Dearborn is a community brought together first by language, next by bombardment with self-loathing-stirring news headlines, now by half-hearted apology and Trump-induced minority identity marketability. Dearborn is Arab-as-White and Arab-as-terrorist and Arab-as performance—less often Arab-as-I’m indifferent to what you think of me. It is a generation raised heads not-low in spite of 9/11, struggling to self-love in a self-care world. It is material success and Arab hospitality mixed with a sharaf so thick it interrupts unsteady attempts at vulnerability. It is the heart of shia islam* in the “West”—with victim complex and victimization, and with a line so fine between these and with nuance left wanting. Dearborn is a generation coming to, sycophant-model-minority alongside fist-in-the air America-ruined-my-country, out smoking argeelih together at 3am. Dearborn is a first gen first take at overcoming overwhelming difference, an exercise of self-preservation.
Dearborn, like any conglomerate of people, is complicated. It’s home.
Here, I want to explore identity in Dearborn, the ways self-definition is shaped by the individuals for and around whom you learn and unlearn to define yourself, and how this then shapes solidarity-building and self-reflection. What does it mean to be Lebanese and Arab and Muslim and all of these at once? How do these belongings add up differently when you are calculating with the White man in mind? Can we expose, then address, our insecurities while on the defensive? And if not, when and where and how do we go from where we are?
I am speaking for and of myself first when I write that “Lebanese Arab Muslim (woman)” can and does bend into whatever-is-transiently-convenient, as uniquely positioned to sell itself to Whiteness unless it accrues more social capital to be a person of color.
- Arab, aesthetically. Like the evil eye necklaces, the way girls who can’t speak two sentences in Arabic have their names written from right to left in their instagram bios. Performatively exotic, but only to be tastefully subversive. The dabke parties and the hookah lounges and the belly dancing skirts.
- White(-passing), especially when you need to seem “professional.” How someone introduced herself to me as “Phoenician” two weeks ago at a conference. Like the guy who felt the need to announce to his audience his love for baseball five words into his speech, as if his commitment to all-Americanness was the single credential about which he needed to let us know. How Hassan becomes Has and Mariam is Mary, how my parents actually named me the latter, how much I liked that during my self-loathing phase (all through middle and high school). How I straightened my hair for my medical school interview. How my mom is more heard because she has big ocean-blue eyes, how part of me still thinks she is lucky for that.
- Person of color, when it’s convenient. When we need to piggy-back on other people’s suffering so that the things we want to say—and sometimes the egos we want to feed—have the requisite legitimacy in social justice circles. How I can share a connection with Malcolm X through islam while Black Muslims don’t feel welcome in any mosque in which I’ve ever prayed. How as I write my personal statements to grad school I know big-name institutions see me as an access point to just-enough diversity, and how I use this to my advantage—how I use me to use them, and how I let them use me. How I reinforce that this is okay, and tell myself I will make it better once I am on the inside.
- Anti-racism, when racism is Zionism. How Israelis are White European settlers, but we’re close-to-grateful to the French for blessing us with their language and culture and mission civilisatrice. How Lebanese Arabs think we’re more attractive than other people with whom we share language because we have lighter skin. How our Arabic sounds softer, more refined. How saying 3abid isn’t okay but sometimes you hear it slip out of a cousin’s mouth at a family iftar and you’re not sure if this is a teaching moment or a battle that’s better left unpicked. How teenagers in Dearborn think that because White people call us “sand n-words” somehow this makes it okay for us to say that, too.
If identity shapes belonging, then the malleability of the labels we affix to ourselves allows us to traverse spaces to which other marginalized groups are less privy. And while in this crossing over we can escape marginality, we can also trespass and disrupt. In medical school, I often find conversations about global health disparities laden with White man’s burden tropes of non-White people who “need saving” and White people (my professors and peers) swooping in and imposing some transient fix that no one in a thousand-mile radius asked (them) for and that lasts no longer than their medical tourist trip to whatever African or South American country happens to be trendy.
