When I came to the United States in 1981, my pigmentation was still dark, my skin perpetually tanned. With my black hair and dark brown eyes I thought I was exuding the exotic looks of an Arabian siren to my American neighbors!
Over the years, away from the Mediterranean sun, my skin has gradually become paler. It is not the only attribute that has changed.
Replay: With the escalation of the war in Lebanon, we fled to London where our group of émigrés was enjoying its novel liberties. With our men away in the Gulf and elsewhere, we, women, were mostly on our own, indulging in group soul-searching and introspection (in between the theatres and art exhibits), sipping wine and nibbling on salads in London’s posh eateries.
London was comfortable and comforting. I spoke the language fluently. I was a Christian in a Christian country – agnostic though I had become. I appreciated the culture. I was a woman in a kingdom where, as if overnight, the women’s liberation movement had become a very sexy social phenomenon. What more could one ask for? I could now be part of the majority, and not a minority as I had been throughout my life. So maybe I should shelve my Palestinian-ism, tuck it away as a cultural token which I could brandish about when it was appropriate, but otherwise forget?
Flash Forward: In the US now, with the Intifada raging and peace talks in the air, I find myself un-shelving that Palestinian identity. How is it even possible to peel off my Arab skin and acquire a Western one? One afternoon, I am giving a presentation at the Dar-al-Hijrah mosque. I tell the American women gathered that despite my religion, my language fluency and my progressive ideas, my identification with my Muslim Arab sisters was much stronger than any identification I might have with them. My Arab sisters and I shared a collective sense of our rich historical depth, as well as awareness of the Western politics that had colonized and decimated us; we had the same traditions; sang the same songs; cooked the same recipes. We also spoke the same language with all the enchanting nuances tucked into every one of our words and sentences as opposed to the very black and white English language. Many attendees could not quite identify with that.
And so, my persona began to take on different hues depending on the various individuals or groups that I was coming into contact with. White Americans identified with my Christianity, smugly assuming that I was “one of them” because of that. My black American friends felt a symbiosis with my “colored” and “minority” status. With Asians I seemed to share the identifiable pains of the immigrant process. Angry activist women supposed that I would espouse all their radical issues just because I came from a male-dominated society. My Indian and other “foreign” male friends felt that they had to protect me. American men were pleasantly surprised by my openness and free spirit. Young Arab women were strengthened by my socially liberal ideas. My Arab sisters were conflicted: rocking their boats was intimidating! Traditional Arab men felt a threat to their status quo should more of their women become like me! Jewish people saw in me a partner for peace.
I seemed to have become something for everyone. I had turned into a chameleon!
However, that question of identity plays a more prominent role in the Western World and, especially, in the US, than it does in our home countries where our distinctiveness is clear and transparent. And, for those of us who have managed to re-create that identity out of the chaos of our war-torn lives, there is an immense sense of pride, of rootedness and self-awareness, though maintaining that sense of self in the midst of a jingoistic and isolated American society is quite an incredible feat!