Walk into my kitchen during breakfast time and you’ll smell eggs frying in butter imported from Ireland. You’ll hear sliced whole wheat pop out of my toaster. Before ever noticing that your host is Iraqi American, you’ll polish off a banana and scoop the yolk with your last bit of toast. I guess it depends on which meal you come for.
In the evening, the warm smells of cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice permeate the kitchen. Fresh herbs are piled high like salad, and fragrant rice steams in a pot on the stove. Spiced meats are stewed until they fall apart. Now that toaster warms pita bread. This time it is clear that your host is not “white,” despite the definition of the U.S. Census Bureau.
My body, like my kitchen, houses all the flavors and traditions of my heritage but has its foundation rooted in the diverse American landscape. But unlike the concrete list of ingredients required for supper, I am not so easily defined. How can I be? I am a woman of color created by two disparate cultures: one that I occupy and one that I borrow from.
Racially, I consider myself to be “other.” Though on the surface I may pass as white, I don’t receive the full extent of white privileges offered to European Americans. My ethnicity is even more complex in that I do not identify as Arab American. My ancestors were Mandaean, indigenous to Mesopotamia thousands of years before the Arabs invaded. To this day, many speak Aramaic and practice ancient Gnostic traditions.
Therefore I define myself as Iraqi American. I am a classic example of a “1.5 generation”: I carry my Mandaean-Iraqi ancestry in my genes, but America is the only home I know and love. My story is merely one of a thousand and one different variations dependent upon a person’s language(s), religion, geographical origins, diaspora, etc.
Yet if the Middle East is so incredibly diverse and complex, why are the women from this region so deeply misunderstand in the United States?
It’s tempting to boil the answer down to one or two reasons. But there are as many answers as there are grains of jasmine rice in the pot I’ll prepare for dinner tonight. Each Middle Eastern woman has her own set of experiences to draw upon. Here are ten assumptions people make about me as an Iraqi American woman:
1) The Unelected Yet Official Representative
Some people assume based solely on my ethnicity that I hold an expert opinion on all things Iraqi. For example, during the Iraq War, people insisted that I answer “if I thought it was right to invade.” This question was never asked of my white friends standing nearby. So I’d say that I’m a pacifist and don’t believe in war.
2) Being Called “Exotic”
This almost sounds like a compliment—but it isn’t. Exo- comes from the Greek word “outside,” and exotic means “different” or “strange.” I would have preferred being called “strange,” since that doesn’t denote a mysterious sexual life that flies in the face of puritanical beliefs. This is a perfect example of how race and gender intersect. Just because I have roots in a foreign land doesn’t mean my sexual morals are automatically suspect.
3) The Color of My Skin
Some white people like to tell me that I am “olive”-skinned. I have also been told that I’m “yellow” or that I have a “tan.” I burn easily. Is that still considered a tan? It seems to be a practice on the part of some white folks to differentiate themselves—as much as possible—from the puzzlingly light-skinned yet very ethnic Middle Easterners. Stop fretting over which shade of white I’m not, and start thinking about why that’s racist.
4) My Name Is Recognizably “Other”
“Oh, that’s a pretty name. Where is it from?” This is the “polite” person’s way of finding out where my ancestors roamed. I circumvent their plans by saying it’s an English, Hebrew, and Russian name (which it is). If that isn’t enough to throw them off, they keep at it, working their way to my very least favorite question of all.
5) Being Asked “Where I’m From-From”
Asking me where I’m from sounds innocuous, but the question almost always assumes I am from a foreign place. How do I know this? When I answer that I’m from “the Bay Area,” the response is usually, “No, where are you from-from, like, what is your heritage?” From-from? As far as I’m concerned, I understood what that was really referring to. However, all anyone needs to know is that my ancestors, may they rest in peace, are safe from this ridiculous line of questioning.
6) The Terrorist Trope
You’d think people would take comfort in my fairly pale face and unbroken English, but guess again. Almost without exception, after I utter the word Iraqi, the listener’s eyebrows do one of two things: they either rise into the shape of surprise, or they furrow in a look of confusion or doubt. Doubting what, my nationality? Perhaps, but either way, they cannot hide their body language, even if their lips never part to mention how strange it is to stand in the presence of a possible you-know-what.
7) I Must Be a Victim
If it sounds absurd that someone as whitewashed as I am could be considered the enemy, it may be more apt to frame me as a “victim.” I must have been a victim of terror, poverty, or war for the six months I lived in (wealthy) Kuwait after my birth. Not really. But I did grow up here in the United States, where I am a victim of sexism and racism in a country that promises “liberty and justice for all.”
8) We’re “All the Same”
Middle Eastern characters on film and television wear Hindu turbans and ride Arabian camels through the only terrain ever represented—the desert. Iraq sounds a lot like Iran; therefore, we must all be the same. That’s another way of saying I don’t matter. Clearly, we need more women of color writing for Hollywood.
9) Sand N****rs and Camel Riders
Um, my parents grew up in Baghdad, which is like the New York City of Iraq. And even if they had grown up in a small town, it wouldn’t mean they rode camels. Maybe bicycles or cars. Nor are there sand dunes in lieu of sidewalks and paved streets. This is stereotyping at its finest.
10) We’re All Muslim
People, all people, automatically assume I am Muslim when they hear I am Iraqi. This is like assuming all white people are Protestant. Iraq is/was the most diverse country in the Middle East. Once again, we’re not “all the same” even though the media will have you thinking otherwise.
For the longest time, I didn’t speak Arabic or cook Iraqi food, and I even went as far as pretending that I couldn’t. I felt the pressure to assimilate, to disassociate myself as much as possible from that country and all its traditions, recipes, features, and people. But mostly, I felt ashamed to be part of a culture so grossly misrepresented.
This was before I realized that I was acting out of shame. Perhaps it is the experience of shame that unites all of us Americans whose ancestors originate between Israel and Afghanistan. We may or may not agree with the labels of “white” or “Arab,” but most of us can agree that we have experienced some level of indignity for being Middle Eastern in America.
No wonder. It is easy to feel shame when we are constantly compared to those few bad eggs who get all the press. It just means we have to work that much harder to define for ourselves who we really are.