By Anna Tabet |
“ لبناااان يا قطعة سما
عالارض تاني ما ال”
“Lebanon oh piece of heaven
On earth you have no equal”
Wadhi el Safi
It seemed fitting that the first song I ever learned in Lebanese was about Lebanon. Some of my earliest memories are of my father singing Wadih to me–songs filled with the beauty and pride of Lebanese culture. And yet, many of these prideful memories of my culture are quickly followed with fear.
Growing up as the child of two Lebanese immigrants was an experience, to say the least. I only spoke Arabic until the age of three. I ate traditional Lebanese dishes for every meal. I watched my grandma scream Lebanese cuss words at the TV for hours on end. So obviously, I was Lebanese through and through, and I loved it.
It didn’t take very long for me to realize, however, that my deep-rooted ethnic identity was not received from my peers with the same grace and joy that I felt. I was taught to hide the one thing that I so desperately wanted to showcase because my parents knew it was the only way to keep me safe–safe from the world’s views of Middle Easterners as a national threat. Because of this, I never knew a life where I could so unapologetically take pride in my family’s ethnicity.
But my parents did. My parents grew up in a time where speaking Arabic in an airport wasn’t taken as an immediate threat. They grew up in a time where having a beard didn’t make you a terrorist. They grew up in a time where their birthplace on their passport wasn’t cause enough to conduct a car search while trying to cross the border. They lived before the fear set in.
Recently, I became curious about how different it was for my parents living in a world before 9/11. I wanted to know how it was to live before the media pushed a unified negative view against Middle Easterners. When I asked my mom if she noticed different treatment towards Middle Easterners, without hesitation, my mom began to tell me a story about her friend.
“My friend’s husband, Mohammed, who had earned a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Vermont, lost his job and couldn’t get an interview for 10 months. He even applied for much lower positions since he was the only breadwinner in the family and had a wife and three children to support,” my mom said. “His co-workers who were laid off were getting new jobs fairly quickly, and he couldn’t even get an interview. He knew that the only reason he wasn’t getting through was his name and its newly negative connotation.”
This is just one of the many stories of Middle Easterners being discriminated against due to their name and the many negative associations that follow it. The climate discouraged many Middle Eastern parents from naming their children more traditional names. It’s one of the reasons I was named Anna instead of something more culturally appropriate. And even for my dad whose name is Raja, when introducing himself to strangers, he will introduce himself as Roger. Changing his name is second nature to him; it’s the only way he could ensure that he would be solely judged by his character.
Another change my parents pointed out was their inability to speak Arabic in public. My parents have lived in the United States for over 25 years so they are used to speaking only English when they leave the house. Therefore, this change never posed much of an issue, until my grandparents came to visit us. Seeing as my grandparents didn’t speak any English, they would have to resort to the little French they knew to communicate to us while in public.
The one thing my parents couldn’t hide, however, was their obvious foreign accent. When someone would point out my parents’ accent, they would lie and say it was French-Canadian. Every time I went out with my grandparents or my parents it was like we were living a double life. I always felt guilty afterward. I felt as if being afraid of standing up and saying “I’m Lebanese”, made me weak. But for my family, if it secures our comfort and safety, we will continue to do it without hesitation.
For me, my search for identity within my culture became all too confusing when I had to fill out my race for the first time on a legal document. I remember combing through the short list looking for Middle Eastern only to see it grouped together with White.
I was dumbfounded.
I couldn’t believe my physical appearance was enough to categorize me with a race that never saw me as an equal otherwise. I wasn’t white at the airport. I wasn’t white at school. I wasn’t white in the eyes of America. But I was white when I applied to college. I was white when I applied for scholarships. I was white because my skin was.
We were labeled as white when it was convenient, yet we’ve never reaped the benefits of holding that title.
Much like many other Middle Easterns, my Lebanese culture is something that I’ve had to fight to validate. Completely dismissing the diversity between cultures that are marked under the White category does nothing but boldly dismiss the hardships they have faced.
Many Americans made it clear that Middle Easterners were not welcome nor accepted into their communities, so we began to sacrifice our culture to ensure their comfort. We went out of our way to make them feel as if we were more similar to them than they believed. But it was obvious that many chose to only accept one narrative fed to them about my culture, instead of learning the truth from actual Middle Easterners.
We’ve fought ever since 9/11 to prove to the world that we weren’t monsters, the least we deserve is a box to check.