“My mother is American, my father is Palestinian and I was born and raised in Germany.”
Silence is often the first reaction, struggling for words, then, “that’s quite a mix.”
Yes, it is. As you might notice, I don’t give a direct answer to the question as to where I’m from. Truth is, for a long time, I didn’t know what I was, and I sometimes still don’t know. This question swirled around my head, round and round, taking up so much of my thoughts and brain capacity. Who am I? What am I? And most importantly, why do I feel the need to label myself? Most of my friends didn’t put that much effort into answering this identity question. They were born in Germany, their parents were German, and all the previous generations were German. Perhaps they had this one French Uncle or Lebanese Aunt. And then I had some friends whose parents were both Afghan, or Polish, or Kurdish, often offering them a religion if not a country that they identified with. But I didn’t grow up Muslim or Christian. Therefore I also didn’t find belonging in any belief either.
The world is becoming more cultural and intertwined and I fear cultural acceptance and respect is not moving fast enough. But I also believe it starts with you embracing, accepting and respecting your own heritage, not trying to squish yourself into a cultural template.
My mother is one of the most genuine people I know. When I was little I often misunderstood her ‘I don’t care and I’m going to have fun’ mentality for awkwardness and felt embarrassed for her occasionally. Over time I have come to appreciate how approachable and human that makes her.
My family would often go to the US and I would be startled about the openness everyone approached each other with. I remember going to a playground with my mother and her immediately engaging in a conversation with a woman sitting next to her on the bench. I can’t speak about all of the US, but the Midwest is extremely friendly. I was fortunate enough to do a semester abroad in a high school in Wisconsin. I was surrounded by all these creative people, artists, fashion designers, musicians, actors. It was incredible! I was such a shy person but I always marvelled at the individuality that classmates at my school seemed to present so effortlessly. Coloured hair, weird humour, geeky games and we didn’t judge (at least in my group of friends we didn’t). I felt like I understood how my mother could be herself so effortlessly and I started to embrace myself. This was the very first step to finding my identity; feeling accepted whatever I decided to wear (and believe me, looking back, I looked hideous in some outfits) or what hair colour I had. Most importantly I found ideals I am passionate about. I learned to stand behind them, and to confidently voice my opinion. I am whoever I want to be and I better show it for all the world to see. I am aware that the USA is not the land of dreams anymore, but it certainly still has its charm.
My life did not revolve around partying and girly get togethers as it sometimes seemed to be for my German friends. I never even really celebrated our fifth season ‘Karneval’ properly until I turned 22. Instead I filled my days with sports, music, acting and academics. But growing up in Germany nevertheless influenced me. German schools value independency. When encountering a problem, your teachers often refer us to alternative sources: “I’m not telling you what to do. Do some research!" And that is what we did. We became independent problem-solvers. This branches out into all parts of life. Moving out early, carrying your groceries, paying for your driver’s license yourself. And it comes with a straight forwardness. When my German friends say they will help you move tomorrow at 9am, they will be there tomorrow at 9am. And if they don’t like the way they are being treated, they won’t beat around the bush but let you know. This probably is where I got my appreciation for honesty and getting to the point. It just gets things done a lot quicker.
Germany has a culture of travelling and I am thankful for my parents to make that possible for me as well. After the school’s summer break the question always is ‘What did you do? Where did you go?’ I think I can consider myself lucky that I got the chance to tap into that culture of travelling and develop it further for myself.
Being Arabic does not mean Islam. I find it funny how when I mention America or Germany people often just seem excited or interested. Then I mention Palestine or being Arabic and I can see their brain work, wondering if this next question is inappropriate: “So, are you Muslim, then?” I don’t find this question offensive per se. It rather shows how segregated all the countries people refer to ‘Arabic Countries’ (and I was recently told it is a lot more complicated than that, the ‘Arabs’ historically being people from the Gulf States, but I won’t go into that here) are from the rest of the world. I believe we aren’t fully accepted as humans as long as the first association is religion. But enough of that...
For a while the only ties I had to my Palestinian side were my father, a small family in the north of Germany that I would see once a year and the constant sound of Al Jazeera in our living room. I didn’t connect to this side of my heritage because I had difficulties seeing similarities to me – or any traits that I wanted to accept as my own. But take away all the stereotypes of strict families, the oppressed personality and the planned out life (becoming a doctor, engineer, lawyer, marrying and having kids and living in the house next door…) and you can see the warmth of the community, the caring love between family members. When I was 11 years old, my cousin came to Germany from Gaza to go to university and live with us. None of my immediate family really knew him but my father took him in as one of his own (because in a sense, he is) and willingly paid for his education, his rent, his food. This is the treatment that I also get from any of my father’s family or good friends, even if I don’t know them. We should, after all, take care of family and the people we care about.
Years ago my cousin called from Australia. I had never heard from or of him. I was the one answering the phone. Even though he wanted to speak to my father, he engaged me in a conversation and before I knew it, he invited me to Australia and joked about telling my father off for not introducing us earlier. I feel good being a part of this community, and this community being part of me. The temperament and energy, caring and loving nature keeps my life: loud, lively and interesting.
Nowadays a conversation often goes like this:
“I’m from Germany.”
“Your English is pretty good!”
“I’m also American.” I then say with a smile.
“Your name sounds Arabic.”
“It is. I’m also Palestinian.”
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