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Disney World, July 2003.
“Damn Arabs,” the man scoffed to his friend. I’m sure he wanted my family to hear. And we did. I clutched my mom’s arm a little tighter. I was 9 years old.
Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, June 2006.
My father, brother, and I were randomly selected for screening upon our arrival. It was by the same officer who randomly selected us when we boarded the flight a week prior—I recognized the tattoo on his arm.
“Us again?” I said. I wanted him to hear.
“Khalas. Maa’lish,” my dad urged me in Arabic—“Enough. It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay,” I thought. “Enough.” I was 12 years old.
New York City Subway, April 2010.
“Everybody run! She probably has a bomb!”
This time, neither of my parents was there to protect me. His words stunned me, and I stood motionless. My heart raced as I endured the public humiliation. Tears rolled down my cheeks as bystanders comforted me.
“Don’t pay any mind to that,” they assured me. “He’s just ignorant.” It was too late though; the damage was done. I could not unlive the experience. I was 15 years old.
I do not share these stories for pity. These moments are representative of the many experiences I’ve had whenever I’ve stepped out of my community in Dearborn, Mich.—home to the second-largest concentration of Arabs outside of the Middle East, most of whom are Muslim.
It is no surprise, then, that I had never planned to leave my snug community where my intentions and beliefs were seldom questioned or challenged—where the scarf wrapped around my head is not considered a barrier or a social impediment. This comfort keeps most of my community’s youth at bay.
Although uncommon in Dearborn, I left my hometown for college. And so, I find myself here. And here is great—I have yet to experience any racial or Islamophobic slurs during my time at Harvard.
Unexpectedly, though, a new challenge befell me upon my departure from home. I have struggled to navigate, establish, and articulate my identity. In Dearborn, neither my ethnicity, nor my religion, nor the hijab on my head were salient aspects of my identity. They were benign characteristics in the mass of other Arab-Muslim Americans. These traits did not define me back home; I never considered them as tumultuous features of my identity. I have had to struggle with the reality that here, they are.
When I walk into a room, I do not get to truly introduce myself as everyone else does. My appearance does it for me—my religion is made conspicuous to all, and, by extension, people form assumptions and judgments about my personal life and beliefs before I can afford to utter my name. They know my religion before they know that I’m wildly indecisive or idealistically optimistic or an obsessive planner.
My hijab preconditions my identity now. And I am still adjusting to this idea.
When people ask where I’m from, my instinctive answer is “Michigan.”
They then clarify: “But where are you originally from?”
“Well. My parents are from Lebanon, but I was born and raised here…” I reply.
Do not misinterpret my response; I love, embrace, and identify with my heritage and religion. I am forever indebted to my homeland, its cedar trees, its power outages, and its open dirt fields where my siblings and I spent countless summer afternoons playing. But in the midst of Christmas tree decorating, Thanksgiving turkey carving, and responding in English to my parents’ Arabic, I have carried my American identity with the same weight as my Lebanese and Muslim identity.
“Oh,” they often respond. This “oh” is often surprised, sometimes apologetic, and occasionally embarrassed. I never think to ask my friends where they are originally from, so I wondered why my headscarf alone was characteristic enough to make people initially assume that I am not from here. I’ve often been asked if I am an international student, as if no American could decide to wear a hijab.
I began to question whether the American narrative has space to embrace my pluralistic identity.
It’s exhausting to have to fight to justify my American identity. It’s hard to feel that I am welcome here with so many instances of bigotry and racial slurs present in my memories.
Even more, I hold a heavy burden of being representative of all Arabs and Muslims in the eyes of many. There are as many faces to Islam as there are Muslims and a spectrum of Arabs so diverse that even I blur particular traditions and dialects. In fact, many are shocked to learn that less than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are in fact Arab. I cannot, nor do I wish to, be an archetype of all fellow Arabs and Muslims—it would be a disservice to them, and, moreover, simply inaccurate. I only wish to represent myself, with all my experiences, flaws, doubts, and dreams.
I am Lebanese, American, Muslim, and much more. I am an accumulation of my experiences, whether it is spending blissful childhood summers in my homeland or enduring a defeating encounter on a subway.
My identity has many faces—it is plural—and you could see that too. Just allow me to introduce myself.
Mariam H. Jalloul ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Mather House.
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