The Issue of the Hyphen: From the Perspective of a Lebanese-American

I was raised to believe that America was a melting-pot. It was a place where all cultures came together, united to form a more perfect Über Culture. A place initially created by a peaceful blending of White and Native cultures and customs, a utopian sharing of foods, lands, and diseases. Founded on a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that outlined a Bill of Rights, preserving personal freedoms and protecting individuals from the pitfalls seen by previous, lesser social contracts. This narrative pervaded not only my understanding of the world I lived in, but my view of myself.
Theoretically, if the United States were represented by a color, it would be a blend of shades, perhaps reminiscient of the color of vomit after fully digesting a day’s worth of meals. But what I saw in the real world around me was a stark shade of white–white in Hollywood, white in my dolls, white in my government. And in the mirror? At the earliest stages of my socio-political awareness, I wasn’t quite sure what color typified me (or didn’t), often pestering my mother about how to translate my skin color in English; but I remember my pencil hovering over the “White” answer in the “Race” category on state-issued standardized exams, questioning how much it represented me.
Due to various clichéd tragedies in my life, I attended seven different schools before graduating high school. I started at a secular, private, French school, largely dominated by upper-class white kids. I was largely ostracized by my classmates for my darker features; you see, when the children role-played Sailor Moon on the playground, there was only room for those who resembled the lighter-skinned characters. Next, I ended up at my local public school, with only a minority of white kids and a majority of Black and Latino students. If the one mixed-race girl in that school couldn’t make friends due to her skin’s inability to “make up its mind” about its identity, it was no wonder that I had difficulty finding companions. From there I alternated between different experiences of privilege and disadvantage with people from every integer of the socio-economic spectrum. I was often Othered and at times–those rare and transcient moments–felt included in the communities I witnessed. Such experiences fueled my need to question myself and question the world around me: where did I fit in? Did I fit in at all? What am I trying to fit into, anyway?
Of course, these ideas weren’t anything more than hypothetical before 9/11. I didn’t experience–or realize that I was experiencing–true racism before then, save for the odd exoticization from a stranger first learning about the existence of a country named Lebanon in the far (err–Middle) East… paired, of course, with my own gradual awareness that most of the other kids around me weren’t raised with nostalgic stories of the old country and didn’t come home to a garlicky perfume filling their kitchens.
No, like most Arab or Muslim kids at the time, September 11, 2001 changed everything I thought I knew about my identity and how I fit into the world I found myself in. That day I was physically torn away from my white best friend by her terrified mother; I learned that an innocent white girl was in danger around a young Arab kid like myself. I no longer had the chance to be seen as one of them. I became explosive to my peers, a ticking time bomb.
I spent my adolescence straightening my hair, practicing the Valley Girl accent, and rejecting my mother’s efforts to teach me Arabic. I figured I might be forgiven by the society I lived in for being born in an Arab family if I tried a little harder to be a real American–painted white. However, no matter how hard I tried, they knew; I was a brown terrorist wearing white clothes, an imposter. I was, essentially, as I was often reminded by my peers, a sand-n*gger trying to float in America’s white-tiled pools.
The weight of my disappointment at the constant rejections left me with the realization that I would never fit into white society because the other Lebanese in America could no longer be considered white, and the idiotic “We’re not Arab, we’re Phoenecian!” argument did not really take with people who had no idea what Phoenecians were. Luckily for me, it was not long after that turning point in my life when my migratory schooling landed me in an institution that had a fairly large Arab and Muslim population; for the first time, I was accepted by my peers, hooked nose and all. We turned our backs on white society, rejecting them before they could reject us, and fully embodied our displaced brown cultures. We went to shisha joints in the middle of a Dallas suburb, held our breasts with inherited sentimentality while listening to Fairouz, and danced openly in parking lots to the latest Nancy Ajram album blaring from our car speakers. Arabic words were sewn into our English sentences like a beautiful embroidery, and we discussed our dreams of returning to our parents’ homelands, waiting to feel that sense of belonging that we had unknowingly ached for for so many years. America rejected us for being Arab; surely the Arab countries would accept us.
