Courtesy of Illume Magazine

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.

Courtesy of Associated Press

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.

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  • Katie

    I love this piece. It really elucidates a lot of the stuff that I run into as a Korean-American, asked to speak for a culture and/or a country that isn’t mine.

  • SA

    It is amazing how similar our experiences can be. I too have begun to consider the nostalgia my immigrant Palestinian parents passed on as culture, community, identity, and memory. And while it sometimes appears my parents never left Palestine — demonstrated by an unending commitment to hours of daily stress and guilt inducing swearing at ignorant news anchors, commentators and the opinions they and their experts propagate — we are indeed not in Palestine. We live in exile. Your commentary speaks to our diaspora as well as the nostalgic struggle that occupies our hopes and distracts us from the necessary presence of our daily existence.

    (Palestinian-Canadian Christian male living an exile)

  • Stayfreshiceland

    Interesting stuff. I agree, my parents come from the Punjab region of India, I was born in the United Kingdom and was raised in the United States. When I came here I was perhaps a little too British for these guys, but over time I think I’ve become sufficiently American so as to be accepted. I think coming here when I was 10 probably helped me there. But I am aware that alot of children of immigrants from countries like India seem to feel they have a connection to the country their parents were born in. In my life, and in my mind, I don’t feel as if I have any such tie to India. I was not born there, I haven’t lived there, I am not of their culture. It is a foreign place to me. I am often asked about India, most specifically what I feel about certain things, where can you find the best Indian food, or what language do I speak. Most commonly, arguements with me about whether or not I am Indian. I always tell them I am not, that I’m British, and i currently live in America.

    But my point is… when I am looked at with brown skin, black hair, I am assumed to be Indian. This annoys me to no end. I don’t for instance look upon someone with white skin, fair hair, and assume they are from America, or Europe. I think we live in a time where we can no longer look at skin or hair and derive a persons origin. Ultimately, my skin has no bearing on my views. And similarly, neither does where my parents from. My parents may be from North India, but I have no tie to the country. I don’t believe things like nationality can be passed down from generation to generation. I would have to live in India and be immersed in the culture to call myself properly exposed.

    I understand when you say you are asked to give expert views on topics you are far removed from. You may say it’s because you are Muslim or Arab and because of this you understand that others may assume things about you. I am similar, and yet different. I am not Sikh, nor am I Indian, however I am brown skinned and black haired. I feel fools will approach me and assume I am something or the other, and bigots will ignore what I reveal myself to be, and attempt to brand me with names and distinctions of their own coining. I am who I say I am, especially when it comes to the identity I bear. I hope in the coming century people like me will not have to fight tooth and nail to be accepted in the ways we wish to be. I see parallel’s with the gay community in America, I have seen them fight for their right to be accepted as their name, and similarly I seek to esecape the branding of immigrant, or Indian, and be known for who I am, what I am of, and whom I seek to be. For instance, I am interested in punk music, I play in a rock band, I am interested in entrepreneurship, but I don’t get noticed or recognized for these things on a street corner or in a bar room. I am instead recognized as a brown skinned black haired potential-Indian, and these people will assume my identity, and talk to me about topics they believe I am knowledgable of. I have brown skin, but I don’t bear my skin as a badge of my expertise in the South Asian affairs, or even Arab-spring related stuff. I look at it as a fluke of our times, as like the Irish, now brown-skinned people are being looked at as exotic, different, and other-worldly, and perhaps easily understood. I am just as convoluted as the next guy, whether they be white, black, or otherwise.

    Ultimately I’d like to see a move away from the notions of race and nationality, especially when I am asked to reveal my ancestry as a means of being able to better interpret my identity, in the form of requests from others curious about me. But I don’t think society will change overnight, and all you, I and others can do is continue to voice dissatisfaction over cultural associations with skin and hair color and continue to show the lack of logic for such things to be done.

    • Yamayamayama

      you make it sound like it’s a bad thing to be Indian.

    • Yamayamayama

      or, rather, you make it sound like it’s a bad thing to be Indian American. You CAN take pride in your heritage and own it and still identify yourself as American or British.

    • Medusa

      I’m going on a slight tangent from the main post (which was great, by the way, thank you, Sara!),  but what do you mean by “countries like India”? I’m not saying this to be combative, I genuinely would like to know what you think about this. Do you mean developing nations? Or just nations that are primarily populated by POC?

      When you say  “I was not born there, I haven’t lived there, I am not of their
      culture. It is a foreign place to me. I am often asked about India, most
      specifically what I feel about certain things, where can you find the
      best Indian food, or what language do I speak. Most commonly, arguements
      with me about whether or not I am Indian. I always tell them I am not,
      that I’m British, and i currently live in America” I can relate to you in some ways. I was born in Ghana, but left when I was a baby, and it always was a foreign place to me. I wouldn’t say that I’m *not* Ghanaian, but having never lived there (until I moved back a few years ago at 25), I don’t feel any kind of deep, spiritual connection to being Ghanaian. I think a major difference between us is that at least in America all black people= West African slave descendants (yes, I’ve had people argue with me and tell me my ancestors were slaves and I definitely have white in my ancestry because all black people do), whereas anyone who doesn’t immediately appear to be of European or African descent is automatically an immigrant, and always a foreigner.

      I guess the thing with people like us (people who are either born abroad or our parents take us abroad when we’re very young and have little or no experience in our parents’ country) is that our idea of the country is based solely on our parents verbal descriptions of what the country is, and nations evolve but our parents and there to see the evolution, and all we are going off in our attempt to relate to the nation is our parents 20+ years old memory of where they lived. Or as Sarah more eloquently put it, “Their views of culture are stuck in nostalgia, embalming their history and identity in a foreign world.”