Stop calling me an Arab. I’m just a girl, standing in front of a salad, asking it to be a cookie.

How do you define contemporary Arabness? In fact, is it even a necessary label? Hang on, can we stop with the label each other thing?

Illustration by Omar Al Nadi

by Amira Kabbiz

Culture 10 February 2018

When I was asked to write a piece about what it means to be an Arab and Arab pride I was stumped. I’m labelled as an Arab and I don’t know why. Something about this assignment seems meaningless. How relevant is it, really? Why does it matter?

What have I done to be categorized as an Arab? Pondering this, I fell into that philosophical, introspective, existential internal debate that left me annoyed af. Kind of like when you’re standing in the line for cinema snacks and can’t decide between nachos and popcorn. Both?

So how are we defining Arabness? By birthplace maybe? Well, I wasn’t born in the Middle East. By passport? But so many people who identify as Arab have passports from non-Arab countries. Family origins? OK fine, check, but technically we also hail from Southern Iran. How about my mentality? I have been praised for being “extremely open- minded for an Arab” by non-Arabs and denounced for being “too free” for an Arab by some die-hard Arabs. Religion? Well, religion and race are two different things.

Maybe my Arabness is about where I live… Does that even make sense today where most people live in a somewhat transient state? OK, how about language? My Arabic definitely isn’t proficient, my brothers speak zero Arabic, and many other non-Arabs speak it far better than I do. Maybe my Arabness is defined by the company I keep? But I have friends from all over the world. Clothing? Mostly westernized and non- traditional. Education? International/European. Food? Sushi please. Perhaps it’s characteristics? Like modesty or hospitality or perseverance – oh I know, gender roles?! No that doesn’t make sense… Can I be from the Middle East but not Arab? How about political views? Let’s. Not. Even.

There is so much diversity within the Arab world that it doesn’t even make sense to classify people based on based on arbitrary lines drawn by someone on a map. Even culture is subject to change as soon as one ballsy person becomes a cultural outlier. Traditions are constantly changing with the advent of technology and the freedom of travel. My three siblings and I all grew up in the same ‘Arab’ household, but we are so different in our “Arabness”.

So how can one measure what Arabness is when everyone’s one version seems true to them? Think about someone from Morocco or Saudi Arabia or a person of Iraqi origins living in Sweden – each of them interpret Arabness in their own way are none or all of them wrong? If I start to think of Arabness in a spectrum, someone on one end could seem more “Chinese” whereas someone on the other end could be more “Latin American.” Is there anything that unifies us all? See? Existential as fuck.

I’ve wracked my mind trying to loop in my experiences with my identity as an Arab. I know I comfortably identify as a heterosexual female, a researcher, an independent thinker (at times overly so), an athlete, an animal- lover and other things. These are paths I have chosen for myself, passions I have actively engaged in, not something somebody told me I should be, should act like or should represent.

This isn’t a millennial rant on hating my roots or my relationship with cultural baggage. I don’t hate being an Arab, I simply don’t get it.

It’s confusing when you’re expected to fit the mould of an “Arab”. Triggers go off in my mind and I’m drawn back to so many confusing conversations with my parents where so often, I was reminded that I’m Arab whether I like it or not. That idea dictated how I spoke, what I wore, who I dated, who I befriend, what I was supposed to believe in and what values I was expected to uphold. What I wanted for myself was never considered and those rules changed drastically if I was living in an Arab country or if I was living in the west. How is anyone expected to keep track of how Arab they should be depending on the circumstances they are in? Where is the damn instruction manual?

Though frustrating, it’s also necessary to deal with these issues. What makes matters worse is that false or underrepresented depictions of Arabs in media help perpetuate these labels that none of us chose for ourselves. In fact, these labels stunts or hides our unique differences, our passions, pursuits and our essence as individuals. Who would you be if you didn’t act according to the label that was given to you? If you weren’t just an Arab?

I’ve often been told that I should love my culture simply because “I was born into it.” Are people who are oppressed in North Korea supposed to love that because they were born into it? Yes, I know being born in North Korea isn’t the same thing as being born an Arab (well it depends when and which Arab country actually) but you get my point.

This isn’t a millennial rant on hating my roots or my relationship with cultural baggage. I don’t hate being an Arab, I simply don’t get it. When someone asks me where I’m from or what nationality or ethnicity I connect with, I don’t feel like I am lying when I say I’m Arab. I just feel like a kid in school answering a question about a subject I didn’t study.

While the definition of being Arab made sense at some point in time and may have helped create unity, order, a sense of community, and many other positive things, we need to accept that certain cultural practices that are interlinked with Arabness are now outdated. The idea of labelling someone an Arab and another person not Arab enough gives some people a sense of legitimacy and entitlement to shame, ridicule other Arabs and other people in general, based on this undefinable idea of what a real Arab is.

I haven’t answered what it means for me to be an Arab. I can’t and probably won’t ever be able to. I would rather focus on celebrating people for their diversity, their choices and the labels they make for themselves. But I what I do know for sure is this: I’m just a girl, standing in front of a salad, asking it to be a cookie. Arab or not, that’s pretty damn universal.

Amira Kabbiz is just you’re average millennial humanist, promoter of honesty, love, freedom of thought, intellectual conversation and vulgar jokes.

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