Seven Life Lessons for the Arab-American

by Yousef Allouzi

Lesson 1:  Over the course of your life, one of the first things people you meet will ask is, “Where are you from?” You will say Texas, even though what they really want to know is why you are brown. If you can help it, do not answer directly. Sit with the discomfort. Wait for the follow up question, which will be something awkward like, “No, I mean, what is your heritage?” Respond, “American.”

Breathe slowly and wait. If you are lucky, the conversation is over, but there will be times when people persist. “I mean, where is your family from?” Getting angry will play right into stereotypes, so just say the Middle East and politely excuse yourself. Do not try to explain how you come from a broken home, how you didn’t meet your biological father until you were 28, how you were given an adopted name as a child, or how you lived your adolescence in a shed with your brother. No matter how good you think you are at explaining your story and ethnicity, where the country of Jordan is located geographically, or how you struggle to balance two cultures, these questions are not about who you are. They are meant to remind you of your place.


Lesson 2.  Learn to laugh at all the jokes. Even the ones about you being a terrorist. I know it hurts, but keeping that bottled up allows it to turn into poison. So, laugh when they ask if you mark “other” for your race on forms at school. Laugh when they say the Middle East, where thousands of members of your family live, should be bombed into oblivion. Laugh when you read work emails that suggest you fuck goats. Laugh at the woman who called your partner an “Osama lover.” And most importantly, laugh when you hear them call you a “sandnigger.”


Lesson 3.  The mailperson might ask what you think about the border crisis. Understand how difficult this is for them. Ease their nerves about delivering mail to your house by reassuring that you believe in following the law. Introduce them to your partner, who has recently immigrated to the United States to be with you. “That must be nice,” they will say. Don’t explain that your partner is struggling with culture shock or that they miss their family dearly.

You’ll probably feel pretty good about how you’ve handled this conversation, but the questions will not stop. “Did you have to do a background check?” They continue. “Did you come in through Mexico? How close to Afghanistan is Jordan?” You will be flustered, and your partner will be terrified. You don’t want to risk an anonymous call to Homeland Security, so you smile as you fight back tears.


Lesson 4.  And there will be tears. Lots and lots of tears. It’s okay. Let them come. You are human and humans cry. You are neither less than nor weak. You will see the deportation raids on TV across the country and be unable to sleep. You will jump when someone knocks on the door. You will hold your breath when your cell phone rings. Find the time to close the blinds and hold your partner as you cry. Cry for the situation, cry out of fear of deportation, cry because you don’t have any answers. You may try to reassure your partner, but inside you are questioning yourself. “I’m a citizen too,” you will say.


Lesson 5.  Make sure you have lots of money for a good immigration attorney. Even if you have less than $20 in your account for multiple months, you need representation. You will learn to eat ramen noodles and chicken pot pies. You need an attorney to accompany you to your immigration interview and help you organize the joint bills, photographs, and lengthy paperwork required for a green card. During the interview, you will be asked if you’ve ever been a prostitute or a member of the Communist party. They may split you up from your partner and ask how your house is designed, what does the bathroom look like, how often you sleep in the same bed. You’ll fondly recount the Friday night dates to the donut shop. Change bulging from your pocket.


Lesson 6.  Answer all of Homeland Security’s questions. They may visit you from time to time, asking you to recount your visits to your family in Jordan. Do not speak Arabic on planes or discuss politics in public. You are right to fear that someone might report you as suspicious if they hear you. You will weigh the repercussions of going to the mosque because you don’t want to end up on the No Fly list. You will be told you need to assimilate, and you will be afraid to reach out for services you need. You will feel anxious, depressed, and unwelcome, and you will not go to therapy for fear of it being used against your family in a deportation case.


Lesson 7.  You will consider giving up. And honestly, I don’t blame you. But every time I think about quitting, I am reminded of the thousands of people who have perished on inflatable rafts, in sealed containers, and alone in deserts. They urge us to remain. They remind us that we are not alone. That we are the legacy of immigrant parents, first generation college graduates, and small minority communities. We are the living aide-mémoire. The return on the great cost paid by thousands of would-be immigrants, striving for a chance at life, liberty, and happiness. So long as we are here, so are they.

Yousef Allouzi is an author and data analyst who currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a BS in Economics from Oregon State University and a Master of Public Policy from the same institution. His previous writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Scintilla Magazine, openDemocracy, Atticus Review, Malarkey Books, Peculiars Magazine, and Blue Cactus Press. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter @j_allouzi where he discusses literature, politics, economics, and sports.

Artwork by: Daniel Iván