Arab Like Me



200 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Williamsburg

After 9/11, I stepped into the Williamsburg bodega that I’ve been going to for years. Some of the workers I know by name, others are just familiar faces. We’ve mentioned our Middle Eastern backgrounds to each other.

“She’s Egyptian,” said the Palestinian woman behind the counter, gesturing towards me. But her co-worker already knew.

“Don’t say it too loud,” I warned her.

“Why? You don’t have anything to worry about, Egyptians didn’t do it,” she said, practically laughing at me for being worried. Later that day, reports suggested that several of the terrorist hijackers were Egyptian. I listened, stunned, the feeling of betrayal washing over me. The first thing I did was hide my Arabic music cds. That would not be the music to have filtering onto the streets. I wondered if the woman at the bodega found it strange that I was worried before the news broke. Like, maybe I looked suspicious.

The last time I visited Cairo, no one mistook me for a native. At the Khal-el-Khalili bazaar, ratty boys stared at my jeans and black hipster boots, then ran up to me, and kissed my Gap shirt. Adult men and women stared too, openly. When my eyes met theirs, they still didn’t look away.

Born and raised in America, without any religion at all, I only speak a few words of Arabic, and when I say them I feel awkward and unconvincing. Because of my dark hair, olive skin and prominent nose, New Yorkers often assume I’m Jewish. I don’t look like my Egyptian cousins, with their wide features and smooth hair. I look more like my German mother.

My father came here in the early fifties to attend graduate school at Harvard. After finishing his Master’s degree he returned to Cairo briefly, then went to Berlin to teach. He married my mother, and they moved to New York in 1966. He worked on the 53rd floor of the Empire State building. Then they moved to Missouri, where I was born.

My great-grandfather had a title, Mohamed Shafik Pasha, Prime Minister of Egypt during the reign of King Fouad. My father was a boy in kindergarten at the time. In his youth in Cairo, he played bridge with Omar Sharif, long before Sharif ever kissed Barbara Streisand. Even my grandfather was called His Excellency. I feel nostalgia for those days of Egypt, even though I wasn’t there.

I have visited Egypt twice. The second time, two years ago, I was a bridesmaid in my 23 year old cousin Noha’s wedding, at the Nile Hilton. She wore a puffy white dress at the lavish ceremony organized by the groom’s family. Video monitors in every corner screened the event. My relatives are more Upper East Side than I am. Like all my cousins, her marriage was essentially arranged.

Another cousin, Azza, has long black hair framing pale white skin and blue eyes. She’s married with two children. From her penthouse overlooking the Nile, the Pyramids are visible on the horizon. She has all the things I wish I had: crystal chandeliers, hardwood floors, piano, maid. Her husband drives a polished BMW. But there’s one thing Azza doesn’t have, and that’s her husband’s permission to have a career. She wanted to complete her Master’s degree in architecture, postpone having children. But the tradition in her husband’s family is to have children immediately, and Azza’s wish was not granted. Like most of my cousins, her marriage is based not on mutuality, but on obedience.

This is not quite Afghanistan, but it is still Egypt – the stories bear similarity. I’ve felt impatient and angry with my female cousins for not being more Western, more rebellious. I think they’re infantilized; they think I’m too bold and self-absorbed. They know I’ve had multiple partners, and have dated Jewish men. As I’m still single and childless at 33, they think I’m a failure as a woman. To them, I’m flawed; here in the United States I’m flawed too, because I’m half-Egyptian.

E-mailing me right after the attacks, to find out if I was okay, my cousin Hanan wrote that according to the initial Egyptian media reports, the Japanese hijacked eight planes. This was so curious, I had to ask her what else they were seeing:

“Everybody is talking about it in Egypt. We all think of it as tragic, but we are all angry. Americans should be more interested in discovering the reasons for this hatred to save themselves from future attacks. It must be very obvious why it is so hated. It is the American bias towards Israel and its indifference towards Palestinian rights….” I shook my head reading it. She was preaching. Suddenly, she was a stranger, brushing right by the violence that landed in my city. I wrote a three-page retort, but deleted it. It seemed useless to argue.

Back at the Williamsburg bodega, a Syrian acquaintance who works next door sat outside, smoking a cigarette. We usually chat and find something to laugh lightly about, but not that day. Not for many days. “You need one of these,” he said, holding out his pack of Marlboro Lights. Though I quit a year ago, I didn’t argue. We sat there, and smoked in silence.

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