Do I look like you think I look?

What does the typical Arab family look like? Getty Images
What does the typical Arab family look like? Getty Images

“You don’t look Arab.” I hear that all the time. I heard it while growing up in the Middle East, studying in the UK and travelling on several continents.

It is always surprising to hear, because not only am I Arab, but surely – as someone with Arab parents, who speaks Arabic and who grew up in the region – I must also look Arab. None of those things, of course, makes me, or anyone, definitively Arab. But then, what does?

Both my parents are Palestinian; I have brown hair and brown eyes, my two sisters are blonde with blue and green eyes respectively, my grandmother had naturally red hair and my mother is very fair with hazel eyes. My family, in short, looks like a Benetton advert.

We’re certainly not unusual for an Arab family, especially from the Levant. But too often, I feel we are forced to prove and defend our Arabness. I’m sometimes asked if one of my parents is European, or if I’ve spent most of my life outside of the region, or even if I speak Arabic. (Sometimes I’ve had people ignore that I’ve spoken to them in Arabic and insist on speaking to me in English.) But mostly it’s about how I look.

The thing is, nobody looks Arab.

The Middle East has been a crossroads for civilisations since the dawn of time. Babylonians, Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans (to name a few) each swept through the region at various points in history leading to a mixing of cultures, religions and genetics.

Yet despite coming in every shape and size, “looking Arab” has taken on a specific meaning both within and beyond the Middle East. People expect Arab Muslim women to have darker skin and hair, or perhaps to have their hair covered. When I turn up, with none of those things, they get confused.

But there are some upsides.

Two weeks ago my siblings and I were in Mexico and met an elderly Texan couple, who were surprised to discover that we were Arab Muslims.

They commented on how well we spoke English and couldn’t seem to believe they had had a normal conversation about world topics with people who looked so different to what they had expected.

It feels good to trick people. I like to think my sisters and I often act as ambassadors for our countries when we travel, trying to break stereotypes and teach people that Arabs and Muslims are nothing like what they see on American tele­vision.

Yet I sometimes wish I looked even more “Arab” - in the sense of looking more like what they think Arabs look like.

That way, I’d look exactly like their stereotype but act nothing like it. If people’s original perception seems so incorrect, they may begin to question everything they are told about the Middle East.

But as it stands, they are more likely to see me as an exception to the rule. I don’t look like they think I should look and I don’t act like they think I should act. That gives me the unusual distinction of being “different” and “not like the others”.

People say that and it disturbs me. If people are accepting of me only because I don’t fit their stereotype, what does it say about how they treat everyone who does fit their stereotype?

And if I accept their acceptance, rather than questioning it, am I really doing a disservice to Arabs who actually do look like what people think they look?

This is the kind of thing that can keep a person up at night. It did last night and my mother asked me: “Are you OK? You seem tired. You don’t even look like Juman any more.”

JJarallah@thenational.ae

Published: September 1, 2016 04:00 AM

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