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.
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…