I am not alone in the issues I take with my institution’s approach to health equity, but because I am White-passing I know it is easier for me to raise my hand and say something than it would be for other non-White classmates. I’m okay with being “difficult” because I have never been one to hold back, but also maybe because it is harder for this label to have tangible adverse impact on my academic career. In other words, it is more difficult to impose harmful stereotypes on me than it would be on someone with darker skin or who wears a hijab, because I look like (or “almost-like,” as I was told at a VA hospital) the people doing the stereotyping.
My positionality is privileged, and privilege isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I get to market myself in my applications as someone adversely impacted by certain injustices, if I claim to care about the indivisibility of justice, I need to care consistently, and to use myself in the ways I’ve learned to use systems to further this pursuit. While I accept, as Audre Lorde famously said, that the master’s tools will never dismantle his house, if I insist on operating within his spaces for money or clout or whatever I’ve told myself I need, then I can at least study and unsettle his frameworks until the day comes that I decide to build myself a proper home.
While my Lebaneseness blends into Whiteness if I so choose, my Muslimness remains stubbornly separate. It is identity along or in association with this plane that most marginalizes me in America and about which I most struggle to write. This is because of the burden of representation this platform necessarily entails—that is, the knowing that I will never speak for just-me to a listener who is looking to understand me, as a pathologist looks at a specimen to understand a cancer—with tacit recognition of heterogeneity that necessitates caution but not pause. But what if, as I sieve through the parts of me I struggle to reconcile, I speak without those looking to pathologize me as my intended listeners? Unless we can speak wholly about the ways we experience closeness to and distance from islam—unless we can un-internalize the White man as we package our narratives—we cannot grow, religiously or otherwise.
The difference between critiquing/praising marginalized identity for the sake of uplifting a community versus doing so for self-gain (these aren’t actually binary things—I am gaining by writing this piece, even while some words might benefit others, too) is one of posturing, between speaking with and for. The difference between consistency and brand-building can be as slim as intention, and it is impossible to know for sure what drives individuals, including myself, to “advocate for” and “uplift” when these verbs have come to carry so much social and even political currency. Because of the marketability of marginalized identity and the rise of white-people-appointed token Muslims since 9/11, especially following Donald Trump’s inauguration, what counts as (sought-after by ‘western’ media) Muslim has narrowed. And many of us have adjusted the packaging of our persons to fit this constriction (for example, “I think the hijab is sexist but I wear it to show I’m Muslim”). Self-preservation via self-promotion. Or is it the other way around?
What might it take to undo this self-packaging? Is it about finding a different audience for whom to perform? And then, how to unlearn the ways I’ve learned to know myself?
I am torn, because I recognize how important it has been in the US and elsewhere for Muslims to speak on behalf of themselves. But a Muslim, like any individual, only extends as far as her person—and her expertise on Muslimness stops where she does, unless she chooses to specialize in something like islamic studies. To claim more than this space is to phenomenalize and fetishize—to, however unintentionally, determine what is appropriately Muslim, first to White people, and then to the rest of us who look to White people to define the borders of our selves.
A disclaimer: my religious upbringing introduced islam to me not as an identity but as the framework through which I build my identities (this is why I am insisting on a lowercasing the ‘i’ in islam). It is misleading and inadequate for me to reduce it to an identity here. Still, growing up in America after 9/11 and wearing a hijab for most of my young adult life, I recognize that the visibility/publicity of my Muslimness heavily informed my interactions with others, irrespective of how I chose to see myself. I am unsure how to navigate this, knowing that by choosing to write about Muslimness as I describe identity in Dearborn, I am limiting the role of islam in my life. I am allowing the little White man in my brain to frame islam as he does other religious belonging—a label among others one affixes to oneself to establish community. There is value in having these conversations through the limited framework of Muslim-as-identity because it reflects lived experience, but the harm here is this: identity and belonging are stable things, and islam, in particular shia islam, is inherently dynamic. By insisting on islam as a label, we limit the rearticulative space possible and present our persons as obstacles to the change necessary to better align our limited interpretations of the Qur’an with justice. A change in how islam (as identity) sees X becomes a change in my person. And if I resist change, as people do, islam has to then stay put so that I can stay whole.
