Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Belonging

Samer posted the other day about an email we received from a good friend we've known for years. She's one of my great friends, and Samer and I both spent a lot of time with her each time she would come through Amman. She writes, as you can see on Samer's blog, about identity and how the recent bombings have highlighted her dilemma of where she fits in as the wife of an Arab and someone who has spent a good chunk of her life in the Arab World.

Can I ever relate. Since everything happened last Wednesday, not only have I yearned to be back in Amman but I also feel like I know every nuance of how people are taking it back there, what they're talking about, how they're feeling. I guess part of why I feel a bit adrift is because Amman, in many ways, is where I feel at home and "comfortable" with the general manner in which everything gets parsed publicly--at dinner tables, in everyday conversation, continually and non-stop. It's definitely different from here in Seattle, where people seem to be genuinely concerned to make sure no one I know, or from our family, was hurt but then quickly ready to move on and avoid revealing just how much they don't understand about how things work over there in the Middle East.

But the irony is that for as much as I feel at home there, Jordan is not my home. And while living there, I never forgot it. It's not that I didn't want to forget it--blending in was my one true aspiration--but rather that I was always reminded of how I was an outsider.

I often joke when people ask me why we moved to America that one of the big reasons was that I was dying to be anonymous. Honestly, probably every day during the 7 years that I was in Jordan, I was asked where I was from. Usually, it was in the context of people remarking on my Arabic and asking me how I spoke it so well--all in the name of being friendly and truly interested in who I was. For me, though, day after day, it became yet another reminder that I was different--not one of them, but someone who was doing a good job at approximating it.

At probably every dinner table that I sat with a group of older Jordanians, when talk turned to politics, and the U.S.--as it inevitably ALWAYS does--there was always a look my way, or a barely perceptible smirk in my direction. I always picked up on it, and while most of the time my political views were in accord with everyone at the table, I couldn't help but feel like, yet again, there was something I was missing in my ongoing quest to fit in.

In many ways, trying to be like everyone else--and not be seen primarily as a representative from the country I was born in--is psychologically tiring. I feel completely loved and accepted by Samer's parents and have a wonderful communtiy of friends in Amman. However, the bigger chore of making a life in another country and coming to terms with the fact that no matter if I spend the rest of my days in Jordan I will be considered an outsider of sorts--an American first and foremost--is a much more difficult task. Perhaps that's why I enjoy the freedom of anonymity here. I don't have to give a backstory to anyone, and I can generally go about my business without alerting anyone to just how much of an outsider I am. Because I certainly don't feel like everyone else here in the U.S., either.

But that's a whole other story. What I'm finding really ironic, though, is just how much more people in the Arab community here identify me as one of them in some way. That's something I never, ever felt back in Amman, and I have to say I'm happily surprised. Part of the reason for this is because I'm a new transplant (along with my family) from Jordan, and many in the community have been here for years and don't have as fresh a link to life back in the Middle East. The fact that I speak Arabic--and speak it with my son--perhaps is a factor as well. There are a number of Arab-Americans I've met here who are my age and don't speak Arabic. And I don't mean to imply that I'm thought of as being Arab, but just that I'm accepted for who I am. I don't have to feel shy and awkward speaking Arabic with my family (which is pretty weird to do back in Amman) and I can talk politics with the best of them without a smirk in sight.

It's enjoyable, for now, but I have a niggling feeling we'll eventually find ourselves back in Amman at some point. Maybe by that time I'll have a different view on how I fit in there--and how much it matters to me--but in the meantime, it's kind of nice being anonymous.

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