As the publication date of The Treasure of Maria Mamoun nears, I find myself thinking frequently about how this is going to be a sort of coming out for me. Most people who meet me don’t know my ethnic background. I don’t generally mention it.
Just typing these words makes me feel uncomfortable.
I have been trying to figure out my mixed feelings. Why should I worry? Well, let’s be honest. This isn’t a great time to be Arabic in America. In fact, when has it ever been? One of the things that I have in common with my main character is that, growing up, I got the same advice from my father that Maria gets from her mother: When people ask what you are, lie. Tell them you are French. If they don’t buy that, tell them you are Phoenician. Just never, never say Lebanese, unless you know their politics very well.
My dad went so far as to tell me I was lucky, because I could “pass” as not Arab-American, something he could never do. But I have had some of the same experiences as my main character, Maria. I remember when the dreaded “Family Tree” assignment was given. I dutifully went home and created, with my parents’ help, an elaborate document with names, and photos, and flags. It was yet another thing my peers could use against me. Like the smelly tabouli I brought in for my classmates to taste. Or the Arabic poem I recited that led my teacher to believe that I spoke Arabic. I didn’t. But she didn’t believe me. So I was forced to stand in front of the class for hours, holding an section of the New York Times with an Arabic document that I “refused” to translate. When I said I couldn’t, she called me a “liar–like all your people”.
I never thought to question my teachers–why should I tell you all this about my family? Why should I open myself up to the comments?
Years later, my son came home from school complaining that he had been given the dreaded “Family Tree” assignment. Only now, he wasn’t the only child complaining. We live in a diverse and welcoming community. Nevertheless, so many of his classmates were uncomfortable letting their peers know that their parents were immigrants, or both the same gender, or not biologically related to them. The teacher was understanding and she let the assignment go. But it makes me wonder. Will there ever be a time when people will not feel they have to “pass” as something they’re not, just to move comfortably about in the world? Unfortunately my children don’t live in that world yet. Maybe my grandchildren will?