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”.