An Arab in America

By Ali, Lorraine | Newsweek International, May 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

An Arab in America


Ali, Lorraine, Newsweek International


Sometimes I feel like part of a new experiment. I am an Arab-American, one of an estimated 2 million who are slowly becoming a recognized political and social force in the United States. Unlike many, I am not a new immigrant but rather the American-born daughter of an Iraqi father and American mother. In less cocky moments, I jokingly refer to myself as a fake Arab, one who knows little about my Middle Eastern heritage, or a half-American who's still oblivious to some basic U.S. customs.

My father came from Baghdad in 1953, then met and married my mother--a blue-eyed California girl. I've always been proud of my father for taking a chance, leaving all he knew to "make it big" by starting his own rental-car business. I've also admired my mother's courage in dating and marrying a man so different from her own French Canadian, conservative father and Protestant, American mother. But they were somehow meant to be. It seemed too unlikely that the two would meet randomly at a polka dance in downtown Los Angeles if it wasn't willed by God, fate, Allah.

My two older sisters and I grew up between their worlds--Arab and American, Muslim and Christian. We went to mosque and Sunday school. We listened to rock on the radio and the Quran suras my father would pop in the cassette player on the drive to work. In my lunchbox, I carried dolma and Syrian bread one day, peanut butter and jelly the next. On the dolma days, the other kids looked at my meal as though it was shot down from outer space. Little did they know that some 15 years later, pita bread and all types of Middle Eastern food would become part of the American diet, served in malls and beachside boardwalks.

But there was a great divide. Arabs and Muslims were portrayed in movies and on TV as bloodthirsty savages, terrorists, dishonest and hygienically challenged. The terms Arab, Muslim, Iranian were used interchangeably. The stereotypes were fed by a series of Middle East conflicts--Palestine, Iran, Libya, Iraq. There was also the late '70s oil embargo. Arab came to mean something negative, which seemed absurd to me. It was simply part of who I was, my family, my loved ones.

We were like all the other gangly teenagers in the schoolyard, until someone would ask: "What kind of last name is that?" You knew exactly what they thought from the comment that ensued. Either "Uh-oh, are you packing a bomb?" or "Cool, where is your family from?" The first question I would not answer (they knew all I was packing was my lunch), but I welcomed the latter question, eager to set the record straight and show there was more to the Arab world than what America saw on the nightly news. …

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