“Hadritik mish min hina?”
“That’s Right You’re Not From Texas, But Texas Wants You Anyway!”1
“Hadritik mish min hina?” is a question I often get asked when I returned to live in Egypt after having left the country as a child. Regardless of whom I was talking to – male or female, young or old, educated or uneducated…whomever – two minutes into our conversation, I got asked that same question. Oddly, every person asking would also have the same mannerism; they’d tilt their head to one side, and then they’d have a slow emerging half smile, as if they just figured out a riddle.
“Hadritik mish min hina?” in the Egyptian Arabic dialect means something like, “Madame, you are not from here (are you)?” It seems that my “Americanized” Egyptian accent divulged that I hadn’t lived most of my life in Egypt. I was astonished to be asked that question so consistently in my country of heritage.
Whoa! It was similar to “Where are you from?” that I’ve heard all my life in the U.S. That question made me cringe – not because I wanted to fit in, but because I thought I did fit in. Most people in the U.S. wonder “where I’m from” as soon as I introduce myself, and they hear my uncommon name. Hey! I am a U.S citizen. I came to America when I was 5 years old and grew up in California. When I got married, I moved to Texas where my four children were born. I love this country. It’s my home!
Nevertheless, that question persists. In Texas, my “y’all” is heard by some as having a more nasal California “Valley Girl” drawl than a twangy Texas Southern drawl, if you get my meanin’. However, growing up in Surf City, California, my appearance and mannerisms were seen as way more “Nile Valley Girl,” than like totally “Orange County Valley Girl.”
At the same time, I am still proud of my Egyptian heritage and appreciate aspects of my Egyptian culture. “Wallahee!” (“Really!”) I still have ties to Egypt through my large extended family that lives there. So, when my husband secured a long-term ex-pat assignment in Egypt with an international company, I was looking forward to getting in touch with my roots. I thought I might finally fit in…SOMEWHERE. However, it seems I was wrong….
I was also surprised during that extended stay in Egypt to be told that I didn’t look Egyptian. What?! Ever since I moved to the U.S., I’ve been told I don’t look like my European American friends. Admittedly, most people in the U.S. can’t place my ethnic heritage, but I thought going back to live among Egyptians in Egypt, I’d be seen as Egyptian! After all, Egyptians are a varied lot, with various skin colors, hair types, and facial features. However, in Egypt, I was known as “American;” while in the U.S., I was known as “other-than-American.”
Ok. So? I’m somehow not enough of anything to actually fit in – ANYWHERE? In the United States, I’m not white enough, even though my skin is technically light enough to be considered “white,” but my hair is too dark and curly, and I have a not- so-petite nose. I love my curls and am proud of my nose as a distinguishing family feature. I’ve never favored any skin color over another because members of my family and my friends range in every shade from dark to light. I marvel at the unique beauty of every skin shade.
While I grew up in the Western Hemisphere, some would say I’m still not a “Westerner,” but an “Easterner.” I don’t care for that distinction – the globe is round after all! East and West are relative terms. I’m not a European American, but I am an Arab American.
As an Arab, I’m also a Semite; I’m not Jewish, so some would say I’m not Semitic. I have a Jewish great grandmother in my lineage as well as a Christian grandmother, and my Muslim faith makes me a believer of the Abrahamic faith; yet some refuse to include the Islamic part in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.
I am proud of my faith, but I also respect those of other religions, such as Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, etc. I also respect those who follow no religion but also abide by the Golden Rule. I believe that there are many paths that can lead to the same destination.
God says in the Quran, “We have created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you (behaves with the best conduct)” (49:13). Also, “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So, compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed” (5:48).
So, I believe we were meant to have different beliefs and cultures to learn from one another. I try hard to not judge others, as I don’t want them to judge me; no one can know another’s thoughts, intentions, or experiences (except for our Creator in my belief). What’s important is to do good work and help each other.
Some Arab Americans say I’m not Arab enough, because I’m an Egyptian American; Egyptians are not considered Arabs by some Arabs and some Egyptians don’t want to be considered Arab. I love the Arabic language because it’s the language that my holy book, the Quran, was revealed in. But I also love English because it’s the language I know best and so can best express myself in. It’s a huge advantage knowing more than one language, so I can communicate with more people. Arabic is the official language of Egypt, which is what makes Egypt and twenty-one other countries Arab countries.
So, do Egyptians think I’m Egyptian enough? No. For some Egyptians, my facial features look European and my skin is too light, and my green eyes should be brown. “Ehh da?!” (“What is this?!”) My maternal heritage is from the Caucasus Mountains and my paternal heritage may have some French influence, which could explain my different features. I also “sound funny” with my “Americanized” Arabic. So, can I say I’m Middle Eastern? Some say, “No, Egypt is in Africa.” I’m proud to have African roots, but some would say I can’t be considered African nor African American…
Working through my identity crisis, at the age of 40, while living in Egypt, greatly informed my current sense of self. Returning to my country of origin after some 35 years (minus a few short summer visits) gave me a new perspective of my identity and a deeper understanding of people in general. At some point, I came to accept and appreciate others’ inquisitiveness about my background. I realized that most people genuinely wanted to get to know me as a person when they asked where I was from. I didn’t fit the mold, so I was seen as interesting! My identity was actually being appreciated and honored.