As an example, if we allow “Muslim woman” to be interchangeable with “hijab-wearing,” where do the Muslims go who don’t wear it? (Separately, why are we so fixated on locating identity along women’s bodies?) If a religious scholar decides—as some have—to question the obligation of women to cover hair, how then to measure a woman’s islam, within and without Muslim communities? Positioning the hijab as equaling “Muslim woman” blocks necessary conversations amongst ourselves about the history of the hijab—questions of, for, and dictated by whom?—by manipulating these into attacks on islam per se.
This isn’t to say that self-critique is as simple as saying what needs to be said. There is a need to learn when and how and with whom to leverage certain talking points—shuffling loci of power—to maximize efficacy. Like how I weaponize the “woman” in my Muslimwomanhood when I want to criticize American Empire, how I put it away when I enter religious spaces—both physical and conversational. There are priorities that shift to make room for the battles I pick. Like how in wearing a hijab I simultaneously undermined and reinforced classical understandings of female sexuality and power, and how in working through the decision to no longer unilaterally cover my skin and hair I had to consider the access to minority status I would necessarily relinquish. How I had to seriously weigh, for years, what my “unveiling” would signal to all the White people with whom I grew up about Muslim women and agency and about islam. There are the layers I sorted through quietly because urgency isn’t ubiquitous, because stability takes precedence over justice. How the hijab can assert agency here and disrupt it elsewhere. How there are gaping differences between choice and obligation, how these have been muddled along women’s bodies. How my body isn’t mine alone. How it never will be.
Even here, I am uneasy talking about the issues I take with women’s rights in religion in the company of not-necessarily-stake-holding parties because the stakes are high, because “visibly Muslim”—whatever that means—women are in enough danger already. Because the difference between “this interpretation of the Qur’an is oppressive to women” and “the Qur’an is oppressive to women” is three words. Because the United States walled off words to justify its invasion of Afghanistan, then Iraq, to save Muslim women it then killed. Because I don’t need saving and White people have savior complexes.
It goes back to same set of questions: how do you move forward when you’re on the defensive, when you have to be calculated in your displays of vulnerability, too much to adequately lay yourself bare so that you can build yourself up, because you know someone is waiting to tear you down? This persistent sense of imminent trouble matters, partly because I allow it to, partly because dozens of people were killed in Christchurch and I can’t be sure my community is not next.
How then to move forward, in spite of and thanks to the weight of this layered existence? It starts, of course, with self. With raising language to consciousness. We throw around phrases like “reclaim the narrative.” To “re-claim” necessitates dispossession. Something like islam, like Arabness—who took those from us so that we’re now positioned to reclaim? And if that’s that, how does one go about reclaiming while on the defensive?
I am wondering what power is lost by using the word “reclaim,” and whether the recognition of self-disenfranchisement both shapes and obfuscates reality. Is there another word that doesn’t necessitate a transfer of ownership, that stably places agency in my hands? I am not re-claiming, re-storing, snatching away my ownership over my narrative—the story of me I tell myself—because it has belonged and will always belong to me. Otherwise, if I need to re-claim some aspect of me, where do I go during the period of dispossession? What I am most worried about is the time that is lost searching, that could be channeled elsewhere.
Our words build our approaches to the fights we fight and, more importantly, the ways we build and break our understandings of ourselves. It is impossible to forgo any aspect of oneself without handing it over, because abstractions don’t exist except as we allow them to. This isn’t to say that the structures in which we find ourselves don’t matter. They can and do shape us. And there are some structures in which we are stuck, and others in which we stick ourselves. I didn’t choose to be born in America, didn’t choose my motherland or my parents, and to a large extent my religion is mine because I was born into it. But since I’m here, and since I know it is impossible to “reclaim” anything while on the defensive, the best you can do from there is stay put. Since I know islam and Arabness aren’t things non-stake-holding parties get to define, I am working to get that little White man out of my brain so that I can begin to have conversations with myself in my own words about how I want to grow and what I want to learn about me.
And about my Dearborn community, about Palestine, about Malcolm X and Ali Shariati, about America’s hand in genocide in Yemen, about islam, about people and the ways they meaning-make and unravel. I need to get that little White man out of my brain so that I can learn the difference between speaking with and for. So that I can pick my battles wisely and fight the only way anyone can—offensively.