Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Accepting My Ethnicity Meant Applying American Standards Equally

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Accepting My Ethnicity Meant Applying American Standards Equally

Article excerpt

Fora while I led a double life. My "Arabness" was something of a secret life, away from my school and friends. Other than my weekly lessons in Arabic and Islam, my Arab side was limited to a number of two-week trips to Egypt, my parents' homeland. Somehow, that side of my life was constantly under attack. Value-laden words such as "terrorist" and "fundamentalist" were often equated with being Arab or Muslim.

All of my trips to Egypt followed the same painful pattern. I would get reacquainted with my relatives, fall in love with them, and then have to leave. Heartbreaking as it was, I became used to the routine. But one trip stands out in my mind the most.

It was August 1974. I was seven years old, and my biggest dilemma was how to get the courage to pull out my semi-loose baby tooth to make room for the new tooth that had already begun to grow in its place. Since I was unable to solve this problem by myself, my parents took the matter into their hands. One of my Egyptian relatives was a dentist. I was to go to her office first thing in the morning.

A Trip to the Dentist

I remember walking down the road in front of my grandmother's house. The heat of the sun made the dust in my sandals turn to mud. I was told that this veiled woman was my aunt. Even though she dressed differently than my mother, their resemblance to each other made me less skeptical. I clutched her hand tightly as we walked across the tram tracks on the way to her dental clinic.

We finally reached the building and made our way up several floors to her clinic, the heat following us every inch of the way. I sat in the patient's chair while my aunt cleaned her dental equipment. Then a strange man walked up to me and began to talk. I could tell by the way he was dressed that he, too, was a dentist. He smiled at me and asked what seemed like a million questions -- what was my name, how old was I, what grade was I in? I could understand his Arabic, but my delayed responses revealed that I wasn't a native speaker.

"You're not from here, are you?" he asked. "Where do you live?"

"America," I responded with a proud smile.

"I don't like Americans," he said.

"They're bad people."

I was stunned by his accusation and, with an air of defensiveness, I asked if he had ever been to America. When he said no, I began to regain my confidence. I told him he was wrong. And, if he could meet my friends, he would surely change his mind. He didn't seem convinced. Without a word, he unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a deep scar on his chest. It looked as if someone had thrown a bowling ball at him, leaving a concave indentation on his chest.

"This is what Americans did to me in the war!"

I was very frightened by the sight of the wound and asked him if he was sure that it was Americans who had done that to him. He said he was sure. It wasn't until much later that I realized he was referring to the US re-supply of Israel in the October war of 1973.

I don't remember if I cried that night, but I think I must have. I don't know what hurt me more -- the awful sight of the scar or the accusations that this colleague of my aunt had made. Definitely he affected the way I looked at things, but I would be exaggerating if I said I became "aware" at that point. The only thing that I was aware of was Saturday morning cartoons. Still, I never forgot that man. …

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