Arab American Book Awards!

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I am pleased to announce that my book, The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, has been selected as the 2017 winner for Children/Young Adult for the Arab American Book Awards. 

The award is put out yearly by the Arab American National Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, and “the first and only museum in the United States devoted to Arab American history and culture”. I am greatly honored to be recognized by this esteemed organization, and so excited to travel to Michigan to receive the award this coming October.

Thank you so much!

Michelle Chalfoun


When is a White Person Not a White Person? When She’s an Arab.

maxresdefaultA couple days ago I heard a story on NPR. Apparently, according to the next census, I’ll no longer be a white person. I’ll be MENA (Middle Eastern North African).

I mentioned this to my daughter. She said, “I thought you never were white.”

I explained that legally, I was. 22 years before I was born, Arabs were legally recognized as “white” by the United States of American.

“Yeah, but no one thinks of Arabs as white,” she said. (She’s Latina).

When you look at me, you would probably say, “Hey, that lady is white.” That’s because my mom’s parents were German. I got her coloring.

In the US, to be considered a Native American, instead of a generic white American, you have to be 1/16th Native. That’s one great-grandparent.

Historically, to be black you only needed “one drop” of African blood.

I’m half Arabic. A full 50%. My dad was fully Middle Eastern. An immigrant from Lebanon. Speaking Arabic.  Had an Arabic name: Salim. Grew up in Beirut. Was a tank gunner in the Christian Militia. Had Palestinian friends. Summered in Syria.

I inherited my dad’s nose. He said I looked like his mother, the grandmother I never met because she disowned him when he married my Germanic mom.

I said to a friend, “I don’t even know why this is bothering me. Why would I even want to be white? Especially right now, with all the ugly white supremacy stuff going on.”

My friend, a Jewish woman whose ancestors escaped some Nazi-benighted Eastern European country said, “Because white is safe.”

According to the NPR story, it became necessary to designate Middle Eastern North African peoples as MENA because there were just too many “Some Other Race” people in the last census.

But I can’t help wondering why, when the last census was taken in 2010, President Obama’s administration didn’t find it necessary to take care of that “problem” by designating Arabs as MENA then. Maybe he didn’t think an undesignated “Some Other Race” was such a big deal, being mixed race as he was.

I did some reading. The MENA idea has been kicking around for a while, but this is the first administration to seriously consider it. Congress still has to vote on it in 2018 to make it definite. I wonder which way it will go, and what it will mean.

MENA sounds so benign. I can imagine naming a daughter that, maybe with a different spelling—I assume it’s pronounced “Mee-nah”. It even sounds sort of Arabic.

On a related note: I found it a little troubling to hear about my possible MENA designation on the same weekend I heard about the new VOICE initiative.

VOICE (Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement) is the brainchild of Steve Bannon, voiced by DJT. It’s the latest in his white supremacy government propaganda push, inspired by Hitler’s Jewish Crimes List. Interestingly, the Third Reich started reporting Jewish crime separately from non-Jewish crime after putting in place the Nuremburg Race Laws.



A Few Weird Things

green-pink-2toneIt’s hard to get to the computer these days, and when I do, I want to write my next book. So I don’t blog as much as I’d like, and stuff happens, and I don’t comment on it, and it piles up. So here’s three things I felt like addressing, but didn’t get around to:

  1.  I got that alert on my phone for Ahmad Khan Rahami (the terrorist who planted bombs in NY and NJ) while I was at work. (For those who don’t know, I am a pediatric nurse who accompanies medicalized children to school). None of the other adults around me got it. That night at dinner, I asked my husband if he’d gotten the alert. Nope. Neither had my son. He says to me, “Of course you got it, mom. You’re the Arab in the family. They probably sent it to all the Arabs, because you all know each other.” He meant it as a joke. (He’s 100% Latino). It’s kind of a running gag about the Arabs in our family. There’s a funny story about a friend who I hadn’t seen in decades, walking into a Lebanese restaurant in another state and saying to the owner, “Hey, my best friend’s father was Lebanese.” “Oh really,” says the owner, “What was his name?”  “Salim Chalfoun.” The owner says, “That’s my uncle.” And here’s the kicker–my dad was his uncle.  So that’s the joke–all Arabs are cousins or uncles or whatever, as far as non-Arabs are concerned. But of course we aren’t. And I know the alert got sent to lots of non-Arabs. So why do I always have that weird, sinking feeling every time a terrorist has an Arabic name, as if it has something to do with me? Why do I take that on? I bet white people don’t cringe when a white guy makes the news.
  2. We were eating our typical weekend pancake breakfast, listening to NPR,  when the recording of the wife of Keith Scott pleading with the police to not shoot him came on. I turned the radio off. My son asked why, and I explained that I had heard it yesterday, and it was very upsetting. My son said, “I know what to do if I get stopped by the police.” He stood and showed me how he would place his hands behind his back. I said, “Don’t do that–they might think you’re pulling a gun from your waistband.” He said, “I could do this.” And he demonstrated putting his hands on top of his head. He explained that’s what the kids in school say to do.  I said, “No, also problematic. Put your hands like this.” And I showed him how to hold his hands in the air, fingers spread, so anyone could see he didn’t have a gun.
  3. A few days later I worked a dance with my client who goes to their district school.  The district is 93% white, and one of the wealthiest in our county. The boys wore button down shirts, and Vineyard Vine web belts,  chino shorts, and boat shoes, the girls wore pink and green Lily Pulitzer dresses. They looked like they were ready to go out to dinner in Edgartown. So preppy and clean cut. And they were so well behaved, I thought. Yet they got yelled at by the chaperones, and the lights were turned on so they couldn’t get into any more trouble. My son was fascinated by this. He wanted to know what those preppy kids had done that was so bad. “They were using their phones,” I told him. “They aren’t allowed to have phones at school or at any school functions.” He was incredulous.”Wow. A phone is bad?” “In their school it is,” I said. I didn’t have to point out the difference between their world and ours. My son totally got it.



