Half ‘Asian’/ Half ‘Arab’: Reckoning with my Arab-Muslimness
Content Note: The following essay covers or refers to themes of ethnocentrism, colorism, anti-blackness, internalized whiteness, islamophobia, commodification of casualty, police brutality, sexual violence, and death. Exercising self-care is advised.
“Assalamualaikum,” Baba said as he rolled down his car window. We were driving in our neighbourhood by 700 Horizon Drive when I pointed out the Black boy walking with his mom pushing his little sister on a stroller.
“That’s Faris, he goes to my school,” I said as we saw them walking on the sidewalk.
“I think they’re Sudanese,” Baba said as he stopped the car to speak to his mom.
Baba offered the Black Hijabi woman a ride. Upon preliminary introductions, it was clear Baba was right and they continued their conversation in Arabic. Amtu Nadia entered the car with Faris and his little sister Sabrine.
From that day, we became family.
700 Horizon Drive was my first home here in Canada. We lived on the eighth floor and Faris’s family lived on the second. As kids, Faris, Sabrine, Hasan and I raced in the apartment hallways and visited each other daily. Faris and Hasan played Need for Speed and I’d sit back and help them design cars. I didn’t have a fascination for video games.
Faris gifted me an introduction to the tradition of hip hop. We listened to music together and blasted our hits on the speakers when our parents were running errands. I distinctly remember leaving a voicemail on his answering machine when Late Registration won Best Rap Album of the year.
The scent of burning bukhur in their apartment coats my childhood memories.
I didn’t grow up with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins in Canada. Baba’s older brother was the only blood-relative we had but him and his wife didn’t put in the effort to treat my siblings and I like his niece and nephew. His white-passing Palestinian wife was racist towards my Malay mother.
Amtu Nadia was my only other maternal figure in Canada.
Sixth grade was particularly sad when Faris and the family moved back to Sudan.
Arab supremacy is pervasive in Muslim communities — in part because the Quran is in Arabic but also because of histories of (Arab) imperialism and the inter-relationship of global colonialism and colorism. In my experience living in the West, Muslimness is generally gate-kept by Arab and South Asian Muslims. I’ll leave it to my South Asian Muslim siblings to unpack their Arab race relations but my observations led me to conclude the hierarchy boiled down to colorism as I rarely remembered African or Black Muslims represented in institutional Muslim leadership.
The social exclusion I experienced due to colorism made it difficult for me to identify as Arab. Despite having more surahs memorized than Baba, I didn’t speak Arabic and didn’t visibly pass as Arab. My anxiety would always heighten when Arabs asked me “What are you?” because I knew the moment I revealed Baba is Palestinian it would invite comments and questions I was sick of answering.
Baba’s Arab customers were short and rude to me when they didn’t know I was his daughter. The moment he introduced me, I intuitively counted the seconds that led them to change their behaviours.
3, 2, 1
Their eyes glimmered. Their voices softened.
It was easier for me to identify as Malay than Arab so at times I’d conceal Baba’s identity to avoid the back-and-forth at social settings.
“Oh! That’s an insert the following adjectives [hot, interesting, unique, exotic] mix,” said Arab youth.
The treatment I received from Malays in Malaysia was: You’re one of us but happen to have Arab blood. Usually followed by “that’s why you’re pretty,” — which continues to make me feel uncomfortable to this day.
That said, I recognize being half Arab is a desirable mix for Malays given the context of Muslimness. Colorism is pervasive in Malayness as well and for that reason I cannot speak to the experience of my mixed race Malay and Black siblings.
When I tried to unpack my existential dread with Baba, he’d say: “These people are close-minded”. Over time, I stopped trying to explain my feelings to him and refrained from considering myself Arab all together. In my mind, Baba was an exceptional Arab man but I saw Arabs as “them” and not “us”.
My beloved Sudanese siblings, Faris and Rowa, are my closest Muslim friends — their love and friendships ground my relationship to Muslimness.
In 2018, while managing Rowa’s municipal campaign, we got word an influential Arab Muslim man was sabotaging our efforts by telling members of the Muslim community that we, more specifically Rowa, ‘wasn’t really Muslim’ — whatever that means.
Fitnah (slander) is a sin — but sure, let’s play into the politics of respectability instead Ammo.
The foolish Arab Muslim man was more invested in acting on his anti-blackness than seeing the bigger picture — a young Black Muslim woman having the courage to run for office alongside a team of working class racialized young women below the age of 30.
The foolish Arab Muslim was more invested in acting on his internalized whiteness than to recognize we were exercising the courage to do something historic in the racist city of London, Ontario.
Alas, I’ll leave it to Allah to make the judgement calls.
While canvassing and distributing campaign literature, I visibly saw how Arab business owners exercised anti-blackness. They were rude and cold when our beloved Sudanese volunteers spoke to them in Arabic but instantly soften and smile when they encountered beloved Noor, a white-skinned Hijabi Syrian woman.
