I've had a love/hate relationship with the Arab side of my heritage for as long as I can remember. When you grow up in a predominantly white community where every teacher butchers the pronunciation of your last name and your classmates think it's funny to call you a camel jockey, you adopt the "if you can't beat em' join em'" policy. My dad had a thick accent in a small town where the only non-white residents were Mexican field workers. We were different. And our last name made it impossible to ignore. So rather than defending my heritage, I joined the mob. Self deprecation became my defense mechanism and an Arab hater was born. Being half Arab just fanned the flames, giving me the "right" to be as racist as I saw fit.
I didn't need to work hard to fit in. I didn't need to make people like me. I had everything I wanted, but at the time I thought... Why risk it? Just go with the flow and make fun of the foreigners louder and more relentlessly than the other kids, show them you're one of them. And I was. Until our country was attacked on 9/11 by men with the same accent as my father. I could have explained the difference to my ignorant classmates, I could have told them my family was Christian, not Muslim and that even if we were Muslim, not all Muslims are terrorists. But I didn't. Again, I joined the mob. I bullied other kids to take the attention off of myself. I was the worst kind of mean-girl imaginable.
Looking back, I regret how awful I was but I was in survival mode. It was them or me and they didn't stand a chance. It wasn't until I got out of that small town and left behind the ignorance and mentality associated with it that I started to appreciate the differences in people and most importantly, myself. The last name I use to hate ended up giving me a perfectly alliterative on-air broadcast name that I didn't even have to change, like most people do in radio and TV. And the mix of Arab and Italian genes has me fitting in perfectly everywhere from Greece and Spain to Turkey and Israel. When I'm in Italy, everyone thinks I'm local, but being in Jordan was a whole new ball-game when it came to mistaken identity.
The phrase I used most when I was there was "Mish Arabiyah." Which means "Not Arabic." If I didn't say that right out of the gate, people would launch into full conversations with me that I'd barely understand. But in the most perfect turn of events... I experienced the same kind of racism I use to dish out. This time from the locals.
I was at the hot springs in Ma'een, which is one of many gorgeous places in Jordan frequented by tourists and locals. I wanted to see one of the waterfalls not visible from the hotel, so I grabbed my flip flops and a sheer swim suit cover up and off I went. The closer to the public area I got... the louder the disapproval. First it was just that clicking sound Arab women make with their mouths, but once I would pass them and they'd get a good look at my Brazilian cut bikini bottoms they started to verbalize their complaints. I asked a friend to tell me what they were saying and he said not to worry about it until they started throwing rocks, which he said was definitely possible. As we made our way back to the bikini safe zone (the hotel) the same women were waiting for me. They had gathered reinforcements. I looked at my friend and our eyes darted back to their hands; scanning for rocks or tomatoes or basically anything they could throw at me. Suddenly I felt like I was back in high school. But this time I was the one facing the mob, not joining it.
I had one shot to avoid an altercation, so as loud and american as I possibly could, I said, "Is this the way back to the hotel? Um...like... I think we're lost." Their angry faces immediately softened and almost in unison they said, "Mish Arabiyah." They looked relieved. Then some added "Zalamnaha," which means they accused me of something that isn't true or spoke badly about me and take it back. Because I spoke English in front of them, they decided that meant I wasn't arabic and therefore wasn't personally offending them with my bikini clad ass, since tourists staying at the hotel wear revealing bikinis just like anywhere else in the world.
To be clear, I'm glad they didn't throw rocks at me, but after all of these years of personal growth and accepting my heritage, did I really just deny being arabic all over again to avoid being bullied? I traveled thousands of miles to visit my Arab family and see the house where my father grew up just to deny being arabic all over again? I'm the worst.
I wish I would have gone over to talk to the women. To ask them why they were so upset about my being in a bathing suit at the river where everyone is there to swim. I wish I would have told them that I'm half Jordanian and I had just as much of a right to be there as they did. That covering their hair and their bodies is their choice and not covering mine is my choice and if I respect them, they should respect me. I wanted to tell them that is was hypocritical of them to be offended by my bikini when they thought I was an Arab and then perfectly accepting of it when they thought I was american. I wanted to tell them what a bad example they were setting for the young boys standing there listening to all of this. Forming opinions about religion and modesty and hearing that Arab women who don't cover up are whores, but women from other countries have more rights and can do whatever they want. What a horrible message for a young boy.
In an effort to undo some of the damage caused by those women and my teenage self, I'll ask anyone reading this to withhold judgement when interacting with someone from another culture. I'll ask for women to lift up one another, not tear each other down; regardless or religious differences and I'll ask for men to respect a woman's right to choose how the world sees her through her actions. Not how she dresses or what country she lives in or her ethnic background. Life is hard enough for women in Arab countries without adding an extra layer of girl on girl shitiness. Shukran.