On the skin I’m in….


I was ‘hanging out” with a group of Egyptians a few weeks back.  We were doing a mini-tour of DC.  Not to far from the Lincoln memorial they happened upon and Egyptian-American girl.  It was interesting to watch their interactions.  The girl had very delicate manneurisms her white and pink hijab matching her white and pink sneakers and shirt.

I was standing about looking at the sky, endeavoring to let the people have their moment, feigning a smile of sorts.  And then, one of the men in my delegation introduced me, “This is Gazelle” and instinctually almost she said “Oh, are you Sudanese?” … ha, ha…

My reaction was probably a mix of annoyed and tired (from all the walking).  And so, I kind of sternly said, “NO, I’m American”  (in Arabic of course) awkward… really awkward.  And, she, being the lady that she is just said, “oh.”

Fast-forward to two weeks later and

I now get to see a dear friend of mine, one of my besties from Egypt on a daily basis.. and that is something that I love.

As we talk and catch up, I am left remembering something important, that I was definitely aware of back in Alexandria, but hasn’t disappeared now that I have left good ole Um alduniya (Egypt).

As someone who has been interacting with people in the Arab world, and to a certain extent Arabic-speaking people’s here at home, I’ve realized something….Sometimes, the skin I’m in is an advantage!!!

My girl is blond haired-blue eyed and speaks Arabic fantastically.  Her command of the Egyptian dialect is in all likelihood stronger than my own.  And yet, more people seem to have “trouble” understanding her.  It’s like her phenotype creates this org around her that makes it hard for people to get what’s going on.  (Yes, there is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American woman speaking your language like water).

It happened to us when we were hanging out in Egypt, I remember a shopkeeper asking me questions in Egyptian dialect (when I only spoke Levantine at the time).  She applauded my Arabic and even told me that I should teach my friend, because her Arabic was very “poor.”  Imagine that, the woman who had actually spent the previous summer learning Arabic spoke, “poorly!”  smh.

Yes, over time, I’ve realized that when we went out on our escapades in Egypt, people tended to look to me for translation/communication… automatically assuming or turning deaf to her perfectly good Arabic.

What was at work here? —– I think our perspective is self-evident from this post.

So, I guess her experience (our experience in comparison) gives me some perspective. Yes, sometimes I roll my eyes or silently smirk at someone trying to make me “pass.”  I guess it’s just that I don’t want to “pass.”  I don’t want to be Arab or anything… anything other than what I’ve been trying to be lately…. As the great Gavin Degraw put it.

And all I’ve been trying to be, is me: Gazelle… an (African-)American woman who happens to speak Arabic.

But it goes deeper than that. When I think about the things that people ask me sometimes about America or American society, that’s where the whole “Gazelle confused for the Arab” thing gets a bit out whack.  Upon reflection now, some of these conversations felt a bit “us vs. them” us being myself and whomever the Arab person I was having a conversation with, and “them” being the real, white Americans.

It just kind of hit me, you know.  That while sometimes I was annoyed by people not always looking at me as real American, they may not necessarily have looked at me as the “other” either. How many times have I heard people say to me in Arabic, something along the lines of “they” are not like “us?”

How did learning Arabic make me a part of this weird “us?”

Where does all this leave me? Or anyone who learns a language and has physical characteristics that make it not too far-fetched that you could belong to that community?

This “passing” thing is an interesting prospect, but it’s also weird.  I think about how, little by little, certain things, little things I didn’t think much of while in Egypt have become part of my daily vernacular, part of  my mind-set. I make comments I don’t think I would have previously, I have to weave my mind in and out of what I think Egyptian friends would say back in Alex  and what I feel… I guess don’t want to wake up one day, after living in some Arab country for a few or twenty years and marrying some Arab guy and realize that the original Gazelle is no more…

 This is no tongue in-cheek proposition.  I guess I don’t want random complements and metaphorical free passes into other people’s culture to get my head.

How much can you appropriate before you are no longer you? Identity is a fluid thing— and so is Arabization, Americanization and Latinization… all bonafied historical phenomena.

But then again, I am over-reacting, thinking of only the extremes. After all, there’s nothing like being abroad to remind us of our Americanness.

Yup… always 🙂

So this nugget of truth, this realization is just something I will have to reflect on a little more. This entry still seems to come across as a bunch of randomness…


4 thoughts on “On the skin I’m in….

  1. Passing is an interesting thing. I definitely passed most of my time in DR outside of my social circle, even as a hijabi (“she wears that because of the church she belongs to” was their understanding of it). And it was an uncomfortable thing, because my darker skinned African American classmates there with me on the trip could not pass…possibly for haitianos, but not for Dominicans. As the descendent of black nationalists and with my own racial conscience, it seemed unfair…but it was admittedly a comfortable place to be able to be a morena and not either a haitiana or a gringa (I did get called gringa a couple of times, which made me laugh).

    Belonging to a language group, or understanding a language and culture, does give one a weird in that I think is highly dependent on the culture whose language you learn. It’s not just about what words, phrases and concepts are lost in translation without an intimate knowledge of the language. There is so much more you have access to when you actually speak and understand one’s language. So it seems you have discovered that in some cases, with Arabic, you have become honorary.

    I understand how uncomfortable it is to be passed especially when passing conflicts with one of your key identities.

    • gazelledusahara

      You that’s interesting… I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go to Cuba, and see if I could pass in the Latin American world as well. … I guess at the very least I can always say that I’m from Equatorial Guinea..ha,ha…

      But seeing as how I’m still grappling with it in the Arab context, maybe I should leave well enough alone. I’m wondering if you felt that way as well because of the American factor? It’s like passing one the one hand with strangers gets you in. But, at the same time, once people know you, being an American also has its advantages, even if I’m not seen as an “American, American.” Maybe I should just let it be, but yes, being called an honorary Arab or Egyptian or whatever… is a little like putting on shoes that don’t quite fit: They may compliment the outfit, and appear dressed appropriately for the event, but I’m never 100% comfortable… oh well… First World probs…

  2. enyi

    This is just something offhand I’ve read, and by offhand I mean I came across it on the Arabic article on TV Tropes – but apparently understanding and conversing in the Arabic language is enough to make you an Arab in the eyes of some. So it might be a case of their concept of identity/ethnicity having more of an emphasis on language than your own, though “passing” would also help …

    • gazelledusahara

      Hey Enyi, Welcome!

      I totally get the Arab= someone who speaks Arabic thing that a lot of people have going on. however, my friend, as I pointed out above, has to do quite a bit to prove that she speaks Arabic. I’ve noticed this moreso with white (especially, blonde women) that they can never really pass. If my friend makes even one mistake, that’s it, no one will listen to her… they just assume she can’t articulate herself in Arabic. heck, even when she doesn’t make a mistake, people would still communicate with her in broken Arabic.

      It’s definitely a mixture of both. I have a Pakistani friend who’s Arabic accent is 100% perfect, and she’s mistaken for an Egyptian all the time, and another Egyptian friend who is blonde and chose to wear hijab because she was tired of people mistaking her for a foreigner. Yeah, there’s a bunch of different things at work here.

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