Archives for category: Identity

Recently I was told that I don’t represent Islam. My Muslimness wasn’t the real thing, being of the Canadian sort.  The way it came out, it was like my Islam was kind of flaky, not AUTHENTIC.

I was told all this by a non-Muslim.

It mainly had to do with the fact that I find the honor-thing really perplexing. Upon sharing my confusion regarding this, I was told that it’s part of my religion, didn’t I know?  That it’s such a very intrinsic part of Islam?

I’ve been a Muslim my entire life, an extremely proud one from the age of sixteen, brought up in a religious household, taught by a father who’s an Islamic scholar, nurtured by a variety of Muslim communities, camps, conferences and never ever once was I informed that “honor” is a part of Islam.

Needless to say, the encounter with the Islamic “expert” left me reeling. No matter how many times I tried to refer to the sources of my religion, I was talked over and repeatedly told that I don’t know my own faith.

It doesn’t help that there exists awful cases of Muslims doing horrible things to each other. But the world is full of people doing horrible things to each other.

Only a bigot would hear of a crime and immediately attribute it to a religion or culture or race. It seems that bigotry rules the day in many parts of the world when it’s so mainstream for news media to attribute crimes to Islam, so unabashedly. Perhaps that’s why this expert felt so expert about Islam – perhaps the experts on Fox News or CNN had given him all the facts.

I thought back to all the horrific crimes I’d read about recently. I tried to deconstruct my own thought processes (on hindsight) regarding the Steubenville Rape case and the Newtown shootings.

There wasn’t an instance when I attributed these crimes to the culture they occurred in. But I know what would have happened if the perpetrators had been Muslim.

We would have all been schooled on what Islam was all about, by people who don’t know the first thing about it.


I relish in being uncultured. As in brought up without the norms of a particular culture.

There was a point when I strongly wanted to fit into a certain culture (that of my ex’s) and tried so hard and for so long to “learn” how to be with it but I was woefully unsuccessful. Perhaps I took it (the learning) too academically, but dupattas (do not like those things) never sat properly on me (why are they always either stiff or slippery?), my Urdu would not progress beyond jee and aap keso hai and tika due to a language-acquisition disability (so please pardon the awful transliterations) and my rotis were always rolled into oblonged triangles and came out stiff as dupattas.

I know people get great pleasure from their cultures and all the elaborate details that bring pizzazz to otherwise “bland” rituals but with all honesty, I’d rather take a backseat in a good, solid, American-made Ford when it comes time to participating in the pizzazz. Maybe it’s just because I don’t get most of it and I like to get things.

Maybe it’s because it’s usually the mothers who pass on cultural traditions to their children and my mother was brought up with deliberate simplicity by her father. He was a successful landowner but his children were permitted 2 sets of clothing plus an Eid outfit each. He sent my mother and her 2 sisters to the local men’s only mosque to pray and when they came back because they were barred, he sent them back again and again until they were allowed. He had them busy learning things other than how to drape a dupatta properly. (But my mom does make awesome rotis – like silk dupattas).

My father? Let’s just say he has no idea what a dupatta is.

(By the way, for all of you other uncultured people out there, a dupatta is a long rectangular material that is arranged – usually “artfully” – to adorn an Indian or Pakistani outfit.)

Being uncultured, I get to marvel at all cultures and borrow from whence I please (the non-pizzazzy things). Currently I’m going through a great affinity for things Somali, Japanese and Louisianan. I was just SO happy on my trip to umrah last summer to discover a store in Madinah right across from the Prophet’s mosque which had abayas with traditional ethnic Indian embroidery on them (Muslim fusion fashion at its best) – and best of all, they had NO dupattas.

Of course, we hear enough – with wagging fingers – about people who mix up Islam and cultural traditions. To be fair, at the time that I was trying so hard to be “cultured” properly, no one held the this-is-Islamic-so-you-must-do-it card above my head. It was just always pointed out that this was THE way it was done. Back then, I just loved THE way – it was so exotic and such a novelty (until the dupatta started acting up).

Is there a wisdom in keeping to the “way things are done back home”? I sometimes wonder this because I have no clue as to the “way things are done back home”. Perhaps if I left to live in another country, I would think about the “way things are done back home” here in Canada (like lining up, obeying traffic signals and other such traditions) and start passing them on to my children in a nostalgic fashion.

Until then, I’ll remain uncultured.

Beautiful article by Diana Abu-Jaber:

Published on Sunday, October 21, 2001 in the Washington Post

Ten days after the terrorist attacks, I was on campus preparing for the start of school when the clean-cut young man approached and handed me a flier. He looked me in the eye and nodded as if we’d conducted a business transaction. And then I looked at the flier; it called for, among other things, “a rounding up and questioning of all Arabs.” My first thought was to tell him he’d confused me with someone else. He hadn’t realized I was one of the ones he wanted rounded up. But after I climbed the four flights of stairs to my office, I found the same flier slipped under my office door — the same door that bears my very Arabic name. For some time, all I could do was stare out my office window at the tiny sliver of sky that shows through the skylight. I remembered that when we lived in Jordan and I was a little girl, there was a woman who used to take care of me who was from a place called Palestine. She used to say: In times of great calamity, clear your eyes and make your mind like a pond of water.