On a hot August day after canvassing, I checked my phone to see numerous missed calls from Faris. I called him back to get the news Amtu Nadia had passed away.
I immediately rushed to Baba’s store to break the news to our family. Faris was flying out of Alberta to Sudan and was transiting in Pearson along the way. After teaching my evening classes, Hasan drove Mak and I to Pearson to catch Faris on his transit.
Meeting Faris at the airport was our first time seeing him in years since he moved back to Canada. Our brief encounter is a memory I honour with tenderness.
“The only guarantee in life is death,” my Malay mother would always say.
What does it mean to be ‘Muslim’ anyways?
Well, to me it’s simple:
I am first and foremost an imperfect human living in communion with imperfect human beings, all us deserving of dignity. My imperfections co-exist in my humanhood — this philosophy is the heart of my Muslimness.
Humility in humanity.
The Oneness of God mirrored in the Oneness of humanity: unity, communion, community.
Surrendering perfectionism and embracing imperfection is the ‘worshiping’. I’m less interested in being ‘perfect’ and more interested in the pursuit of knowledge and making the most of my temporary life. Director Ky Nam, whose work I deeply admire, said: “being an artist is a spiritual pursuit” during his Reel Asian Film Festival interview of Greatest Country in the World (Le Meilleur Pays du Monde) which deeply resonated with me during a time of recovering from racialized misogyny and sexual violence. My artistic pursuit brought me closer to Islam than any Muslim institutional ‘leader’. My writing classes taught me contradictions are the heart of character development — the wrestling is the living.
My racially progressive parents taught me to lead by example.
Mak, the sociology scholar, made our house a living library.
Read (seek knowledge) Jibril (Gabriel) revealed to Prophet Muhammad.
My Malay Mother gifted me the love of learning. When reading my personal essays and love letters for my oral storytelling videos, I find myself in the same headspace as reciting Quranic verses. A tradition of rhythm, melody, and harmony.
My Palestinian Baba, my only male role model, taught me the strength of vulnerability. My kind-hearted father isn’t ashamed to shed tears or express softness.
“We are Palestinian. We don’t have a home but we have heart,” Baba said on our last visit to Gaza.
Baba keeps a tab for his some customers who’s cash comes from social assistance. Most pay off their tab when their checks come in. On occasion, Baba takes the hit for unpaid receipts. I once told him to stop having tabs and he responded: اعمل خير وارميه في البحر
Do good things and throw it in the sea.
“They’re struggling. They answer to Allah, not to me”.
Much like Khadijah, my mother married a man below her social stature but a man with a strong sense of character.
I learned more about being Muslim from Baba, who only has the 3 shortest surahs memorized, than any male Imam.
Upon sharing my Muslim parents’ wisdom, my beloved white Catholic school-raised friend, Laurel befriended a Muslim security guard at the hospital they both worked at. Laurel realized the Muslim man would make his Starbucks order around iftar time. One day, she asked him if it was because he was fasting. Upon his confirmation, she made sure to have his regular order ready for iftar to save him time.
Mashallah. Micro-intimacies make up the loving fabric of unity.
My 10 weeks of displacement was spiritually awakening. In my drowning state of survival, I channelled a Ramadan-like mental and emotional fortitude that brought me closest to my highest-self. I shed off layers of self-doubt. In the midst of hardship, I was met with many miracles. The circumstances were beyond my control and I had no other choice than to surrender and have unshakable faith that everything will be okay. Miracles gifted me the self-confidence to assure me I was on the right path: En effet, je suis une artiste.
During my 10 weeks of displacement, I was blessed to meet and receive an abundance of support from many beautiful souls, some of whom were folks I met for the first time.
In my peak precarity, I developed deep appreciation for the beauty all around me. Street art kept me company on my lonely walks. Kendrick’s Alright, Kanye’s Can’t Tell me Nothing and Pusha-T’s Daytona kept me company on my lonely train rides and days of defeat. Mak’s Malay classics grounded during my states of hyper-vigilance.
My beloved Syrian sister and Racialized Leaders Co-Founder, Noor, is an Arab Muslim woman who’s love and friendship has helped healed my Arab woman wounds.
In our early stages of conceptualizing LSRL, while the traumatic tragedy was still fresh, we had the displeasure of arranging a meeting with an Arab Muslim Woman with institutional power and access.
The Arab Muslim woman was condescending and infantilized my team members. She wasn’t warm or encouraging. Instead, she was invested in asserting her dominance over affirming our anguish and anger.
“They need to be encouraged…we should be grateful they’re trying,” she said in response to our frustrations about Hijabs for Harmony.
Every other Muslim woman we spoke to affirmed our frustrations with white feminists except her.
She was more gentle in her response about white feminism than our team’s efforts to actively respond to the racist ecosystem of London, Ontario — a manifestation of her internalized whiteness.
