Photo: Assia Boundaoui and segment guests during taping at Ahmed Rehab’s home
Arab-Americans have, understandably, been avid followers of news about the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Many first generation Arab-Americans fled to the US to escape political repression in their home countries.
Now, they see the Arab world changing dramatically. Two dictators have been toppled. Others seem to be teetering.
The so-called Arab Spring is causing Arab-Americans to reconsider their hyphenated identities.
At a recent roundtable in Chicago, second generation Arab-American activists, students and artists discussed the conflicts of identity that revolutions half-way across the world, are forcing them to confront.
Many second generation Arab-Americans have grown up on stories of the home-land their parents fled. They sought political asylum from repression and corruption in countries they loved, but felt they could no longer live in. Waves of Arabs escaping political oppression immigrated to the United States from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1970s and 80s.
Now, nearly three decades later, these young Arab-Americans are being confronted with a fundamentally existential question: “If we’re here because our parents fled repressive, undemocratic regimes … and those regimes no longer exist, well then – shouldn’t we go back?”
“It’s still bizarre, it’s still like a dream to even discuss, ‘can we possibly live there?’” asked Abdullah Fadhli, an artist who was born and raised in the US whose parents fled Libya in 1980 to escape Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
“My father didn’t come here willingly. He was an exile from the get-go. Libyans wanted to live in Libya, these people came here unwillingly, they love their country. My father hasn’t seen his family in over 30 years, I’m sure he’s going to go back.”
Ahlam Said, a Yemeni-American political organizer and activist, said as much as she might want to go back if things in Yemen change; her dual identity actually complicates things.
“Going back to Yemen, when you told people you were American-Yemeni, they’d sort of like smirk at you and go ‘emm, okay, yeah,’ Said said.
“I wasn’t raised in Yemen, I was born in Yemen, and I came here at the age of two, and now all of a sudden I’m beginning to enter into a world where I want to be closer to my Yemeni identity, I want to understand what’s going on, I want to be involved. But you know, I know there’s going to be a struggle if I go back, because now my identity is going to be challenged.”
This question of being “Arab-enough” quickly transforms into a conversation about identity. In a room of nine Arab-Americans, every one has handles their hyphenated status differently.
Yaser Tabbara, a Syrian-American, was born in Chicago and grew-up in Damascus before returning to the US as a teenager. He said that politically, Syrian and American identities are perceived to be in conflict.
But they’re not.
“After all Syria has been classified as one of the Axis of Evil by America for a long time,” Tabbara said. “But I truly don’t feel a schism between the two identities. As an American, I’m very comfortable supporting the pro-democracy movement in Syria and in the Arab World, after-all that is a fundamentally American value.”
Iraqi-American Laith Saud said he’s not especially torn about his hyphenated status. In fact, he no longer considers himself an “Arab-American.”
“I’m beginning to look at this in a totally different way. I’m beginning to consider myself an American Arab. I was born in Baghdad but I grew up here, for me to be as Iraqi as an Iraqi, is absurd. I’m an American. But I happen to be an Arab one,” Saud said.
Ahmed Rehab, an Egyptian-American activist who flew to Cairo last month to participate in the Egyptian revolution, wants to get rid of the hyphenation all together. He said he is fully American and fully Arab, and that hyphenating those two identities is unnecessary.
“I can be an American, I can be an Egyptian, I can be an Arab,” he said. I have the capacity of being all three, they’re not hyphenated. One does not qualify the other. When I go vote as an American I don’t chisel hieroglyphics on my ballot card. And when I’m in Egypt, chanting in Tahrir Square with everybody else, I’m not saying, “Yeah Freedom.” I’m chanting in Arabic, the same slogans. I fully relate to these people there and they relate to me.”
A sticky situation
Yemeni-American Ahlam Said said that beyond just a categorization, her hyphenated identity has complicated the question of who she represents when she wants to speak her mind. She calls it a sticky situation.
“Am I speaking on behalf of America, or am I speaking on behalf of Yemen?” Said said. “And what are Yemenis going to be thinking about this, are Americans going to basically challenge my allegiance to America? I myself, after I send out a tweet, I’m like ‘oh crap what are people going to think?’ Because I’m not there, and I don’t know what’s really going on. At the end of the day it’s my passion to see people living dignified lives, you know that’s what I want, that’s what I can identify with.”
Khalil Marrar, a Palestinian-American professor and writer, said his hyphenated identity is associated with a feeling of guilt.
“I feel guilty, as a person of Palestinian descent, who lives in America and enjoys the relative freedom we enjoy here,” Marrar said. “I feel really guilty about my Palestinian brothers and sisters living under occupation. I feel really guilty about my Egyptian brothers and sisters that live(d) under the Mubarak regime.”
Whatever their feelings on being “hyphenated-Americans,” all of these men and women agree that they want to play a role in the wave of change taking place in the Arab world, whether or not that means actually moving there. But in a generational twist of poetic justice, some will make the leap and return to the countries their parents were forced to abandon, decades ago.