Years later, I read nearly verbatim the same words of advice in a novel by an American writer. It was like coming across a juncture of insight without culture, a moment of mutuality and recognition. I grew up with people always telling me who I was, based on such clues as the color of my skin or the sound of my name, but I often had the sense that they weren’t really looking.

Even now, I’m frequently told — sometimes insistently — that I don’t look Arab. I’m told that I look Russian or French or Irish or Greek or Italian. I don’t take it too personally, though I sometimes have the sense that people simply don’t want me to look Arab. Just the other day, while discussing the frightening fallout of the attacks, a good friend asked, “You don’t think of yourself as Arab, do you? I don’t!”

But sometimes things aren’t so clear. Even though I’ve spent most of my life in America, five years ago I was again living in Jordan. An American friend and I were driving through the open countryside and at one point we decided to explore the courtyard of one of the crumbling medieval castles scattered around Jordan. The place appeared to be utterly abandoned and desolate; there was a large rusted padlock on the door. The wind came ringing high over the desert plain, and for miles around the only movement seemed to come from a pack of yellow dogs trotting toward us from the far horizon. Their eyes were soft and their mouths hung open in natural smiles. But then we realized that a man was walking with them and this man had a powerful, rigid face, the aspect of someone who’s spent his nights watching the stars and animals, who hadn’t learned how to govern his internal state in order to please or comfort other humans.

He approached us with his pack of dogs and the closer he got the more thunderstruck his expression. He finally stopped, raised one hand and pointed at me. My pulse was leaping in my throat. Wind roaring in our ears, both my friend and I stood stock still, unsure if we were intruding. But then his expression seemed to break open and he quietly said, “Anissa?” My grandmother was named Anissa, but she had been dead for more than 30 years. We then learned this man had known her when she was a young woman living in Amman. No one in my family has ever told me I resembled my grandmother — a woman who died before I was born. But here, years later, and miles away from Amman, this stranger crossed an empty space, squinted through sand and wind, and recognized something.

click here to continue the article.

I just finished reading The Language of Baklava: A Memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber. Abu-Jaber’s story of trying to find where she belonged – America or Jordan – resonates with anyone who’s grown up hearing about “back home” from immigrant parents. Often, the harsh realities of the now (here in America or Canada or Britain) cause the castaway from the East to paint a mythical glow and proportions to the realities of “back home”. As a child, I remember playing to the soundtrack of my mother on the phone to her friend, also from “back home”. The words I would hear over and over was “they way we did it back home was…”

Abu-Jaber’s father, Ghassan or Bud as he is otherwise known, is the castaway in her story. His homages to Jordan cause Diana to live with half her heart suspended – to be retrieved when she begins her life whole with both her Americaness and Arabness merged. Bud moves his family – with his American wife and 3 daughters – to Jordan periodically and then just as abruptly brings them back. When the family goes back to the place of Bud’s ancestral roots with the Bedu, Abu-Jaber writes with such love and authenticity, I was able to see why it is essential to write from the experiences bottled within you. I don’t believe others – outsiders – could write so movingly about the interplay between ancestral pride and current Arab angst as Abu-Jaber has done.

Abu-Jaber’s writing is soothing in its ability to transport the reader to cozy settings full of family love and larger-than-life characters. Each of the chapters is dotted with recipes for foods mentioned therein – both Middle Eastern and American. These recipes punctuate the book at appropriate times with titles such as “‘Distract the Neighbors’ Grilled Chicken” and “Cowboy Kibbeh” and my favorite, “Fattoush: Bread Salad – which everyone loves and everyone can pronounce”. So for those of us who have always wondered about how to cook “Barbaric Lamb Kofta” and ” Poetic Baklava”, it’s all in there.

It’s telling that Abu-Jaber chose to use a food theme to connect her book; with the myriad of fusion cuisine taking over the restaurant scene, perhaps one’s identity could be easily translated through food labels. I just went to an Iranian-Italian restaurant last week. In Toronto, Indo-Chinese cuisine is all over the place as is Indo-Somali-Italian. If I were a restaurant, identity/ethnicity wise I would be a Canadian-Malayali place (given there is such a thing as Canadian cuisine). I’m waiting for a Japanese-Lebanese-Mexicana joint.

In The Language of Baklava, Diana’s father was forever on a quest to find, buy and run the perfect restaurant to present his identity to the world – Jordanian. He doesn’t fully succeed and finally one day, the date of which Diana records on a napkin, concedes to an old friend that he is… “an American”. He had finally accepted his fusion identity: Arab-American. And after a year spent on her own in Jordan, Diana accepts hers as well: American-Arab.


Book: The Language of Baklava, 2006

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Publisher: Pantheon Books

Rating: * * * * (out of * * * *)


If it got me back to reading “the whole thing” in the midst of a hectic time (report cards et all), it’s got to be engrossing, riveting and extraordinary.

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