This author has decided to write pseudonymously; any resemblance of the pseudonym to actual persons is purely coincidental.
Westerners tend to mix up Arab culture and Islam. They are, however, two separate notions. The first is an ethnicity, the second a religion. Despite that distinction, they are still associated together. When I ask my friends which country had the biggest Muslim population, their minds turn to the Middle East, the most common answer being Saudi Arabia. The true answer? Indonesia. A South-East Asian country, with no ties to Arab culture, is the most populated Muslim country in the world. But, why do they think of Saudi Arabia? That can probably be traced to Western media and its massive influence. Whenever Western media speaks about Islam, it usually links it to Arabic countries, and vice-versa. Being a Lebanese Muslim, I consider my ethnicity and my religion to be separate parts of my identity. Having spent my entire life in both Lebanon and Jordan, I want to speak about the experience as an Arab, as a Muslim, and my short-lived experience in the United States.
Lebanon is unique in the way it juggles culture. The ex-French colony still maintains very close ties to France. French is the second language of Lebanon, so many Lebanese kids grow up learning both Arabic and French. Many students, myself included, receive a French education. I excelled in French when I was young. French and Arab kids alike thought I was French. My Arabic, however, was weak. I could understand it, read it and write, but I had a hard time using it myself. I would speak only in French with my parents. But, one day, I took a stance and swore I would exclusively speak in Arabic with them. Doing so has enabled me to reconnect with my culture and now be able to speak Arabic as any Arab young adult would. This struggle is common for many millennials/Gen Z Lebanese teens, who prioritize French or English instead of Arabic. It was only as I grew up that I learned to embrace my culture through the language. I now juggle the duality of my culture like most Lebanese teens do when in Lebanon: by talking in sentences made of French, Arabic and English combined.
One of the things I became aware of is the Arab youths’ wish to have a unified Arab nation, popularly known as Pan-Arabism. We live in a region with many political, economic, and humanitarian problems. Pan-Arabism comes from a feeling of Arab solidarity- the desire to help each other out. When I first heard this idea, I thought it was fantastic. As I grew up, however, I began to disagree with it. I’ve come to appreciate the cultural diversity in the Arab world. It seemed to me like a unified nation would erase the rich diversity of the Arab world. I learned how saying “I’m Arab” doesn’t even begin to cover my ethnic identity. I could be an Arab from the Levant region, from the Persian Gulf, or from North Africa. I could be from an ex-British colony, an ex-French colony, or a State that was always independent. As a Lebanese teen, my familiarity lies with other countries of the Levant: Jordan, Syria, and Palestine. I finally visited the Gulf when I went to Oman and realized how, despite sharing an Arab identity, their culture and lifestyle drastically differs from ours. To this day, I still struggle to understand North African accents, such as Moroccan.
The different dialects of the Arabic language illustrate this diversity perfectly. They all have their own words that the others don’t necessarily share. I learned the history, gastronomy, and culture of these countries, that despite having a common ethnicity, differ so much. A unified nation would merge this diversity and strip us of something beautiful. Arab solidarity can happen, just independently from a merging of cultures. Arab solidarity is a good effect of Arab nationalism. However, there is also a downside. In my experience, it has made Arabs very xenophobic. Members of my family and acquaintances would casually mock other cultures: Their main target being South and East Asian cultures. They would call them weird along with Western culture, which they found too liberal, and generally say that Arab culture surpassed them. Another cruder form of it is calling black people “Abeed”, meaning slaves. Yet another one is the common association by Arabs of the Israeli government with Judaism, leading to a lot of anti-Semitism. I remember returning home for winter break after my first semester in the US and having finally been aware of the blatant anti-Semitism my family members would use.
As a kid, this was all I knew growing up, so I believed it. But as my entourage became more culturally diverse and I met people from all cultures, I realized how wrong they were and distanced myself from this racist look at the world. I attempt to point out the wrong in their words whenever they make racist comments, to no avail. It’s convinced me the only way to change is to meet people of different cultures and learn from them. I understood that one needs to be proud of his culture and his identity but should not do so by bringing down other cultures. I am proud to be an Arab, but I acknowledge the very present racism among our people and hope we will learn to be more tolerant.
My parents weren’t very conservative Muslims. They did, however, remind me of the importance of believing in God, and they raised me according to core Muslim values. I follow a fair number of rules to this day. I don’t pray, but I do fast during Ramadan. I don’t drink or smoke, but I have dated non-Muslim girls, something my parents were surprisingly okay with. Nevertheless, they still expect me to marry a Muslim down the road. Being from Lebanon, I come from a very religiously diverse country. Of Lebanon’s population 55% is Muslim, 40% is Christian Maronite, and 5% is Druze. Within the Muslim community, there is an even split between Shia and Sunni. I have personally faced these religious divides growing up. My father was Sunni, and my mother was Shia. Despite belonging to the same religion, my father’s parents strongly opposed their love, for the sole reason she was Shia. I’ve heard many Sunnis make derogatory comments about Shias, as though they aren’t all Muslims.
Having parents of both branches, I still ask both of them why Sunnis and Shias can’t recognize that they belong to the same religion. I’ve grown up hearing about the Saudi Arabian government persecuting Shia, as well as the Iranian government persecuting Sunni. Additionally, I have also felt tensions due to the presence of Christianity. My uncle from my mother’s side married a Christian Lebanese woman. I remember visiting them and being surprised when they celebrated Christmas religiously, as I believed it was a purely commercial holiday until I was 10. I try not to get involved with the religious divides in my family, but I do feel sometimes that some members of my family aren’t accepting of her because she is Christian.
I spent nine months in the US for my freshman year of college. Before I left, my mother gave me a prep talk. She told me to be a proud Arab and to show my culture. However, in contrast, she told me to hide the fact that I was Muslim. She wanted me to avoid facing Islamophobia (persecution for being Muslim). I took my chances. I wanted to meet Islamophobes just to see how idiotic these people could be. I thought that I could stay calm enough to face discrimination and laugh at the stupidity of it.
Fortunately, I never faced it. I believe that is the case for two reasons. First, I spent most of my time on campus with young people more tolerant of other cultures. Second, I don’t look like the way westerners stereotype Arabs and Muslims in general. I felt Campus was rather inclusive of Arab culture and Islam. I remember hearing the prayer of Friday resonate throughout Campus for an entire month. I did not expect it to be, but I was pleasantly surprised. I got the opportunity to join the Arab culture association on Campus as well.
The one mild experience I faced was in the airport. The CBP officer checked my passport, and upon realizing I was Lebanese, assumed I couldn’t speak English, choosing to speak to me in a funny broken Arabic. Coming to the US has made me much more aware of what being Arab and Muslim is, as it isn’t the norm there. It has made me proud of what I am and happy to introduce my culture to others.