At age 12, there’s a chain letter that your friends e-mail in brightly colored comic sans that makes fun of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The jokes play on Middle Eastern and Arab stereotypes.
Two months earlier, you were in the guidance counselor’s office waiting to call your Dad in New York. You finally get a hold of your Sittoo. She said that he was waiting in line to get on the Staten Island Ferry. He would be home some time later that night and he loved you all very much. He said he was OK.
You still find it very hard to articulate your feelings about that e-mail without making it sound like you’re defending a terrorist.
You’re at a party, flirting with a man who’s getting his masters in political science. He asks you what your nationality is in a way that doesn’t make you self conscious. He asks how you feel about the water crisis in Lebanon.
Sip your drink.
“There’s a water crisis in Lebanon?”
“It’s Sitti, not Sittoo.”
One of the RAs in your freshman year dorm speaks Arabic. Your family spoke a unique New Brunswick-Lebanese dialect scramble back when they knew how to speak Arabic, in which “Sittoo” meant “Grandmother.”
“I never said that I knew how to speak Arabic, I just know the curse words.” You tell him to kiss your ass, in Arabic.
“Tell has tee-zee,” he says, making fun of your pronunciation.
You learn how to say it right.
Your Sittoo dies three years later and takes the language with her.
You apologize for the thighs your grandmother gifted you with expensive shape-wear.
Your cousin gets “courage” tattooed in Arabic on his upper back.
“I checked it with one of my friends,” he says.
“Are you sure he speaks Arabic?”
“Are you sure it doesn’t say ‘fuck me’?”
No one in my family can tell him that his tattoo says “courage,” we just hope for the best.
Malala Yousafzai delivers a speech to the UN while wearing Benazir Bhutto’s shawl. An 11-year-old girl runs away to her aunt and uncle’s house to escape an arranged marriage. She’s telling off her mother and it’s awesome. You watch this on YouTube, get goose bumps, and do a little fist pump while sprawled across your futon.
You do a quick hopscotch through the limited amount of Arabic you know and text your cousin: “So if, ‘bint’ means girl, and ‘eid’ means holiday/party, does “bint Ehid [Daughter of an Ehid]” also mean ‘party girl’?”
“OMG I hope so.”
Your cousin is binge-watching Game of Thrones and reblogging Teen Wolf gifs on Tumblr.
Bint Ehid, bitches.
The Christmas before you move to Los Angeles, you mother puts a plastic camel in your stocking.
“Don’t forget: you’re half Lebanese.”
She has gotten in the habit of reminding her children that they’re mostly Lebanese, mostly her, since they’re also half Asian and don’t really resemble her. She’s a lighter shade of olive with freckles that don’t look like the moles on melanoma posters.
All of the adults in her nuclear family have a designated spot in their homes in which to collect random camel tchotchkes.
The camel lives on top of your small bookcase in West Hollywood.
You ask a friend how their trip to Israel went. They tell you that they were shown the Lebanese border and told that’s where the enemy lies. Pretend to be psyched about their vacation.
You have your hair wrapped in pashmina. A white woman sits behind a table and watches while you talk about how Allah says you can’t be together because he’s Christian, he’s Jewish, she’s a girl, I’m a girl and I can’t do _______ because I’m Muslim. This story repeats ad nauseum. These are the stories, you assume, people want to hear. You decide not to tell these stories and make your own work.
Lady Gaga drops a song called “Burqa” in which she volunteers to un-oppress a people by commodifying a religious garment and instagramming herself with her long hair draped in her face, hashtagged “burqaswag.” It’s reductive and has a nice beat. There have been numerous Muslim women heads of state in Asia and the Middle East. You assume Lady Gaga’s Google is broken. You assume the majority of your friends won’t find this problematic. You assume some guy at a club is going to grind his jeans clad boner on your tailbone to the tune of “Burqa” by Lady Gaga.
Your friend talks about a family she babysits for: the husband is a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, the wife is a Muslim from Turkey. She tells that the father said that his children would grow up “kind of conflicted, but they’ll be fine.” She adds “Can you imagine what that meet-the-parents was like?”
“I know. I feel preemptively conflicted every time I have a crush on a Jewish guy.”
Your type looks something like a Venn diagram between a Seinfeld and a Sorkin protagonist.
She looks you square in the eye and says “There’s so much world peace at stake,” and calls you “The Great Uniter,” sarcastically.
You laugh really hard because you’re an asshole and she’s right.
While fact checking a Gaza Strip joke, Google maps tells you that Palestine is no longer recognized as a country.
You’re cast in a community theatre production that rehearses at the local JCC. You develop a rapport with the middle-aged guy who works behind the desk. You make small talk while you wait for your mom to pick you up.
He gestures to the air space between the two of you. “You look very…um, similar? Are you Middle Eastern?”
“Me too! I’m Israeli!”
“Oh, I’m Lebanese.”
He intercepts his cringe with a closed mouth smile.
“You’re right. We’re very similar.”
Aliee Chan is an actor and writer based in Los Angeles even though her license plates are from New Jersey. She tweets at @alieechan.