It has happened to me almost every day that I have been in Perpignan — a hand reaches out from a bus stop, a retail store, a bakery to grab my wrist. The stranger will then compare his or her olive-toned skin to mine, outline their eyes, then mine and say: “Arab?”
My answer changes every time. I do not understand the question. Often, my heritage will morph to any given situation. In America, I identify myself as being Armenian. It is much easier to live with a culture and heritage that spawn few questions. “Wasn’t there that genocide?”
“Yes, yes there was.”
Conversation is over.
When I say I am Egyptian, Syrian, a little Greek, Maltese here and there, and Armenian, I generally get more interest, as well as questions about the role of women in Arab culture. What language do Egyptians speak? Why don’t you wear a headscarf thing? Do you feel oppressed? I love kay-bab!
It is an identity shrouded in negative connotations to many people around the world. Arab is more than what is in my face or the way my curly hair cannot be tamed the same way my obviously American friends’ can. It is different in every region of the world, but it seems that it is more distinct here than in America. You know where the so-called “Arab parts” are in every city. All of a sudden, you are standing among men who look like they rode out of the same streets of Cairo in which my father was born and there are kebab restaurants on every block.
I think about Los Angeles. I think about taking mass transit, or walking in downtown and how I am just another white girl in California. I do not know which is better, to square off a part of land for the people you identify with or to try to assimilate in the country in which you live.
In America, it is all about the salad bowl. It is not about giving up your culture, but it is not about holding onto it for dear life either. I think I am content with where I live and how I hold on to the traditions I have chosen to carry on. I have realized that I need to say yes when someone asks me when I am Arab, but also let them know that I am Egyptian, Syrian, a little Greek and Maltese here and there, and Armenian because that is who I am. I am a tabouli salad and am proud of it.