I finally realized that it is up to me to be insulted or appreciative when asked about my heritage. It is also up to me to reciprocate and ask others respectfully about themselves, so I, too, can reach out and value their existence. Information about ethnic or cultural background is a point of interest as a conversation starter that may lead to a genuine friendship. I’ve enjoyed and learned so much from conversations where I’ve engaged with someone where we both ask, “And where are you from originally?”
My husband’s long-term job assignment allowed my husband and me and our three children to live for four years in Egypt. During that time, we saw that most Egyptians’ daily lives were similar to the lives of many Americans and discovered how in so many ways people the world over are the same. We engaged with Egyptians of various ages, attitudes, and from all walks of life: high society or working class or provincial, wealthy or middle class or poor, white collar or blue collar or plaid. Each had their own unique personalities and persuasions: conservative or liberal or moderate; snobbish or down to earth; racist or open minded; narcissistic or selfless; religious or agnostic or atheist, etc., and they were… well, very much like their American counterparts!
Living away from our home in the U.S. taught us that no matter where we go, we’ll find the same types of people, even though they might speak different languages. Egypt was quite multi-cultural, too. We befriended people from all parts of the globe during our stay, including friends from: the U.K., France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Brazil, Australia, Arab Gulf Countries, Nigeria, India, Indonesia, and the U.S.; they were diplomats, journalists, heads of multinational companies, teachers, bankers, hotel managers, travel agents, NGO officers, etc. Our conversations and friendships helped us understand what it’s like to live in different parts of the world. We learned that wherever we’d go we could find the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. We found that good deeds and evil, justice and oppression, truth and deception can be differentiated, understood, and translated into every language. Smiles, tears, laughter, pain, hope, despair, love and hate all make up a global language that is comprehended intuitively regardless of cultures.
The diversity of cultures and ideas in the U.S. is one of the things I love most about living here, where I’ve also met and befriended people from various cultures and viewpoints. One of the many blessings America offers is the coming together of people of diverse backgrounds and ideas who are seeking the promise of a better life; respect and justice for all and human equality and dignity are aspects of the American dream that bring people from all parts of the globe to share ideas and work together to create a multi-cultural community. I know that’s the ideal that America is still struggling to achieve, but there is so much good here, and we can’t forget that we are stronger together, which is emphasized in our motto, “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”). Ultimately, we all simply belong to the one diverse human race. Each one of us can say, “I am a citizen of the universe; I am a human being, and that’s it.”
We all have to work on overcoming our prejudices or our perceived notions of others as simple stereotypes. As I have gotten older, experienced more, and mixed with many diverse peoples, I’ve come to value everyone’s uniqueness. Being seen as “other” or “different” has actually made me more confident in my own identity. Because I don’t conform to anyone’s ideal, I have been liberated from having to fit in. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to build a solid identity and have well thought out convictions; I am constantly working to improve my character to be a better person not a better stereotype. I am free to choose to emulate the best qualities that I admire from the diversity of people around me without worrying about breaking a stereotypical mold.
I wonder at how some people don’t see that all people have the same hopes, fears, joys, sorrows, dreams, frustrations, etc., and the same basic needs and wants: shelter, clothing, food, romance, children, solid family ties, friends, good health, financial security, sound education, safe society, representative government, etc. If we truly get to know one another we will find that we have more similarities than differences, which can strengthen us rather than divide us. We cannot fully appreciate the benefits of diverse views and peoples without making an effort to interact, engage, and include one another in a lifelong conversation of love, hope, and friendship to a desired end of peace, growth, and understanding. Isolation, destruction, hate, and violence negate the purpose of Creation. Diversity reveals the entire scope of all of Creation in its complex beauty and simple uniqueness.
We have to venture out of our comfort zone and engage with others from different cultures and with different viewpoints. We have to realize the importance of face-to-face interaction to helps us see our common humanity and innate decency. When we engage in a conversation, look someone in the eyes, exchange stories, and listen with sympathy and compassion, we no longer see others as two-dimensional stereotypes, but we discover their multi-dimensionality as complex beings. We have to have mutual respect, be patient, and listen to each other.
Not fitting in anywhere has made me comfortable everywhere, and I’m glad to get to know anyone from wherever! So, if we happen to meet, let’s say hello, and chat for a while. Let’s plan to see each other often and learn about each other’s different ideas and customs. Our lives will be enriched from these exchanges and ongoing conversations. We won’t remain the same; we’ll continue to grow and shape our identities for the better. The more people we are exposed to of various cultures, beliefs, ideas, ages, and experiences, the richer we become through a deeper understanding of our world and each person’s unique value to it. “Yalla, y’all!” (“Come join me, everyone!”).
1 Song by Lyle Lovett
Other articles you may be interested in:
- Diversity Brings Us All Together by Meg Henderson Wade
- Coloring Inside The Box by Jude Olson
- Piece Of The Pie by Deb Kreimborg
- Exclusion: How We May Be Unconsciously Contributing To the Problem by Julie Chance