Embracing the “Decent Arab” in Me

I’m glad people are finally bringing up the fact that McCain didn’t clearly state that Arabs are decent people when a woman asked him about it at a campaign rally. Instead, McCain–perhaps unintentionally–reinforced the notion that Arabs are not in fact decent people (more info here).

I am not Arab but I was called one most of my childhood by many people who thought it was logical that because I was born in Syria it must apply. My Irish-Canadian neighbor, whose daughter was my best friend, opened a book one day to see that the official name of Syria was The Arab Republic of Syria.

“So, you’re an Arab,” she would periodically insist citing the book as proof. “If you aren’t, why were you born in a country called that?” She was particularly vehement about the label when I peeved her off for doing things kids often do.

“No, we’re Armenian but we lived in Syria,” I always replied. Never mind that the notion of diaspora, which she didn’t understand, didn’t mean we had to be of any “place” or forget about the fact that multiculturalism in West Asia didn’t mean you had to conform fully to the ruling government’s monoculture.

For years working around West Asians made me forget what a “bad” thing Arab was to many.

A few years ago my cousin was having a drink with his girlfriend at a midtown Manhattan bar when he was confronted by a man who picked a fight with him for no apparent reason. Things got a little rough and some of the other bar patrons grabbed the offending guy and lead him into another room. One of the patrons came back to tell my cousin that the kid (he was in his early 20s) had just returned from war in Iraq and thought my cousin looked like an Iraqi–he was, like me, born in Syria–and he was irked because “those people” shouldn’t be taking “our” women.

It was the kind of confrontation that I feared would be more frequent after 9/11 but thankfully isn’t, at least not in New York.

I never really associate with being an Arab but perhaps I should. If my embracing of the term will help change people’s perceptions of what an Arab is or can be. Count me in as an Arab-Armenian-Canadian-American (ok, the label may be cumbersome and I may in fact need an acronym for that one but you get my point)…now that I’ve cleared that up I can finally get back to eating my hummous and planning the next tallest building in the world 🙂

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