I was born in Damascus, Syria and spent 10 years of my childhood there. The 10 years were before my consciousness really ripened, so all that’s left are dream-like fragments in my psyche. My tongue was the first to assimilate and I was eager to forget my heritage. This repression was a means of social survival, an escape from being otherized and alienated from my classmates. Now that I’m about to enter my 20s, however, I’ve realized that this amnesia resulted in a fractured sense of identity.
The diaspora knows this. They’re all too familiar with the cliches: teachers butchering our names and cruel comments about how our food is smelly – we’ve heard it in the superfluous diasporic poetry which often exploits the literary concept of identity. I mean, there’s still truth to these experiences, it’s just that they always feel so hopeless and somewhat dramatic. That’s not their fault — no one can live in two cultures simultaneously.
The Arab diaspora experience this confusion in an especially disorientating way; for a lot of us, our families didn’t come to the United States for a job or for economic opportunities. Instead, we were fleeing war in our homeland, so our immigration here was unexpected and sudden. With this chaos and lack of calculation, our stories and lineage are convoluted: What are we supposed to even preserve?
Arab Community at the University of Michigan
While the cultural clarity was certainly ruptured, scattered relics remain. I’ve gathered with my Arab friends to watch the World Cup in the Edward Said Lounge while eating fatayer. I’ve attended Xpressions, a cultural night held by the Arab Student Association in which dabkes, poetry, art and comedy are showcased to represent the Arab student experience. Most relevantly (to the “Arab U-M experience”), I’ve spent hours in the “Idea Hub” studying with my peers and, inevitably, a conversation relating to identity would arise. In all of this, I’ve noticed some interesting phenomena — for example, why does someone born and raised in Dearborn adopt an Arabic accent despite not even speaking Arabic? Or why does a fourth-generation immigrant have Quran scriptures tattooed on him despite not having read the Quran?
It has become increasingly evident that the Arab diaspora identity isn’t even two-fold; it is simply confused and blurred between two distinct realities. Through these cultural ripples, I’ve seen that for some, religion was the catalyst to the solidification of their identity and for others, it was politics and current-day events. Nonetheless, it all stood in relation to the American sphere of life. When children grow up and indulge in American life, culture is cornered behind closed doors, where it’s generationally diluted.
Arab organizations preserve this delirious mass mindedness. The Syrian diaspora comes together to celebrate Syrian Independence Day in an East Quad classroom while eating catering from Jerusalem Garden. We pull up a YouTube tutorial video for Syrian dance and follow along. However, for many first-generation Syrians, it’s not the culture being celebrated, but some plastic shell of an aesthetic in decline. To them, the Syrian diaspora has been Westernized and perverted by the American gaze that simply consumes the identity. This corruption of cultural capital means that they can only look at their culture through a lens, constantly mimicking another reality. A culture that’s simply “preserved” is no longer a culture, but a spectacle, a museum to “wow!” at.
The first-generation Syrians are even astonished by the diasporic efforts to gatekeep the culture despite being so physically (and psychically) distant from it. Coping mechanisms are then masked in these identity politics. “I’m Syrian” gives an unfounded authority when it comes to any Syria-related topic, despite our shallow understanding of it all. This performative sense of reclaiming some lost identity results in detrimental blindspots: If a conceptual racial distinction is to be taken as some proper totality, who defines it? What are its parameters?
Crisis in the Union
When a crisis ensued in the U-M Arab community earlier this year, an angsty town hall was held. During this town hall, general truisms and banal platitudes dominated the conversation: “I feel like we have to come together as a community. We share a similar past and we have to, like, hold it close and dear … ” and so on for an hour. Disagreements over which Syrian flag should be flown came down to emotional contretemps hyper-fixated on accusations and gaslighting. That’s because they’re not arguing about the Syrian flag; they’re retaliating on behalf of their parents, their family and what was passed down to them as a part of their identity. How can we talk about the details when our ego is entangled in handed-down factionalism?
When one of them stands up to say that “Bashar al-Assad is a bloodthirsty dictator and you’re not Syrian if you support him,” he poses an infringement on the identity. The temperamental discharge was symptomatic of some serious ideological hemorrhaging. “Well, the opposition also massacred civilians…” — I played into an excited character as well, and my anger manifested into accusative words. Prioritizing a common denominator that unites us is somewhat difficult if we constantly seek division whenever we come together as a community. We leave with an intense feeling of loathing and resentment for our peers instead of finding solace in their presence.
In hopes of defining the identity, the diasporic communities erroneously limit it. For instance, why don’t Queer Arabs come to ASA events? Why do they feel excluded? Maybe it’s because they see all too clearly that there’s chosen ignorance when it comes to intersectionality in the Arab diaspora collectives. In setting reactionary boundaries that cherry-pick homophobic, misogynistic or simply bigoted views from abroad, the Arab diaspora hinders the natural proliferation of a new, circumstantial culture that mirrors their reality. There can be a healthy blend of American and Arab cultures, rather than some tense micro-world that’s stuck and frozen in time. Perhaps, we just value the most outdated and rigid orthodox elements of our culture because perfunctorily polarizing our social complex is the easiest way to distinguish it from the American way of life.
Moreover, when Arab students come together to talk about belonging and organization, there needs to be a fleshed-out humanity that unites us, not repetitive and unproductive rhetoric pushed from overseas. On one hand, you have the hyper-religious groups that backpedal on their “Arab-ness” in favor of religious fanaticism, and on the other, you have people pretentiously throwing around broad buzzwords like “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism.” An unread copy of the Quran or an unread copy of “Orientalism”; what’s on your bookshelf?
