Having spent the last few years immersed in the Arab and Arab-American worlds, I am now in a place that is a lot less familiar to me. I am in a place where, on the same street, there are Himalayan restaurants, any kind of Asian restaurant your noodle-loving tummy could handle, Desi markets, Iraqi-owned markets with bala7 and labne, where people of all walks of life walk on the street, walk onto buses, drive past my stroll to the Iraqi-owned markets with bala7 and labne and I am immersed in a hybrid, diverse America that I cannot fool myself into thinking that I actually knew. I am without a car, without a home, without any of the support systems that had been within miles or inches or a “meet me halfway” ride on rollerblades or in a car.
This is culture shock.
And, at first, I was terrified. Terrified to the point of return. Where the money I had saved in my bank account was within minutes of being spent on a one-way ticket to Detroit Metropolitan Airport upon which my muscle memory could have driven me blindfolded back down Merriman and Cherry Hill, past the gas station with the cute guy who went to my high school and who I have watched grow from a young boy into a grown man and who smiles when I ask him for a pack of cigarettes like a little secret that everybody knows but our parents. Our parents who came from villages and unpaved roads to four-lane highways and our tricked out Jeep Grand Cherokees with tinted windows and very expensive sound systems. I am now in a very different place than that one that I knew and know so well.
And while this began as a reflection upon Dave Chappelle’s recent walking-off stage in Connecticut, a place where I have never been and where, quite frankly, I don’t know if I would want to live – at least not without the security of knowing there may be an Iraqi-owned market with bala7 and labne. I’m sure I could check that on Google Earth if I really cared enough. Having lived in Egypt, in Dearborn, in Lebanon, having taught in spaces that reminded me why my generation even made songs about phrases like “Wallah bro” and why we attended protests at the age of 9, I am now in a place where I have to explain myself.
Not that I didn’t have to explain myself in Dearborn – I had to explain the crap out of myself every single day. As a single woman in my mid-twenties. As a single woman who moved outside of her parents’ house before getting married. As a girl who went to one of the best universities in the country and did not study “medicine” as the people from my father’s village and from my childhood block would have assumed, since I always got good grades and anything besides “medicine” would have been an atrocity to a girl’s intelligence and, even worse would be to follow that up with her failure to be betrothed. As a woman who tried, with as much or as little effort as my Arab brethren’s protests demanded, to advocate for the acknowledgment of the humanity of people who were a little different than what the community’s perceived comfort would have preferred.
As a woman. I always have had to explain myself.
Now, I’ve gotta explain myself in a different way. In a way that allows me to swallow my pride across the dinner table among other American twentysomethings as I respond to someone’s statement with, “Oh, and what is Israeli food actually like?” Or “How is he an Arab Israeli while his wife is a Palestinian?” Please, someone, explain that to me. “Oh, you made a movie about star-crossed Arab-Israelis and Palestinians? Please, oh please, explain more.” After a summer of working with the forgotten Palestinians, the ones who aren’t throwing rocks at Israelis but the ones who may have never seen an Israeli walking in the land of Palestine herself, the ones who are living behind cement blocks and cement walls and manufactured hope that is the stuff postcolonial political leaders dream of, after a summer of living in a place where war does not need to be explained, where war just is, where war forces itself upon a people and upon a land and upon the daily tasks of a bakery owner and a dekkene owner and the upon the blue-eyed hajji who sits at the mafra2. After all that, I really do not want to need to explain what Israeli food actually is — not to you, sir.
Here, in sunny Los Angeles, where I am gloriously surrounded by black swans every day, I am also a black swan. I forgot what this feels like. I forgot what it feels like to have people start conversations with you at Starbucks about the Arabic writing on your bag or your big curly hair which “must be Middle Eastern or something.” Don’t you all have Iranians around you everywhere? Don’t you watch Shahs of Sunset? Don’t you watch the news? Don’t you have the common decency to leave someone’s ethnicity and associated assumed political extremism out of small talk and just ask them how they’re enjoying the beautiful freaking weather?
Don’t get me wrong; there are really lovely people out here. Lovely people who actually want to help you and car salesmen who ride scooters for two hours to get to and from work and who will come to work on their day off to help a girl finance a car to the liking of her budget and lowly credit score – even if this man will make a nice commission off of me, that does not require him to reveal his own hardships to me in a conversation that has turned from a poker-face deal to a mutual acknowledgment of humanity. Sort of like the hajji in Borj Alshamaly who sat at the mafra2 who would refer to me as “ya binti” and who would direct me to the ice-cold water bottles instead of the lukewarm ones in the front of the fridge at the dekkane right next door to her clothing store.
Moving to a new place is difficult. And being understood is difficult. Not having to explain myself is a privilege. And Dave Chappelle walking off stage while standing in front of that audience, that audience of people who refuse to understand the history that manufactured characters like Tyrone Biggums, that audience of people whose weekend night was “ruined” by Dave Chappelle’s refusal to shuck and jive and be and say only who and what they are comfortable with him being and saying, that audience of people whose history is too intertwined with the social history of a people upon whom the need to “explain themselves” has been sweepingly betrothed, Dave Chappelle walking off stage and asking the DJ to play Kanye’s “New Slaves” should not have to explain himself. The history is there. The proof of his humanity is there. The explanations are right there, standing right there in their faces. I am done explaining myself for now and I refuse to bear the cross of my people in my daily coffee runs or my impending chats at the water cooler. While I have stepped away from the comfort and intermittent complacency that comes with too, too familiar last names and two, sometimes three daily coffee and gossip 2a3des with my aunts, I am finding new comforts, new black swans, new versions of myself in a different kind of diaspora. And, quite frankly, I’m too busy doing that to even stop and explain myself.
So, please enjoy the fool that I just made for you, sir, and if the spirit compels you to compare it to Israeli food, so be it. But in my heart, in my land, in the deepest parts of my truth, I hope you bite into a nice, juicy roach as you eat that “Israeli food.” And while that may be a bold and harsh statement that I’m making, I really do not have the time, energy, or good reason to explain why I said it.