Alif, ba, ta, tha, jeem, ha…
As a child, I had mastered the Arabic alphabet before I even began learning my ABCs. I learned how to write my full name in Arabic before I learned to do my first in English. Growing up bilingual does not only mean that you speak two languages — it meant that I approached life with two different lenses, two different perspectives, two different outlooks, ultimately immersing myself in two different cultures at once.
My parents immigrated to the United States in 1995 after getting married to escape a war-torn homeland. Prior to that, each lived the entirety of their lives in an illegally occupied Palestine, my mother in East Jerusalem and my father in the West Bank city of Abu Dis. Lives of occupation, injustice, struggle and resistance were all they knew. But my parents were lucky to be given an opportunity to build a sustainable life for themselves and their kids, an opportunity countless other Palestinians are deprived of because of the occupation. Making the decision to immigrate was difficult, to say the least, but after having firsthand and constant experience battling the erasure of their identity in their day-to-day lives as Palestinians, my parents were instilled with a strong motivation to never allow that identity to die, even if they weren’t physically in Palestine. They acknowledged the fact that being Palestinian means unconditionally carrying and representing that identity with pride. Because of this, my four siblings and I were raised “very Palestinian-y,” despite being born and raised and having spent most of our lives in America. From the food we ate to the Arabic we spoke and the “norms” of our household dynamics, everything echoed Palestinian culture. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Furthermore, my siblings and I were raised among the 22 children of my father’s four brothers who immigrated around the same time my parents did. We were one huge family, all living in the same neighborhood as next-door neighbors, all having dinner together at least three days a week, all having our “cousin buddies” who were essentially the same-age kids in the family and all carrying the same Palestinian ideologies that our parents brought with them and instilled within us.
We all also went to the same school. It was this small, K-12, Ann Arbor charter school where I would end up spending the entirety of my pre-University of Michigan years. The population of my school was barely over 500 students, about 120 of them being the high school population and 35 being my graduating class. But much of what differentiated my school was 1) the fact that Arabic was taught as the second language and 2) how much of the student population carried similar identities (Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, second-generation immigrant). So I ultimately grew up in a bubble: At home, I was a practicing Palestinian Arab, and at school, the place where I spent the rest of my time, these ideas were only reiterated, echoed and practiced by my peers. While this dynamic seemed to present its struggles later down the road, it instilled in me a unique value of community from a very young age. It taught me that those who carried my intersecting identities were my support system as we all found common ground in the love for who we are and the same struggle. And beyond it all, learning Arabic every day reminded me of this and kept me grounded in my roots and in the language of those roots.
As I grew older and approached the final few years in the bubble-like environment that my school inevitably created for me, I began experiencing the disadvantages of being in such a secluded environment for such a long period of time. I realized that I had never been in situations where my ideas were truly challenged, or even in many situations where I wasn’t constantly surrounded by those who looked and thought like me, for that matter. I had an implicit understanding of the fact that my marginalized identities — being Arab, Muslim, Palestinian and a child of immigrants — were discriminated against, and carrying these identities meant battling a greater enemy, but it was an enemy that I wasn’t necessarily exposed to constantly. The homogeneous demographic at my school made it so that I was not directly exposed to this discrimination. This led me to undergo a great culture shock when I started my freshman year at the University. I was taken aback by the abrupt change in environment. For one, coming from a class of barely 35 kids to being in such a large academic setting was intimidating to say the least. But I started to become hypervigilant of things that I had never paid any attention to before. Upon joining a class (virtually of course), I would find myself scanning the names on my screen to see if I was the only Arab or “ethnic” student. As cameras would come on, I would scan for other hijab-wearing women like myself. I found myself feeling like I needed aspects of the environment that I left behind to feel comfortable with where I was now.
I felt more Arab than I ever had before in the face of the predominantly white university I attended, like I was the odd one out in a sea of people who were all the same. Comparing myself to other students of color that I knew only intensified this feeling. They felt a lot more westernized than me, from the ways that they described their family dynamics, having been similarly raised by ethnic parents but ones who were born in the U.S., to the way that they preferred salads over the tabeekh, home cooked meals that I was used to having regularly, and even the way they spoke with rigid Rs rather than rolled ones. I wasn’t sure if I had some sort of catching up to do. Thoughts of whether or not I was “too Arab” for the white society I was in plagued me, but conversely, the thought of ever forcing myself to assimilate made me sick to my stomach. I found myself constantly feeling like I had to fight a battle of balancing my Arab-ness and my American-ness to fit the environment I was in.
Confronted by the abrupt reality of my otherness, I had to remind myself that it is through my Arab identity that I find the most comfort. Thaqafa, culture; qoowa, strength; thiqa, confidence; and many more are all Arab values that were instilled in me from birth and reiterated through my bilingual upbringing. Speaking Arabic everyday reminded me of these values and the community that I associate them with. It forced me to find clarity in what felt like a world of chaos, and realize that it is these values that ultimately shape the lens that I approach my world with. My upbringing, my experiences, my language and my culture all contribute to what influences my values and outlook on life. They make me, me. Experiencing these hardships made me take a step back and reanalyze all of these facets to truly see the ways they play into the way I live my life.
Having just finished my first year in college, and being further on my path to claiming Michigan’s academic and social environment to be one that I feel as though I fully belong in, I can say that I have a newfound appreciation for these feelings. Being challenged and rediscovering the value of something that I have taken for granted allowed me to redevelop a sense of gratitude for my mother tongue, and I strive to carry this appreciation wherever I go. Bilingualism is not simply about speaking another language; rather, it entails immersing oneself in a completely different perspective on life, and I am a living testament to its unwavering weight, pull and influence.
MiC Columnist Reem Hassan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org