The turn-it-around-in-one-generation majored in STEM fields, meaning we’re under-equipped with terminology when it comes to sociological questions. We’re essentially doomed to repeat the same things our parents told us despite our lack of their phenomenal reality; all we have are broken stories. We simply love our parents and desire continuance in some capacity, so we condense our heritage in an idealistic and romantic manner. And so you can guess how the town hall went: We sat in a ballroom in the Union spewing our dogmatic, hyper-sectarian beliefs at each other.
It puzzles me to see the Arab diaspora wearing a Zulfiqar sword necklace or hanging up the Syrian flag. I mean, I get it (as I’m writing this, I’m chewing on my Syrian flag necklace). The diaspora has to put in the effort to connect with their heritage, since it’s not so environmentally obvious. It’s a psychological complex — it’s never the new Syrian immigrants that put their name in Arabic in their bio alongside their name in English; no, this duality is constricted to those who are most afraid of losing their identity. The insecurity projects into various externalizations — but what’s funny is that these attempts fail to rigidly fix the identity because the moment it needs to be externalized is the same moment we realize we’ve lost it in some way or another.
And while I hate the call-to-action part of any column, I do want to say that we have to do more than mere cultural preservation. In order to grasp our identity, we must be responsible for learning the language and understanding the political implications of being Arab. Some may retaliate and say that politics only divides us and we must stick together. To that, I’d say that our very existence in this country is politicized. We can’t go on living as a “collective” with so many internal contradictions; we’re only scared of division because our manifestos are so rigid and we speak in generalizations.
Arabs foster a generational trauma originating abroad and the diaspora hit the reset button. It doesn’t make sense when we host “cultural nights” decoupled from the larger geopolitical apparatus; but I guess we don’t know any better. We mechanically laugh at the obsessive doctor-status skits presented in front of us every year at the Power Center, “but never mention politics!” And if we do, we make sure it’s self-contained; a hazy poem about an olive branch. Clap and wait for it next year.
We’ve become distracted by an American way of life to the point where even our habits don’t exist in either culture, but as a byproduct of cognitive dissonance. We exist in this strange limbo buffered away from two cohesive lifestyles. Maybe it’s that we’re reborn here, and this cultural dizziness is only a symptom of American “freedom.” Still, it feels like a betrayal. It upsets me to see the neoliberal metastasis into our culture, all too evident in the Middle East Studies programs; I hate when a white person explains to an Arab peer the legacy of Mahmoud Darwish. And I really hate when an incoming student asks the inevitable question: “Why are there two Syrian organizations?”
From shame to pride, it’s funny how our view on identity evolved from social suppression in primary and secondary schools to “celebrations” on liberal campuses where diversity is commodified. We say “I’m Syrian” only as a performative counter to the white narrative, as a mere decoration of exoticism. We’ve really reduced identity to an adjective and a MENA checkbox.
To understand my frustration, conceptualize this: The very same religious/ethnic divide that severed the country and inflamed the civil war in Syria is maintained and polished here. You see it at the overpriced Lebanese restaurants, where the Syrian Alawai diaspora conglomerate under a pseudo-identity. The children of the diaspora don’t even understand the implications of the Alawi identity, yet it’s persistently bequeathed by the parents. All they get are fabricated myths that perpetuate meaningless ideological dissension.
At such gatherings, only Syrian Alawites are invited. What’s being celebrated? No one really knows. But Sunnis can’t come and neither can Christians or Druze or any other Syrian religious minority. When you look around at these gatherings, there’s nothing particularly “Alawi” about it; behaviorally speaking, it just looks like an ordinary group of Syrians. It’s all posed on revisionist fables that ingrain prejudices into the children. “Sunnis slaughtered Alawis in Idlib” — are they doing that here? You see, the identity only exists in relation to the religious majority. If our journey to the United States has any positive outcomes, let it be that we leave tribalism overseas.
And although these gatherings are apolitical, political implications are sewn into them. When we surgically dissect the identity to find “Alawi Syrian,” we reintroduce the same trauma that our parents and grandparents endured. This flimsy attempt at outlining the identity is dangerous because it regurgitates separatism. That’s why the Syrian immigrants are astonished when they come to the United States and observe these traditionalist values are held onto more tightly here than back home.
Outcasts from Damascus
And it’s not simply that the Syrian diaspora and newly immigrated Syrians “disagree” on the identity. It’s more cynical. I recall encountering this “split” of Syrian identity when we first immigrated here. Assimilated families took pride in their American-ness before my parents. This was exacerbated by material differences and social standing. My family couldn’t make sense of these expensive dinners and big banquet halls all to maintain a dying culture in this foreign land. “Their invitation was backhanded,” my father told me one night as we drove home from an obnoxiously extravagant party that had Syrian flags hung all around. Keep in mind, we had just immigrated from a country where 9 out of 10 citizens live under the international poverty line.
It’s an empty patriotism, completely decontextualized from Syrian life. Going to Syria was a fun trip for the rich diaspora; a vacation, where the dollar smoothed over any reality of what it’s actually like to live in Syria. Perhaps these families internalized a resentment towards the immigrants trying to make it here. Perhaps not. But that’s all to say that since moving here, my parents spend their evenings alone despite the large Syrian population in Michigan, and I just write bitter pieces about it.
MiC contributor Ammar Ahmad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.