Why Lebanese?



I just finished up a couple of author appearances for my new kids’ book, The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, and a question that came up at both readings was, “Why did you chose to make your main character Lebanese-American?”

The glib answer would be because I am Lebanese-American, and in all writing workshops you’re taught to “write what you know”. But honestly, in earlier drafts of the book, Maria wasn’t obviously Lebanese-American, and her mother Celeste wasn’t obviously a Lebanese immigrant. I was advised, after the first go-round with my agent, to go ahead and make it obvious.

This advice surprised me, and it went against the grain of my upbringing. As I have shared in another blog Coming out as an Arab American, I was raised to hide my identity. In fact, I had mistakenly thought that it was “better” if my main character wasn’t identifiably anything—so she could be read however the reader wanted to read her.

But at some point between the many drafts, something happened in the writing world, and there began to be an outcry against all-white, all-male author panels. Publishers Weekly has written a number of articles about the monoculture of the publishing world, all across the industry. In their article, Why is Publishing So White (, a pie chart shows that only 1% of the overall industry identifies as Middle Eastern.

Luckily, it seems the industry wants to change this situation.

Suddenly it was not such a bad thing to be me, or to let my main character be like me.

So now Maria, like me, was born in the Bronx, baptized at Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn Heights, and then never set foot in another Maronite church again. Her mother makes the same English mistakes my dad made. She eats hummus, and loves pistachio nougat candies, and has a Tante Farida. She speaks more French than Arabic, and more English than both. Like me, she knows how to ululate, but rarely does it, because of its association with terrorism. And she has all the “first generation in the US” values: education is important, you must always work hard, and it is better to own your home than to rent.

Recently my daughter asked me why in so many of the books she loves, the main characters are always white? She specifically mentioned the Harry Potter and Hunger Game series. I said that white people wrote those books, and people tend to write characters like themselves.

So then she asked why, if the main character is a POC (person of color), is that often made into the whole point of the book? As if a POC can only have adventures related to their status—such as a story with a Mexican protagonist is all about crossing the border or all about fitting in with mainstream white America. Why can’t a POC character just be whoever they are and have “regular” adventures, like magic or treasure hunts or solving mysteries?

That was a good question. I struggled to explain without excusing, and then I realized I needed to get more involved in that question myself. Because here I am, a writer, a daughter of a Lebanese immigrant, with Latinx children. There are some really good conversations going on all over the web, social media, and within the industry. I’ve been struggling to catch up, but as a mother and writer, I realize I need to.



Coming out as an Arab American

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?



Papa Jiddi

We’re all back at home on Long Island, after a lovely week on Martha’s Vineyard. The weather here is gray, but soon school ends and we’ll get to go back to our “real home” (as the kids call their grandmother’s house on the island). My father, Salim Chalfoun, was the one who came up with the idea to move to the Vineyard. As a child in Beirut, Lebanon, he spent his summers either up in the mountains, or at an aunt’s house in Syria. There, he enjoyed playing with his cousins, visiting his extended family, and all the pleasures of getting out of the city. He wanted that for his grandchildren, and he realized that the small house he and my mom had in New York wouldn’t do. He pictured somewhere vacation-like, with lots of bedrooms so all the grandchildren always had a room waiting for them. He called the house a “grandparent trap”. He meant a place so wonderful, it would lure all the grandchildren to visit frequently. I think it was a quirk of his English that he didn’t realize that made it a “grandchildren trap”–because he was luring  grandchildren, not grandparents. Regardless, his plan worked.

“Papa Jiddi” Salim did live long enough to meet all his grandchildren, though my daughter was too young when he died to remember him properly. But my son remembers Papa Jiddi, and we have pictures of Salim feeding them pita bread, walking hand in hand on the beach, and enjoying their visits to his “grandparent trap”.