To Whom Do I Belong?

 

 

I am the daughter of a single mother and a once-absent father.

My mother was born and raised in the farmlands of Slippery Rock, PA, whose claim to fame is their university and odd moniker. My father was born and raised in the fields of Amman, Jordan, populated by ancient ruins and the stories of refugees.

My mother’s family knows the toil of farm life and the joys of a large family and a full house. My father’s family knows the toil of a life in exile, living in a land which struggles to claim them as full citizens, and the joys of solidarity with a movement and resistance to a regime.

My mother’s hair is short, light, and blonde. Her skin is light, and it tans well. Not as tan as Baba’s though. His hair has receded and is streaked with grey, but his skin maintains its year-round, dark olive tone.

I carry the physical traits of both of my parents on my body: Mom’s eyes in shape and Dad’s in color, Dad’s hair in thickness and volume and Mom’s natural highlights.

My curls are looser than the tight-bound coils they once were. My nose is bigger than “average” and it hooks. My English contains a hint of a Southern accent.

I pass as a member of those who call themselves white, even though my body holds characteristics that don’t keep me quite there.

Both of my parents know the loss of family land. My mother’s family lost our farm the summer before I started high school, the farm on which I spent my infancy and toddler-hood, due to lack of finances. My father’s parents left Palestine before the chaos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could deport them.

They know the loss and joy of leaving home for Orlando, Florida, in order to seek their fortunes, and they know the pain which resulted when things did not go as planned.

And they share me, their light-skinned, brown-eyed, chestnut-haired, social-justice-loving, strong-willed daughter.

I am the child of Amer and Elizabeth, a Mustafa and a Davis.

I am a child of America and Palestine, of long-time citizens and almost-refugees, of struggle and privilege.

I have lived here for generations, and I am the first generation to occupy this soil.

I am a product of the occupied land of Palestine, the Amman ruins, the ocean air of Orlando, the Slippery Rock farm, the city of Winchester, the rolling hills of Bridgewater and Harrisonburg, and the busy highways of Northern Virginia.

I love steak with a bit of pink in the middle served with mashed potatoes covered in homemade gravy and corn on the cob planted and harvested by my late grandfather. My mom’s spaghetti is my favorite comfort food. I love falafel and baba ganoush, and my dad’s Middle Eastern grilling is delectable.

My family has two sides, but I interact with one like a citizen and the other like a tourist.

I am fluent in Pennsylvania slang and can barely recite the Arabic alphabet. My nose recalls the scents of my Gammy’s apple pie and the earth after a rainstorm, but it is still growing accustomed to the smells of naan and an approaching Fort Lauderdale summer shower. I have memorized the funny and heartbreaking stories of my mother’s family and struggle to recount basic stories of my father’s youth and his extended family’s history.

I found much joy in being reunited with my father and have found many struggles in reconciling these two identities. I admire my mom for her resilience during the struggles of our life together, and I wish both of my parents had found a way to bridge their personalities and cultures so I could fully know and love them both.

Do I get to authentically embrace both sides?

Do I get to enjoy Mom’s spaghetti and Baba’s kufta with the same level of authenticity and pride?

If I learn Arabic and Palestinian history primarily through books and classes, am I still able to identify as one of them?

Do bi-racial kids who grew up with only one parent get to honor both of them, or must we choose one over the other?

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Am I Arabic?

Imwas, my father’s family’s village, in 1968 after its destruction during the Six-Day War

Am I Arabic?

It’s a question I ask myself a lot lately.

I ask it when I fill in surveys asking for my race and ethnicity, when people hear “Mustafa” in my last name and ask me how I got it, and when my boss tells me I add more “diversity” to the office.

How do I explain to people, and even myself, that I still see myself as one of the whitest white women to ever exist?

After all, I might love falafel, kufta, and baba ganoush, but I had to look up how to spell those last two words right.

I might have the olive skin, deep brown eyes, curly hair, and hooked nose of my father and his family, but I’m still “white” to most people. To some, even an “exotic” white. They know there’s “something in me,” but they don’t know what it is.

