Throughout my life, I have encountered many relentless conflicts with both direct and indirect family members. Many of these arguments were linked to my association with my culture and its timeless traditions. I am an Arab, yet I am a stranger to the Middle East. I am an Arab, yet I can barely speak the language. I am an Arab, yet I was born in the American Midwest and raised underneath the liberal skies of the Montreal metropolis. I am an Arab, yet I have often felt as if I did not belong.
However, my mother is Arab, my father is Arab, and so therefore, by techniques of cultural association, I necessarily equate to an Arab of the purest blood. There was a time where this would shame or embarrass me. Being of Middle Eastern descent, even if you are not Muslim, comes with the burden of having to hear everyone’s negative comments and complaints. The crimes we are being punished for were committed by a small group of individuals, yet we are all subjected to the consequent discrimination.
I was reluctant to voice my cultural identity to new acquaintances if not directly asked to, afraid of toggling an inert prejudice they held and jeopardizing a future friendship. I do not mean to sound like I ever disliked my own culture, my own people, because I assure you that I did not. I had just never found the courage to publicly advertise my pride of something that popular media had consistently attempted to antagonize.
I am glad to say that my views have recently changed. I am often annoyed by the old Arab mentality of absolute preservation of our culture through thick and thin.
We are expected to live as we would in the gulfs, as the unofficial guidelines of immigration deny us the right to integrate into a new society. As a child, I was discouraged from befriending those that were not “of my kind,” and utterly forbidden from ever spending the night at the home of someone of a different culture or religion (including Arabs of Muslim faith). Ideally, the new homeland was treated in a way as to never become a land that can be called home. I refused to adhere to this policy, which was the main reason for my temporary separation from my culture.
In my last couple of years of high school, a strange, artificial change of heart occurred. I started hanging out with fellow Arabs, mostly Lebanese boys, not so much out of pride for my identity as for desire to be powerful and intimidating as part of a gang. I dumbed myself down for a period and hung out with delinquents, but gained notoriety in the process. My born-again attitude pleased my family, who suddenly went from raising a black sheep to being the proud parents of the quintessential Syrian teenager from the old country.
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When around my Arab friends, I smoked profusely. When around my Arab friends, I had a greater tendency to break the law. When around my Arab friends, I was more exposed to drugs and monetary fraud. My parents were aware of that, but were willing to take a risk. They were content with the fact that I was not hanging out with “strangers,” since the only fear they had was the unknown. At least, the danger I faced in these gangs was one they knew, one they had seen before. They had juvenile delinquents in the old country; it’s old news.
Today, I am all grown up. I try and see people at face value, ignoring their racial or cultural background. I have come to terms with the fact that I will always feel out of place when surrounded by my people, so I have quit the facade. When around them, I no longer try to integrate myself into their society, but act as myself. I act as I would with anyone else. This maturity has allowed me to embrace my culture rather than reject it, rather than fear its rejection of me. I believe that human beings are not static; they build their own stereotypes.
I believe that we are bent and affected by the world, the people, and the cultural mosaic that surround us. I refuse to obey any predetermined cultural obligations. I refuse to stop growing, because I still have much to learn. If my culture defines me, if my background determines my identity, then shouldn’t it evolve as I do? There is no higher power to determine what one’s interpretation of a culture should be. I am an Arab, and proud of it, but I am not a stereotype. I will build my culture. I will interpret it as I please. It is my own. This I believe.