I made the mistake of giving her the run-down of our initiative and our ideas for a documentary. We emphasized the lack of institutional memory about Rowa’s campaign — a historic initiative that cultivated our team’s love and friendship. We spoke about how it was important to us to document our vision of transformational leadership. LSRL isn’t going to be forgotten as ‘a cute community project by cute little colored girls’. No. We are filling in a gap London leadership didn’t have the foresight to address beyond Hijabs for Harmony marches and neoliberal performative practices. We are rising to the occasion in the face of ineffective leadership.
Foolishly, I trusted the self-declared human rights advocate before asking around about her track-record.
“A documentary isn’t institutional memory,” she said condescendingly.
Once again, like the Arab Muslim Man who sabotaged our campaign, the Arab Muslim woman was short-sighted in her vision and wasn’t looking at the bigger picture — a team of young racialized, first generation immigrant Muslim daughters exercising the courage to write and create our own history to rise from a traumatic tragedy in our hometown.
The foolish Arab Muslim woman was more invested in semantics than saying Mashallah to recognize our courage and imagination.
As Freddy Mercury sings: BISMILLAH!
The Quran opens with: بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Compassionate.
So where is the rahma? Where is grace and compassion from our Muslim leadership? Or, do we reserve this grace for our apologetic attempts to appease whiteness?
Muslim gate-keepers operating on 480 pixel rate and shallow depth of field.
Noor followed up on her offer to show us sample project proposals. The capital L liberal didn’t deliver on any of her lipservice. Instead, the self-declared human rights advocate circled back with “follow our organization’s newsletter”.
The lesson learned from this experience was Muslim institutional ‘leadership’ wasn’t equipped to support our imaginative vision. Alhamdullilah, we cancelled a meeting with a South Asian Muslim man after hearing he had a record of exploiting women of color’s labour. Inshallah, we will continue to spot the snakes in the water and protect our energy and humanity.
I am, after all, the Executive Director of the London School of Racialized Leaders not the London School of Diversity Hires.
In Alhamdullilah, I left London, I wrote:
Hate crimes happen because there are entire institutions and cultural ecosystems at play that uphold and foster hateful beliefs.
Sure enough, we saw the impact of Bill C-21 with the wrongful resignation of Teacher Fatemeh for wearing a hijab. Subsequently, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published: “Don’t use an instrument of oppression as a symbol of diversity and inclusion” on December 23, 2021.
These events happened shortly after my beloved sister, Rowa, was brutalized by Hamilton police. My hyper-vigilance was once again triggered when I witnessed how Muslim-led institutions and ‘leaders’ rallied against the Quebec Hijab Ban and the CMAJ article but remained silent about state violence against my beloved friend.
The Muslim ‘leadership’s’ energy reinforced our collective anti-blackness. We’re still prioritizing ‘humanity’ by way of ‘representation’ over life and death — don’t get me wrong, a woman should not loose her livelihood for wearing a hijab nor should CMAJ be allowed to publish racist and islamophobic content, further perpetuating insidious orientalism and othering towards Hijabi Muslim Women.
What I am addressing is: My childhood friend almost lost her life at the hands of state violence.
Where is the urgency and attention to advocate on behalf of a Black Muslim Woman being brutalized by agents of the state, have her hijab ripped off, denied food and her insulin, and wrongfully charged for trying the breathe.
The self-declared human rights advocate was unsurprisingly silent about Rowa’s violation of human rights but was a spokesperson for the subsequent islamophobic events.
How many of us, Arab Muslims, were posting about George Floyd but quiet about this exact instance with the exception that she actually lived and was punished for exercising the necessary means to do so.
How many of us, Arab Muslims, circulated #GeorgeFloyd because it was the social expectation to do so?
Arab Muslims: Are we advocating for human dignity? Or, is our advocacy driven by our exclusion from accessing the white privilege VIP package?
The graphic images circulating of Rowa being brutalized triggered another state of hyper-vigilance.
In my state of hyper-vigilance, I began to reckon with my Arab Muslimness. In my anger, I actively re-claimed my Arab identity. I realized that I internally saw Arabs as “they” and deeply reflected on what it felt like to be on the receiving end of collective colorism and internalized whiteness.
In reconciling with my heartache charged by Muslim leadership’s absent advocacy for Black Muslim youth brutalized in Hamilton, I exercised responsibility by shifting my perspective from “them” to “us”. The very fact that I see my own people as ‘other’ is the consequence of collective colorism and internalized whiteness.
In the same way that responsibility falls on white people to investigate and challenge white supremacy; We, Arab Muslims, have a responsibility to investigate Arab supremacy and inter-racial (power) dynamics within Muslim communities.
We, Arab Muslims, have a collective responsibility to investigate and challenge our racist exclusions: colorism, anti-blackness, and internalized whiteness.
We are, after all, One Ummah, Non?