Of my friends I was the only one who attempted to fulfill this fantasy. I only applied to universities in Lebanon, and before I was even accepted I packed my things and moved. I gave everything I owned away except for a small box full of material proof of my most intimate memories, hidden away in the attic of my mother’s Texas home. When I arrived in Beirut, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the new sensation of being invisible. No one looked at me suspiciously when I entered a building like they did in Texas, because I looked like everyone else. My strides along the alleyways and main streets of Hamra continued unquestioned, as I marvelled at the mixture of ancient and colorful villas, the dilapidated modern cement of towering reminders of the wars this country had not yet healed from, and the reflective glass of American-style office buildings still being constructed. This city represented me, in some way, I thought to myself. It isn’t a single color, and it isn’t a blend of colors–rather it is a mosaic of different eras and different places chaotically and unapologetically fitting into one.
Things became more complicated when I opened my mouth. My poor Arabic skills always gave me away as a variation of a foreigner. Initially, strangers would speak to me in Arabic, assuming I was Lebanese and fluent in Arabic. My failure to reply quickly or without code-switching resulted in the typical response: “Where are you from?” When I was asked this question in the States, I would reply, “Lebanon,” as the interrogators were only asking to find out what exactly made me different from themselves. But I couldn’t very well say that in these situations. As much as I denied the fact to myself, I wasn’t born in Lebanon; I was born in the United States. But did the place of my birth and the place I was raised define where I was “from”? Didn’t my years in the United States serve as a testament that I was indeed not American, or not American enough to call myself that? The language barrier created the gap that invited the Lebanese around me to realize I wasn’t quite one of them, either. Even when I tried to speak my broken version of Arabic, my faltering questions were always returned with English answers; “enno, khalas, we know you’re American–we speak English, too!” Even on some occasions I had the opposite reaction. Strangers would look at me, dark hair, olive skin, curved nose, and large eyes, and aggressively question why my parents did not teach me Arabic, why I don’t have the Lebanese nationality, and why did I even come to Lebanon anyway?
Was I not Lebanese because I didn’t speak Arabic? Was it because I didn’t have the Lebanese passport? Or was it because I was raised in the privilege and security that the United States provided? I realized that I wasn’t Lebanese, not only because of specified linguistic or legal evidences (which could be learned or forged), but because I had no understanding of local innuendos that took decades to instill and because my hands trembled with every explosion of fireworks and celebratory gunshots.
Four years later, despite the dictionary of Arabic vocabulary words I’ve memorized and the several times I’ve faced near-death experiences with car bombs, the haphazard way I shrug off the minor booms I hear in the dead of night, and my fluency at cursing the daily power outtages, I realize that I still do not fully fit into Lebanese society. I still cannot call myself Lebanese and Lebanese alone. I may have spent the last four years of my life relishing my invisibility, but I have also spent those years silencing myself for fear of being recognized as an outcast upon the movement of my lips. No matter what I may look like upon initial inspection, I haven’t been directly affected by the politicians whose faces are glued to the sides of buildings, and if everything goes to hell, I have the privilege of an American passport to get a one-way ticket back to relative safety.
In fact, as I plan my return to the United States in a year’s time, I am drawn to the inevitable contemplation of how Lebanon has made me the person I am today. I arrived to this country with the idealistic expectations of a suffocating fish returning to its native pond. What I found was a different body of water altogether, one that I still managed to adapt to once more.
Moving back to the States isn’t a sign of my defeat, and Beirut hasn’t knocked me down. Beirut has reminded me of the impermanence of all things, the utter chaos of an unfiltered existence and the devastating reality hiding in plain sight–if one simply takes off their rose-tinted glasses and crushes them with the heel of their boot.
When it comes to the issue of identity, I can only offer my own life as an example. I won’t appeal to quantitative or qualitative data to support my argument. The only kind of historical context I can provide is my own. Based on my experiences, I’ve realized that my identity isn’t defined by where I was born, where I was raised, or even by where I choose to live. I’ve realized that the color of my skin is dependent on the world in which I am immersed; in Lebanon, I am often perceived as white, and in America, I am often perceived as brown. But while some live by Berkeley’s adage “to be is to be perceived,” I’ve realized that in spite of the socio-political associations drowning it, the only perception of myself that matters is my own. I’ve chosen to adopt the hyphen as a way to portray the blend of experiences that I am. I’ve spent my life trying to find myself in either “American” or “Lebanese,” but like the streets of Beirut, my identity is a kaleidoscopic creation of the East and the West, some parts old, some parts new, but all of it so uniquely “me.”


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