My mom was in need of some new hijabs and so, of course, we headed to Al-Afifa Islamic Fashion where the selection is huge and the prices affordable. Now, although the hijab style my mom shops for is pretty basic, it normally takes her about thirty minutes to decide on the colors and the style that would work best with her face shape. I mean she’s worse than me when it comes to high heels. OK…maybe not. As she finally came to a decision on eight hijabs, we walked over to the cash register. As the young lady took my mother’s credit card, I could hear an obvious female ‘boater’ behind me.
A boater is a man or woman straight off the boat. Usually has a very thick accent, wears Arab sandals everywhere, and believes that a woman is ready for marriage at seventeen.
The woman’s English was awful; I mean she could barely get a few words out, the syntax was just plain wrong and she could not get through the conversation without stumbling over every third word. I felt uneasy and thought it would be easier all around if she just spoke Arabic to get her point across,but since she was obviously a boater, she was obviously trying to practice her English. When she struggled to pronounce the word wedding correctly, I had to turn around and see who she was. At that instant, my jaw dropped when I realized that it was Mrs. Ashgar–my middle school English teacher.
Seeing that I was raised in Palestine for the first several years of my life and that Arabic was my first language, I have always been very grateful to Mrs. Ashgar for her excellent teaching skills and always have credited my command of the English solely to her. Mrs. Ashgar, a Scottish native, was married to a Palestinian man and had, from what I always remembered, spoken impeccable English save, for an ever so slight endearing British accent—and so I thought. How could it be that this woman, who taught me English, a language she supposedly spoke flawlessly, was standing right in front of me not being able to utter a sentence correctly? I shook my head to bring myself back into reality as I stood dumbfounded staring at Mrs. Ashgar who continued to struggled to get her point across.
“I…eeeh…I … need you to make’eeeh… fixing for this sort of alteration. Alteration: a word I learned from reading the many books she had suggested to me throughout my school years.
We made eye contact at this point and it was then that we greeted each other with Assalamu Alaikum. I decided that this was my opportunity to ask if she remembered me.
“I was one of your English students,” I said with a wide smile.
“SubhanAllah,” she said praising God for the uncanny coincidence. “I had eeeeh…students eeeeh…it is so nice when eeeeh…I see one,” she said her accent still heavy and her English still shitty.
As she continued on in her substandard English, I remembered Wafah, a girl who I had once called my best friend. Her mom was Brazilian and her dad Palestinian. She was very proud of her Brazilian heritage as well her Palestinian one. We became very close because the other girls from school, the full blooded ones, didn’t seem to want to befriend “half and halfs” as they called us; they believed that we weren’t Arab enough for their liking, it was beneath them to make friends with us. So Wafah and I started our own clique and called them the ‘Fuck you, you racist, small minded, bitches.’ Our clique consisted of exactly two members, her and me. We became very close; we were like two peas in a pod that is until she married Firas, a Palestinian native. Her father insisted she wed this man when the rumor mill had a field day claiming she was dating some non-Arab, non-Muslim guy she had met at a U2 concert. These allegations were absolutely untrue and unjustified. Wafah was about as straight at narrow and the only U2 she knew and understood was the one we wrote to each other at the end of our AIM messages, after saying ‘I love you.’ But nonetheless, for many Arabs, gossip means fact even when unsubstantiated. Gossip takes precedence over everything else and leaves little to no room for the truth–even if it is coming from one’s own child. And so, subsequently and to avoid a scandal, her dad packed her up and sent her overseas where she stayed for almost five years. When Wafah returned she wasn’t the same. She was now married and her identity completely different; her soul had been taken away from her.
Wafah’s new found Arab accent wasn’t the only thing that had changed, but so did her mannerisms and the fact that she was now rejecting her Brazilian heritage saddened me. As a matter of fact, when asked her about her cultural background, Brazil was never even mentioned. Brazilian flags were nowhere to be found in her home or car as it use to be, and she had suddenly found herself bff’s with the very girls who had out casted us for being “half and halfs.”