I didn’t become emotionally invested in the Palestinian cause from birth. Instead, I learned about the conflict through talks with my Christian college chaplain and through books and plays written from a white perspective.

I have walked comfortably in this world as a white woman, and no one has ever suspected I might be anything else.

Hell, I barely have either.

I didn’t start using “Mustafa” as part of my last name until I was 24 years old. No one coerced me into doing it. I wanted to start embracing this side of my identity.

But it’s been 4 years, and I’m still not sure what it means to be a “Mustafa.”

I know what it means to be a “Davis” like my mother and even like my husband’s family. But I still don’t really know what it means to be a “Mustafa.”

So am I Arabic or white? Am I both/and, either/or, or none/neither?

There are stories about people who have a black parent and a white parent, a Latinx parent and a white parent, or come from other racially blended families.

But I have yet to find a story of someone with an Arabic parent and a white parent.

I want to claim my family’s story and identity in a way which is true and genuine, not to earn a cheap badge for the sake of “diversity.” Most of my life, I only had one family identity. Then one day, I discovered the second family. Now, as a married woman, there is a third.

And I’m still figuring out how to be a part of each of them.

I want to learn and engage with both sides of my story, but is it possible when I have to study more than live through one aspect of it?

How do I do this?

Palestinian-Pennsylvanian: Reflections on My Heritage

parentals

I am the daughter of a Pennsylvanian woman and a Jordanian-Palestinian man.

On one side, I’ve been in America for several generations. On the other, I’m a first-generation American.

Mom and her family raised me. I didn’t even have my proper introduction to my father and his heritage until age 19, already fully developed and ingrained into my Pennsylvanian culture, preparing to navigate a culture foreign to my experience but natural to my bloodline.

Both sides lived lives of struggle and celebration, of keeping and losing land, of raising many children and living in close kinship with family.

Both sides lost the places they called “home,” one due to lack of proper funds and increasing age, the other as the result of colonialism and war.

Both have born the difficulties of maintaining peace of mind, body, and soul, for themselves and for their descendants. Both have sought “better” for themselves and their children, and both have discovered this road and these goals are not as precise as they had been told.

My mother and father left their own homes to seek their fortunes in Orlando, Florida. Mom returned to her family soon after my birth and stayed until she received her degree and found a job teaching in Virginia. Baba returns to his home sporadically due to distance and increased prices of airfare, sending money and visiting when he can, longing for the community he left and which I take for granted.

I know what it means to be Pennsylvanian. It’s eating corn on the cob with every meal in August, rooting for all the Pittsburgh teams no matter how the season fares, riding “quads” instead of ATVs, and drinking “pop” but never “soda.” It’s familiar. I can fall into its rhythms and norms easily.

Being Arabic is a different story, mainly because I don’t really know what it means to be Arabic, not culturally or even ethnically.

As a child, I knew my father came from Jordan, but I had no idea what their customs were, how different or similar they were to mine or my mom’s family. I found out Baba was a Muslim in Middle School when I found a Mecca necklace while snooping through Mom’s jewelry box. I did not know Mustafa was part of my name until I found it on the back of my baby picture hidden inside a “Baby’s 1st Christmas” ornament.

Being Pennsylvanian came laid out and ready for me to claim. It’s my upbringing and my inheritance. I know its stories like the back of my hand. I can recite several from memory without hesitation, with great joy and sorrow when necessary.

Being Arabic did not come for me. I had to seek and find this birthright of mine, and now I’m not even sure it’s mine to have anymore.

I only have an idea of the foods we eat and an even more limited knowledge of the language we speak, the clothes we wear, and the music we listen to. I have yet to set foot on the land taken from my family and the land we settled in our displacement.

Am I not Arabic? Am I only Pennsylvanian? Do I have claim to the inheritances of my mother and father, or only to my mother’s?

And what does it mean to even claim an inheritance you can’t touch but can only experience?