Growing up, I defined identity primarily in terms of ethnic and religious labels. I thought that if I established myself firmly as a member of one particular ethnic group and one particular religious group, some sense of self would grow out of these group identifications. As a result, my life up until now has been a series of phases during which I attempted to establish which groups I belong to — aided, of course, by those around me.
My first experience with the concept of ethnic identity came in first grade. Early in the school year, our teacher had us go around the room and share our cultural backgrounds. I listened to my classmates declare that they were “half-Irish” or “one-quarter German.” One girl who had recently moved from China declared that she was Chinese. I was confused. I knew where my parents came from, and I knew where I was born, but I wasn’t sure how to combine the two. I thought about it for a while and when my turn came, I confidently told the class that I was “half-Egyptian, half-American.” That afternoon at home, I proudly explained to my parents how I had figured out this identity on my own. “No!” my parents exclaimed. “Half-Egyptian, half-American means that one of your parents is Egyptian and the other is American. You’re all Egyptian, sweetie.”
“But I was born in America?”
“It doesn’t matter,” they told me,
“You are 100% Egyptian.”
I nodded. 100% Egyptian, 100% unique. I liked it.
My introduction to my religious uniqueness also came in first grade, but was much easier to understand. Twice a year on the Islamic Eid, or festival, I didn’t go to school when everyone else did because I was Muslim and they weren’t. Simple.
For the next few years, I wore these identity labels proudly. I told anyone who would listen that I was Egyptian and that I was Muslim. I was thrilled to be different. I was firmly in my “I-am-different-and-different-is-good-phase.” It wasn’t until years later that this identity came into question again.
One cold winter day, I was walking to the next block to retrieve my brother from his friend’s house to break his Ramadan fast when my neighbors and 5th grade classmates Carissa and Emma ran in front of me. Carissa stopped, on hand on her hip and demanded I tell her why I was following her. I said I wasn’t She insisted I was. Emma stood in the background nodding at everything Carissa said. Our little stand-off continued like this until Carissa delivered an argument I did not know how to respond to: “You’re following us. We Americans know.” I stared blankly at Carissa and Emma for a few moment before stepping off the sidewalk and into the snow to walk around them They snickered self-assuredly as I walked off.
I knew Carissa was wrong to think that her being American gave her any more knowledge about anything than me, but that is not why I was confused. By that time, I had learned in school about Christopher Columbus and the years of European immigration that had followed the arrival of the Mayflower. I struggled to understand the concept of “American.” What made that term apply to Carissa and Emma, but not to me? We all lived in the same neighborhood. We were in the same class at the same school. Carissa’s dad and my dad were both professors in the same department. Emma and I played on the soccer team. 100% Egyptian wasn’t so cut and dry anymore if it meant that I was 0% American.
A few weeks later, the Eid festival came, marking the end of Ramadan. This year, I asked my parents if I could only miss the first half of class that day eager to tell my friends about all of the fun I’d had that morning as part of the Eid festivities. We were getting ready for some sort of class party, and I was tasked with folding paper. I did my folding job rather distractedly, paying more attention to telling my stories of fun than to folding. When my teacher walked by, he chided me “get to work, Ayah. You’ve already skipped half the school day; you shouldn’t be slacking off now.” My stomach froze. Is that what my teachers and classmates thought of me? That I was just skipping class? Maybe they had a point - I mean, I was really just like the other kids in class. I did everything just like my classmates 363 days of the year. Why should I expect to get special treatment on the remaining two?
These fifth grade incidents made me realize that there was a downside to standing out: not fitting in. Only now in retrospect do I realize that I made a semi-conscious decision around that time to start trying to blend in. I started asking my parents to take me to school immediately after the morning prayers on Eid, in order to minimize class time missed. I stopped telling people that I was Egyptian or Muslim unless it came up directly. It was just as I entered in to this “fitting-in” phase that September 11th happened.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was. I had never heard of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. I didn’t even know that the United States had fought a war in the Gulf region around the time of my birth. In fact, I probably couldn’t have told you what the “Gulf region” was. When I got home from school that Tuesday afternoon, I found my mom standing at the kitchen counter, watching television footage of the twin towers falling. Tears were forming in her eyes. When I looked up at her, she said, “God, I hope Muslims didn’t do this.” At the time, her comment struck me as silly and random. Of course Muslims didn’t do it, I thought to myself.
It didn’t take long to figure out that I was wrong. The terrorist attacks put a major wrench in my plans to fit in. I knew that if I kept my mouth shut, people probably would never realize that I was Muslim, but I didn’t want to do that. Is aw my parents giving lectures all around town about how most Muslims weren’t like the terrorists, and I felt a responsibility to stand up for my religion as well. I wanted people to know that Islam was a good religion. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as easy as it had been in the past to claim the Muslim identity.
In 7th grade geography, a whole class period was devoted to talking about Islam. I came, excited to contribute my insider knowledge to the discussion. We had a substitute teacher in class that day. He started giving his lecture by saying “I can see that there is a Muslim in class today, and I’ll be sure to get her thoughts on the topics we cover.” I beamed for a moment, amazed that he could tell by looking at me that I was Muslim, but then I followed his gaze to Nafisa, the other Muslim girl in my class. Nafisa wore a headscarf; of course, she was the Muslim he’d recognized. Nafisa and I were in the same Islamic Sunday school class, and she was quick to point out that there was actually another Muslim in class. As class progressed, the substitute teacher repeatedly asked Nafisa questions about Islam. Many times, she didn’t know the answers to his questions, and I would try to chip in, but every time, the teacher would cut me off. Finally, after my fifth or sixth attempted answer, the teacher explained himself, “I think it will be most interesting to hear what the practicing Muslim has to say.” I was stunned. I had questioned my own right to distinguish myself as Muslim before, but this was the first time someone else questioned that right. Tears burned in my eyes.
