Gender & Identity, Life

My Arab community has a hard time letting me be both Syrian and American – this is why

I’ve heard this several times before. “You don’t like Arabic music? How do you call yourself Syrian?”

It’s the story you hear almost every Arab-American tell.

That they felt pressured to show their love for America, fit in with the typical American, brand themselves as American and hide the other parts of themselves that just didn’t seem as good. But for several, including me, the story was a little more complicated than that.

Picture this: I’m sitting with a group of Syrian-American friends, “middlewomen,” like me. They’re talking about Syrian geography. I mention that I can’t point out where a specific city is on a map of Syria. They look at me, wide-eyed, and say, “Well, you’re not Syrian then.”

I’ve heard this several times before. “You don’t like Arabic music? How do you call yourself Syrian?”

I’d grown up in a family that emphasized religion over culture. Nationalism was never a part of me, American or Syrian. Love and appreciation for my cultures grew over time, but never to the extent that I would overlook a country’s flaws in the name of loyalty to place. So when people expressed overt pride over a geographic location, that never made sense to me. The fact that people even talked about specific cities within Syria being better than others confused me even more.

[bctt tweet=”When people expressed overt pride over a place, that never made sense to me.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Let’s go back to America, specifically the heart and center of it: Kansas.

This is the country I was born and raised in, the place I am most familiar with. But it was a country that seemed only half mine. Because my sloped nose, dark brows, and hijab might have indicated that I was not fully from here, I felt a pressure to overcompensate.

It did not quite reach the levels of listening to country music (sorry, country fans) and dressing like an American flag (though I know someone who did). But I did I feel it necessary for my family to be like our neighbors and light fireworks on the 4th of July. I hated explaining to people where Syria was and, often, what it was. This forced nationalism reached a point where I was slightly ashamed of “back home.” I saw America as superior.

I learned to pardon America for slavery and Japanese internment, but not the Syrians who littered their streets nor the public smokers. America was the best country in the world to me. It represented progress and free speech. It represented clean and new buildings. And when someone asked me where I was really from, I’d reply St. Louis. While this was happening, my family would spend our summers in Damascus. I dreaded it every time. I dreaded the old buildings, the urban smells, how everything was dusty.

But most of all, I dreaded my broken Arabic and being told I was too American. How I needed to learn and appreciate my Syrian roots more. How I needed to love my country more.

[bctt tweet=” I dreaded my broken Arabic and being told I was too American.” username=”wearethetempest”]

While I had to fight to prove my love of America in the states, I had to fight to prove my love of Syria in Damascus.

Again though, it’s not quite that simple.

I also had to fight for my love of Syria in the little pockets of Syria back in the states. To be truly Syrian, I had to know and love the country and all its flaws.

I was allowed to like America and criticize it, but it felt like to them, Syria was beyond criticism, it was perfect.

These friends also felt the same pang of not being fully one thing or the other overcompensated in the opposite direction as me, in the form of Syrian nationalism.

As I grew, my love for America deepened beyond the shallow, people-pleasing sense. It grew to a point where I wanted to better the country I called home and that involved criticizing it.

This growth was around the time the war in Syria began to escalate.

Now, if I criticized America, I would be seen as ungrateful. I could easily imagine the backlash. “Your country elected a racist, misogynistic president? So what? You’re living the American dream and we’re fighting to survive back home.”

I recently spoke to a Syrian refugee who told me he found the glamorization of Syrian culture by Syrian-Americans odd. He was born into a low-income family there and honestly always wished he was born in another country, like America. He appreciated the beauty of the culture, but he did not miss home. He said I had a right to criticize America but that I should be so lucky to be born in a country like this.

And I remembered the Syrians who envied my English and American clothes from even before the war.

How could I be so unappreciative as to protest my country’s decision?

Today, I have learned to go beyond the complicated nationalism on both sides. I have learned love and be grateful for both my countries beyond the overcompensating effect garnered by criticism.

My father came to America for work and educational opportunities, for himself and for his children, that Syria could not offer him. It is in this country that I am able to carry a poster silently and march with thousands of other women without fearing imprisonment and torture. Still, his Syria brought me delicious food, unmatched poetry, and a collectivist culture I’ve learned to appreciate.

Out of this love comes criticism. I recognize the systemic oppression of minorities in this country. I recognize the corrupt government in Syria torturing its citizens.

[bctt tweet=”Out of this love comes criticism.” username=”wearethetempest”]

In response to both criticisms, I have been met with, “You are not loyal to your country and do not love it.”

Through my struggle, though, I have learned to be my own person, unbound by one way of thinking. It has taken me a while, but I now appreciate the position I’m in. When you are bound to one country, you must stay 100% loyal to all aspects of that country. It is difficult to see beyond the one ideology you grew up with and if you do see beyond it, you are considered weird and are shunned by the one country you have.

I had to look at myself as an individual.

What values did I appreciate and what did I want to fight for personally? From that, I got to pick and choose the aspects of each of my countries that aligned with my standards. I was already an outsider to both so it didn’t matter if I was labeled strange for not following a certain practice. I had my other country to lean back on.

I am now in a position where I have found a home in both places, and am working to make each home the best it can be.