To my shock, even though I proved to know very little about what caused the Arab Spring, many seemed to automatically think that the first half of my hyphenated identity automatically made me an authority on the region. While I feel tied to and interested in the struggle for change across the Middle East and North Africa, this is not my Arab Spring.
Despite being identified through my Arab identity in the United States, I was “the American” abroad. Growing up in my hybrid Muslim and Arab American communities, my peers and I routinely referred to new immigrants as “boaters,” swearing that we would never marry a “FOB” (fresh-off-the-boat), in fear of a wife-beating stereotype who could not speak English. Since I never felt that I could entirely belong to the Palestinian or American communities, I launched myself into the world of the mosque, and – particularly after 9/11 – I spent much of my time harping on the fact that Muslims were diverse in faith and views, and blamed a lack of progress on culture, rather than religion.
I eventually learned that the lines between religion and culture could not be as easily separated as I would have hoped. The Arab Spring, as well as meeting friends that actually grew up in the Middle East made me realize I was projecting my own experiences onto an entire region. It did not occur to me that the world that my parents spoke about, and perhaps many of the cultural norms they adopted were part of a world that they left long ago – one that grew and changed after they left. Their views of culture are stuck in nostalgia, embalming their history and identity in a foreign world.
My parents, and many of their friends, had resigned themselves to the fact that the Arab world was rife with corruption and inconsistencies, and that mentality was passed along to us. I did not think that would change, and I suppose I thought that the Arabs without hyphens resigned to the same inevitability. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, I remember calling my stunned father, who said that he never thought he would see such a thing during his lifetime. While attempting to express his trademark amount of pessimism, I swore that in that moment, I heard hope in his voice. That was when I realized how out of touch he and I really were.