A few months later, my family went to visit Egypt over the summer vacation. It had been two years since our last visit, and I overheard my aunt telling my mom about how my cousin had been asking when her “Christian cousins from America” would visit again. My aunt laughed and assured my mom that she had told my young cousin that despite the fact that we were American, we were Muslim. I could hardly blame my cousin for getting confused. I wasn’t sure that America and Muslim could coincide in one person either.
Again, I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but in the months after that visit, I shifted into my “act-as-Egyptian-and-Muslim-as-possible-to-prove-that-I-really-belong” phase. I did my best to demonstrate to the world that I belonged to the Egyptian and Muslim communities. I made a point of talking on the phone in Arabic in front of my friends. I was overly showy about the fact that I was fasting during ramadan. I occasionally took my class notes in Arabic in the hopes that my peers would look over and see that I was capable of the task.
My devotion to all things Egyptian and Muslim continued into my high school years. I took every mention of someone dating someone else as an opportunity to go on at length about how I would never tate because it was not customary for Egyptians to do so. At one point, I considered wearing a headscarf, despite the fact that my family does not believe that wearing one is a requirement of the religion. When classmates asked me how I always got good grades, I told them that it was just expected of Egyptian children. When friends questioned my lack of interest in partying, drinking and dating, I told them that those weren’t things Muslim teenagers did.
The summer after graduated from high school, I was accepted as of one of 25 participants in a six-week intensive Arabic program in Cairo, Egypt. The program involved a host stay, and many of our host siblings were also high school students. For the first time in my life, I was in contact with Egyptians my own age. I made fast friends with many of them and left Egypt that summer more convinced than ever that I had earned the labels Egyptian and Muslim. Four months later, I returned to Cairo to spend a semester at the American University in Cairo. I reconnected with many of the people I had met over the summer and became friends with a slew of new people I met on campus.
As I spent more and more time with my new Egyptian friends, I was taken aback by what being an Egyptian teenager meant to them. Many of my college friends had boyfriends or girlfriends. A lot of them were struggling to get through their classes; some of them regularly skipped class lectures. I knew a lot of people who drank on weekends. In short, my Egyptian friends weren’t all that different from my American friends back home. All of those ways that I distinguished myself in order to make myself more Egyptian or more Muslim really didn’t make me more of either one.
The rest of my college years were spent in a deep confusion regarding my ethnic and religious identities. I didn’t know what being Egyptian or being Muslim meant, and I wasn’t sure how to classify myself. I clung to the notion that identity comes from labels, but I didn’t know how to label myself. I struggled to figure out these things, to compartmentalize the different aspects of my identity until I was in Washington, D.C. for a semester. For the first time since that day in first grade, I found myself in a place where nobody knew anything about my identity unless I brought it up. Perhaps because I am used to people at Concordia just knowing, I never really brought up the fact that I am Egyptian or that I grew up Muslim to the other participants in my program. The resulting ways in which people struggled to place me were almost humous.
One day, I was walking out of class along with my American Diversity profession. As we walked, she lamented that I couldn’t be in D.C. for the “Black Family Reunion.” She assured me that I really would have enjoyed the annual event that serves as a celebration of shared heritage for black people around the country. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she thought that I was of mixed race. It wasn’t the first time that had happened. I’ve been asked many times before if I am “half-African-American,” but this time, I didn’t bother correcting my professor. I only smiled and agreed that the Black Family reunion sounded like a fun event.
A couple of weeks later, we had a mandatory field trip to the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. In the days leading up to it, many students expressed their discomfort with being required to go. The morning before the field trip, I ran into a classmate on the metro. When I asked her if she was excited for the field trip she made a face and said “I don’t know. I’m just not sure what sorts of things they’ll try to teach us, you know?” she asked. I didn’t know, but I half-smiled, half-nodded and said something about how I was sure that it would be just an informative session, intended to show us that Islam really isn’t something to be afraid of.
In American Diversity class the night before the field trip, we were discussing an article written by an Arab-American woman about the way in which other people in this country have struggled to fit her into the boxes they think should apply to Arab women. The article certainly resonated with me, and I prefaced a comment I made about the reading with the phrase “As an Arab-American woman myself…” I was amazed to see my classmates turn to each other and erupt into hushed whispers; they hadn’t realized that I was Arab.The next day at our field trip, I asked our speaker a question about how Muslims have been perceived lately in the media; this made it clear that I had grown up Muslim. Again, I could see the gears turning in my classmates’ heads as they figured out what box I belong in, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t care what conclusions they came to.
I didn’t care that my classmates hadn’t know anything about my ethnic and religious identities for so long. I didn’t care that they might not have thought that I am Egyptian enough to qualify for the label or that I am enough of a Muslim to belong to that group. Perhaps more significant, I no longer felt the need to figure out for myself whether or not I am Egyptian or American, Muslim or not. I am comfortably nestled into my “I-am-what-I-am” phase. My family came from Egypt, and I grew up Muslim, but I am me. I don’t need any labels to qualify that.