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Arab is not just an ethnicity. It is a way of being situated in the world and a lens to be seen with.
Being Arab, I feel a lack of sovereignty over my life. As an adult, I am, by the virtue of reason, able and supposed to have an independent character. But this is not the case.
Expectation and Shock
In this sense, “Arabness” entails being overloaded/burdened to satisfy an expected agenda to please one’s family. And I say “satisfy” because individual choices are weighed according to “society’s reaction.” As if society is a god. And I think it is because we worship it, this abstract entity. The idea of being judged by society is instilled in our self-image to the extent that we judge ourselves by this criterion. Will society congratulate you for earning a degree in law? Will it frown upon you for eternity for wearing a short skirt? What makes this polarity especially frustrating is the fact that Arab parents use it as an argument to support their fear of change, which is an aftereffect of being stranded in this vicious ultimatum.
Religion and Time
As I grew up and met people of my like, I realized that us Arabs are taught to think in terms of religion. Religion is our frame of thinking. I see in myself and many other people the uneasiness, the lingering fear of being a failed member in society. A failed member is marked as disobedient to god. In more arab-like terms, being a failed member is like being a failed wife according to حماتي (my mother-in-law). What does حماتي have to do with the length of my skirt or the “intensity” of my religiosity?
I see “Arabness” embodied in a man enduring his classification as an atheist for not praying fajr; a woman combating the norm “المرأة عورة” (Womanhood is imperfection/a defect) to prove “المرأة ثورة” (Womanhood is (the heart of) revolution).
Love and Emotion
“But what about love?” one might ask.
“Isn’t love blind?”
– Yes, it is. But we have night vision goggles.
“Arabness” is two lovers hiding their love from the world. The woman feels loved but is scared from sharing herself emotionally and sexually, of getting caught in love and out of love. But how can she be both in love and out of love? Her mind is heavy. Her eyes are damp. The guilt slowly nibbles on her brain cells, stealing her away from her boyfriend’s arms and tossing her into a black hole. She’s neither at ease in the warmth of love nor in the alien neighborhood she inhabits. She’s out of area, floating in a sea of love, drowning out of love.
“What about her boyfriend?”
– I’m glad you asked! Men are taught to man up too early. They’re taught that feelings are feminine, that they’re responsible for “the house” (providing safety and/or necessities, depending on the economic situation). In the relationship I was describing, the man finally allowed himself to shed his long-repressed tears. He needed emotional assistance but feared being “unmanly.”
“Arabness” is those two lovers who lost each other because their families don’t accept interreligious marriage. Arabness is being possessed by religion; it is living in a narcissistic faith-bubble such that being different means being ignorant. And defending one’s narcissistic bubble is a must because one cannot keep their distance. It is a Qur’an concealed with dust on the shelf of a sheikh’s conscience. Sometimes people act like the messengers of God. Religious faith is a castle and being different is the wrecking ball. The straight path is a red carpet. Any different path is a thin, flaky thread to hell. However, narcissism does not kill Narcissus. It kills the so-called black sheep. Like a popped birthday balloon, a melted ice-cream scoop, the defeated soldier – this adult – endures the pain of resurrection to gain the fruit of their labor: their freedom.
Although living in an Arab community requires enduring restrictive norms (and mothers-in-law), the “feel” or the aura that I experience is irreplaceable. It’s home. And, perhaps to soothe my irritability, I believe that home is like a rose, shielded with thorns from people who try to touch its roots (or replace them).
To Stay or To Leave
Arab is synonymous with tarab… Arabness is an oud that induces feelings of nostalgia of an old olive tree, of Eid swings and Ramadan atayef, or of a father whose wrinkled green eyes narrate stories of the melancholy and ecstasy of being an Arab, of the history of conquest and the shame of flame-out; they reflect the beauty and pain of this world. “Arabness” is a poem sung by Wadih El Safi and written by Mahmoud Darwish. It is two kind families fighting over settling the bill! It is a mystic gold-plated perfume bottle that smells like misk. It is an old, sophisticated eye-pleasing, red-and-blue-tinted calligraphy piece on the Dome of the Rock.
It is also the urge to run away from a society that punishes a divorced woman and congratulates a man for hitting his wife; it is a society that gets high on jokes with sexual innuendos but whose people do not know how to love… or are scared to love.
The Strict Mother
“Arabness” is not wanting to leave a mother’s warm hug or miss a tea party with one’s siblings. It is being in a constant state of confusion. It is living a double life.