Lema Bashir, a Legal Advisor of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) says that it is much easier to spot second-generation Arabs in America than Arabs who have immigrated to the United States, however, “it is still a difficult task!” Lema made these comments last month during a debate on the identity of second generation Arabs in the United States that was held in Washington DC by the ADC. The debate also tackled the impact of identity crises upon individuals of various ethnicities, nationalities and religions living in the United States.
The debate is as old as the United States itself. The first book that addressed the issue was published in 1782 (six years after America’s independence) entitled ‘Letters from an American farmer’ by Herter Crevecoeur. In his book, the author asks, “Who is an American citizen?” He answers the question explaining, “An American citizen is he who abandoned the culture of his own country and mixed with other immigrants in the United States and adopted a new culture that would later result in the emergence of a new generation that would, someday, impose a fundamental change on the world.”
Like other immigrants, Arab Americans are divided into two groups, those who were born in the US and those who immigrated to America.
Americans of Arab origin differ regarding their level of Arab nationalism. There are those who feel very strongly about their roots and homelands, some who are confused about their origins and others who “just don’t care” about identity and whether it is Arab or American.
On the other hand, Arab immigrants in the United States face a bigger dilemma concerning their identity especially as they have left their native countries. These dilemmas include age, the preconception of American culture, and the extent to which the immigrant takes in American culture after their arrival.
There are some immigrants who do not want to be associated with any culture. These people do not experience as many problems as they simply consider themselves foreigners living in America. For this reason, they do not care about the American life, do not seek to live it or engage with it and do not associate themselves with any particular ethnic group or vote for a certain party.
The debate organized by the ADC was attended by five second-generation Arabs born in the U.S. The discussion indicated that this generation was keen to uphold their Arab identity in America in comparison to others but at the same time, they were less nationalistic than those born in Arab countries.
The Arab immigrants have remained more attached to their homelands in comparison to the second-generation Arabs. As well as exposure to language and ethnicity, those who live in Arab countries enjoy the geography, history and culture of their countries.
Nahla: A Palestinian….to some extent:
Nahla Saleh, who also took part in the debate, clearly demonstrated that not all second-generation Arabs, even if both parents are Arabs, have strong patriotic feelings towards their native countries.
Nahla’s parents are both Palestinians. She said however, “I do have problems with defining my identity. I have not abandoned my Arab identity, but I don’t want the issue to occupy my mind.” She continues, “This is why I was surprised to be invited to this debate! How did they find me and why do they want me to discuss such a complex issue?” Nevertheless, with pride she states, “Palestine is in every drop of my blood.”
Nahla was born in Puerto Rico to a family of five boys and girls. For her school lunches, her mother used to fill Arab bread with “hummus and zaatar (thyme).” She explains that her school friends thought that her lunch was strange and were surprised that she was from a Muslim family.
When Nahla and her family moved from Puerto Rico to Ohio, residents were even more perplexed as the family spoke Arabic as well as Spanish and because they looked Puerto Rican but their names were “strange.” In Ohio, people would ask them, “Where are you from?”
Nahla obtained her Masters degree in international education at The Ohio State University. As a student, she attended conferences about Palestine and demonstrated with others against Israel. She visited Palestine and this developed her sense of belonging to the Arab nation. However, Nahla and her mother differ in “the way we individually perceive the world around us.”
Nahla states, “I like to be realistic whereas my mother is in another world!” At the same time, she criticized the American media as, “it does not care about our cause and does not understand our problems, perhaps because our skin is not the same color as their own and our names are also different.”
Like Nahla, Samir Karkar, who also took part in the debate, was born to Arab parents, Syrians to be specific. Nahla and Samir were more fortunate than others who participated in the debate, as their parents were keen to send their children to the Arab world to become more acquainted with the Arab culture.
Samir Karkar studied Law at the Washington University in St. Louis and is currently training at the National Institute of Health in Washington. He has visited Syria a number of times with his parents and traveled to Syria as part of the Fulbright program. However, he says, “Personally, the issue of Arab nationalism is more to do with feelings rather than debate.” Like others who participated in the debate, Samir states, “I realized I was different at a young age and when my mother would make me sandwiches with hummus and zaatar!” Like most children of ethnic minorities, Samir experienced racism and said, “One student mocked my mother’s accent and we got into a physical fight.” When Samir began secondary school, he began to look into his background and origins.
The events of 9/11 also had an impact on Samir and others who took part in the debate. Samir explains that he was in Syria at the time of the attacks. He sent his friend a message saying, “I am here in Syria in search of my identity. I am an American but my blood originates from here, Syria. The Syrians have wholeheartedly welcomed me. I have black hair and dark skin like everybody else here.”
Ethan: 9/11 changed my life:
Ethan Nasser was born to a Palestinian father and Irish mother. There was a multi-cultural and open-minded atmosphere within the home. Ethan studied at the Harvard and Chicago universities and worked in art and photography. He obtained his degree in Law at the University of California and currently works in a legal office in San Francisco.
Ethan was never concerned with his identity until the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place. He explained, “I started looking for the name of the first Arab to join Congress and the first Arab to win the Nobel Peace Prize and then I understood that this is the kind of thing that people from ethnic, cultural or religious minorities do. This is to show that they are not inferior to the majority.” Ethan spent some time in Lebanon learning Arabic. He said, “I knew that Arabism is not only about race. My parents don’t have to be Arabs because Arabism is a culture. I have mixed blood but I have a sense of belonging to the Arab culture.
Ethan continues, “I’m not an Arab American as my mother is Irish. In some respects, I am Arab but in other respects, I am not.” Ethan admitted that his search for identity has caused him some embarrassment and problems. As a student at university, he believed that joining the Arab student union would strengthen his Arab identity, but he was surprised to find that most of the union’s members were born in the Arab world. He realized that there are many forms of Arabism. Ethan experienced racial harassment following 9/11 and this made him realize that he does belong to a certain category towards which the Americans have a certain misconception.
Ethan stated that he admired the level of importance attached to the family in Arab culture as well as the role of the father within the Arab family. He stated that the form of America’s ethnic communities was changing.
Catherine Faris, half Irish, half Lebanese said, “My father (who is Irish) would always complain about the Irish and always admired the importance that was given to family within Arab culture.” She added, “My father was proud of his Irish heritage and both my mother and father despised the English for occupying Ireland and giving Palestine to the Jews.” She finally adds, “My father did not have a great influence on me and I am closer to my mother.”
Catherine studied arts at the Notre Dame Academy in Los Angeles. Prior to that, she studied at the University of Massachusetts. Catherine said, “I was the only Arab in a catholic school and this helped me find my identity. Other students used to ask about my background and they thought, because of my curly hair, that I was Jewish. I don’t know how they could mistake me for a Jew when I studied with them in a Catholic school!” Catherine’s love of the Arab world drove her to change her name from Catherine King (her father’s name) to Catherine Faris (her mother’s name). After 9/11, Catherine found it necessary to defend Arabs and Muslims as they came under attack. Even though Catherine is not a Muslim, she was offended when one student likened the Prophet Mohammed to Osama Bin Laden. She also protested against the invasion of Afghanistan. She said, “Why should we invade other countries? Why does President Bush act in such a way?”
Though it may seem weak at times, Arabism lives in the hearts of second-generation Arabs in America especially now in the current situations between Americans and Muslims and Americans and Arabs as not all Arabs are Muslims. Over twenty years ago, the prominent Christian Arab author Edward Said wrote his book entitled, ‘Covering Islam: How the media and experts determine how we see the rest of the world’.