A renowned professor of English literature at Harvard university coined the phrase “Less than one and double” when, speaking of hybridity and multiculturalism in his book, “Location of Culture”. When I discovered his work I didn’t know this theory would become so relatable and fascinating to my experience as a Yemeni-American Muslim.
“We’re going to Yemen”, my Dad said.
I couldn’t have been more excited and nervous at the same time. I was nine years old when my family decided to take our first trip back to Yemen since immigrating to the United States.
‘But they saw my mom’s head covering and the henna on her hands, and they knew I wasn’t Hispanic but rather something very different and uncommon.’
You see, I grew up around a predominately Hispanic community, and although we shared the same skin color, and even shared the same hybrid experience, I still felt like an outcast. I felt, and was seen as, the “other”. I was Arab and I was Muslim at a time when people didn’t know what that exactly meant. But they saw my mom’s head covering and the henna on her hands, and they knew I wasn’t Hispanic but rather something very different and uncommon.
This was in the very early 90’s, before 9/11, but I have always sensed that I was different before being Muslim in the U.S. changed. I couldn’t find a place to fit in. So, when I heard the news that we would take a trip across the world and stay in Yemen for a year, I was excited. I thought, “I’ll finally be in a place where I will fit in and not be looked at differently because of the way my parents dressed, or the language we spoke. I could finally be myself without embarrassment or misunderstanding.”
Spoiler Alert: I was wrong.
I anticipated that I would arrive, be welcomed, and blend right in. But my broken Arabic, and family name made it very clear that I was a foreigner to this country as well. Even my cheap Wal-Mart clothes indicated that I had come from a western country. Within the first few days of being there, one of the biggest surprises of all happened amongst my family and neighbors. I heard something I had never heard before. Someone said, “Hiya Amreekia’ (She’s American).” I thought, “Huh?”
‘But my broken Arabic, and family name made it very clear that I was a foreigner to this country as well.’
I had never identified extrinsically or intrinsically as American up to that point because I had always thought I am Yemeni. I am Arab. I am Muslim. But never American.
My 9 year-old mind was blown.
In America I am seen as Arab/Yemeni, and in Yemen, as American. WHAT? The hope I had of fitting in flew out the window at that moment.
While studying 3rd grade elementary in the rural, small town of Juban, I learned that ditching my Wal-Mart clothes and opting for a mini Balto (Abaya) or traditional dress would get me to blend in, and hopefully be more accepted. But changing my appearance on the surface only did so little once I opened my mouth. I could speak Arabic, but I had an accent, and my enunciation was off. And as a new face, most people would ask, “Who are you?” which usually means they are asking who my father is or what family I come from. In such a small town, where everyone knows everyone, my family name gives away that I am “from the West.”
‘I learned that ditching my Wal-Mart clothes and opting for a mini Balto (Abaya) or traditional dress would get me to blend in, and hopefully be more accepted. But changing my appearance on the surface only did so little once I opened my mouth.’
It took time, but I eventually settled in by trying extra hard to be as Yemeni as possible.
When I came back to the U.S., I realized how out of place I felt the majority of the time.That, for me, was the start of what felt like an identity crisis I was going to face for most of my teenage and adult years. It has been the center of many conversations, most of which I am sure I dominate because one – I can talk (I’m an extrovert for those of you who don’t know me), and two – because I was really passionate about it. So, any chance I found someone who I could relate to, I wanted to pick their brain.
Fast-Forward to Today.
I am 27 years old. I am still working on finding myself and what it means to be me, but it no longer involves me navigating through which culture I fit in to the most. Instead, my focus is more on figuring out which values of either culture I want to implement into my lifestyle and embrace. It doesn’t feel like I need to choose one over the other anymore. I am aware, now, that I can create a beautiful amalgam of both.
Today, to be a Muslim in any part of the world can be scary. My experience in America has been one where I constantly feel like I have to prove that I am something other than the stereotypes that mass media is perpetuating.
I come from the Central Valley of California, a very blue collar and huge agricultural community. Although California is predominately liberal, I actually live in one of the most conservative districts in the state. So, I sometimes deal with stares and comments that I’d rather not deal with.
‘My experience in America has been one where I constantly feel like I have to prove that I am something other than the stereotypes that mass media is perpetuating.’
But, Allah (swt) does not burden his creation with something that he/she cannot handle. And, as a Muslim, this is something that I truly believe is a test of my faith from Allah (swt), and I want to come out of it on top.
The presumptions people have of me as a Muslim in today’s society has pushed me, and given me incentive to further adhere and practice the teachings of my religion, and what it means to be Muslim. I know what I am going up against when it comes to how people may view me. I will not allow the media and the ignorance of some people take control over my narrative and the way I choose to identify myself.
Today, I focus on finding what makes me happy and my purpose in life more than what cultural expectations I meet in order to “fit in” to society by either Western or Middle Eastern standards.
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Noor Qwfan lives in California, in the United States. She is the founder of ‘The Muslim Girl Podcast’ and loves talking about the experiences of being a Muslim woman and the role of identity.