I realized that what had happened to Wafah was the very same thing that happened to my Scottish English teacher that stood before me that day at Al-Afifa. These women had found themselves facing an identity crisis and the best possible way to deal with the situation and reach a positive outcome was: If you can’t beat them, join them! Mrs. Ashgar’s husband’s family never fully accepted her because she wasn’t Arab or M.O.T. [member of the tribe from the get go] and since his family felt this way, he himself began to treat her like an outcast. Wafah’s case was no different. Despite their dual ethnicity, these women had to transform themselves into fully Arab women, so that they could somehow fit in; but at what cost? Is fitting in worth giving up your own identity and thereby totally losing who you are? Is this realistic? Is this fair?
As myself is a “half and half” or as the kids in Hogwarts would call me, a “Muggleblood,” I was in the very same predicament these two women were faced with: remain an outcast, or join them by changing myself. I chose to remain an outcast because it’s sure as hell is a lot better to be hated for who you are, than to be liked for someone you’re pretending to be. But not everyone shares my belief and possesses the same strength of character. To people like Mrs. Ashgar and Wafah, it was better to just become someone they’re not, if only to live in harmony with those they have to face every single day. I don’t blame them, but I do guilt the Arabs that make them feel this way. Those unfeeling people that make Mrs. Ashgar believe she had to lose her Scottish heritage and replace it with an Arab one. I mean, the Scottish culture goes back to at least one thousand years, and their traditions are not something sterile you can only find under a glass and steel in a cold museum. It is a vibrant society full of great minds such as the scientist Robert Watson-Watt, David Hume the famous philosopher, great art, kings and queens and let’s not forget have Braveheart, the Disney film Brave, and of course Gerard Butler and that’s pretty damn cool. And don’t get me started on the perks of being Brazilian. I mean they have everything, from the beautiful sun-kissed beaches, amazing bodies, contagious and uplifting music, and soccer… who could forget that!?
With such rich cultures behind them, I couldn’t imagine anyone ever making them feel they had to forget their origin, just to fit in. I am starting to realize that, because of them–the full-blooded Arabs,– many people who have married into an Arab family, must have by necessity, put aside and forgotten what it means to be who and what they are. I see this so often in our community and it hurts me to see people like Mrs. Ashgar who were pressured to entirely forget and reject their own culture and language, just to be able to walk into a room filled with Arab women, without being out casted because, although married to Arab men, they are not Arabs born. It pains me to see married women being harassed and degraded by their racist in-laws and, to add insult to injuries, not being defended by their own husband only because they were born into another culture and religion. After all, wasn’t their birth’s circumstances God’s will? Why then is it a cause for chastisement?
As Mrs. Ashgar continued her conversation with my mother and I, us barely understanding a word that came out of her mouth, we found ourselves losing an hour between her ‘eeeeeh’s’ and “What do you call this again… oh yes a pen.” But what we did find out is that she no longer taught English. Mentally, I let out a sigh of relief, since I wasn’t sure exactly what these students would be learning. It was clear that she was no longer Mrs. Ashgar, the pretty red-haired Scottish English teacher I once knew. As a matter of fact, I’m sure her husband’s family is very happy about her metamorphosis. I suspect she must, by now, have been accepted openly into the family fold seeing that she’s this ‘boater’ whose Scottish ancestry has been discarded and no longer teaches English. I don’t know who she is anymore. I wonder if she knows.
I wanted to just grab her by the shoulders and shake her into reality. I wanted to tell her to lose the shitty accent and start speaking the God damn language she taught so well to so many of us, but I couldn’t. I wished I could tell her that we, of mixed heritage, are not always going to be accepted for who we are and it won’t matter if we take on an Arab, Irish, or Chinese accent to fit in, we are not going to be accepted for who WE are, but maybe, for the accent and demeanor we took on just to be part of the community. We’re not always going to be liked! But we can choose who we want to be. I, for one, choose to be me. Who do you choose to be?