There are many different cultures all over the world that one can find represented in the United States. Upon a great deal of thought, the culture that was chosen for this assignment was Middle Easters, specifically an individual is Middle Eastern, as well as, Muslim. Although adults have distinct perceptions and memories, the interviewee for this project is thirteen. She was chosen deliberately due to her age, as she was born after the events of September 11, 2001 and can give insight to her daily existence, never having lived in a time where her culture and/or religion was not met with suspicion by others.
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In order to interview her, her mother had to give permission. Permission was given with one rule, the child’s real name could not be utilized. To honor the request of the mother, and due to the fact the interviewee is a minor child, she will be referred to as R. The interview was conducted with her mother present over facetime.
R was happy to give an interview and discuss her culture and religion. The first question she was asked to answer was: Do you feel that being Middle Eastern or Muslim has a positive or negative impact on your daily life with regards to how other treat you? R smiled at this question and replied: “I’m not the only Middle Eastern kid in my school, there are two others. We don’t advertise it to everyone. Sometimes, you can’t hide. Like, my last name for example is, like, really Arab. No one knows to look at me because I don’t look Middle Eastern, or so people say.” At this point the next question was What do you mean by, you don’t look Middle Eastern? R replied “Well, I don’t have black hair or tan skin. I have blonde hair and I’m fair skinned with green eyes. So when people see me they don’t think of me as anything other than a regular white girl with a weird name. It’s not until they hear my last name that they start to ask questions.”
The next question was What sort of questions do you get asked? R sighed and answered: “I get asked what part of the Middle East I’m from. I tell them I’m not from the Middle East, I was born here. I tell them my Dad was born in Jordan and came here when he was a little kid. I always point out that I’m not fully Middle Eastern, my Mom isn’t Arab. When I tell them I have an assortment of European countries on my Moms side they always want to talk about my Dad.” The follow up question was Why do you think they focus on your Dad when they ask you questions? R replied “Because he’s more interesting than my Mom. They all have European countries in their families’ backgrounds, me having a Dad from the Middle East makes him more interesting. As soon as they find out he’s actually FROM there, they always ask me if I can speak Arabic or if I can read Arabic. They’re always disappointed when I tell them I can only speak and read English.”
Religion was the next topic for discussion. R was asked Does your religion ever come up in conversation? R answered “Yes, and faster than you would think. I live in the Bible belt, so everyone always wants to know what church you go to. If they don’t ask that, they ask why you can’t eat pork at lunch or on a field trip. I don’t wear a hijab or anything, so you can’t tell I’m Muslim unless I tell you. The reactions are getting better the older I get, when I was a kid they were really mean.” This response led to the next question Could you elaborate on those responses you consider mean? R nodded “Well the first one I can remember I was in Kindergarten. I told one of my classmates I was Muslim and they told me that I was a dirty heathen that prayed to Satan and I would burn in hell. One time, a classmate brought her Bible to school and told me only Christian children could attend the school, then she hit me in the face with her Bible.” Logically, the follow-up question was How did that make you feel? R responded “It scared me when I was little. As I got older it just makes me sad when someone says that kind of stuff. The really bad part is when you tell a trusted adult at the school and nothing happens to the kids that are being mean.”
Moving on, the next question surrounded what she experiences due to the events of 9/11. Do you have any negative things happen to you when you learn about 9/11 every year? R replied “No, not really. Sometimes you get one smart aleck kid who decides to ask you why those people did what they did. I always answer the same, because they were bad people. Bad people are just bad people, it doesn’t matter what religion they are or what the color of their skin is, and every group of people has bad people in them. I don’t know why they did those bad things. I was born in 2006.”
Finally, the floor was R’s so she could express whatever she felt the interview needed to know. What would you like to say that hasn’t been asked? R replied “I know that I seem weird to others. Like, I don’t eat pork or that I have to wear a hijab to go to Masjid, but I’m just like other girls my age. I like the VSCO girl stuff, like scrunchies, Corgi’s and Hydroflasks. I watch YouTube and listen to Pandora. The only real difference between me and my friends at school is that I can’t wear clothes that aren’t modest and I can’t date. But I’m 13, and really, dating at 13 is just sitting together at lunch. People don’t need to be afraid of me, just because I like falafel or listen to some Arabic music with my Dad. It’s hard enough to see people on TV talk about us like we aren’t human, I mean I saw on the news one time where some politician guy was wanting us to register in a database. That’s crazy! But really, if you are scared of Middle Eastern people or Muslims, talk with someone who is one of those things. Honestly, they’ll just feed you because that’s a whole thing in Middle Eastern culture, they feed you to show their love. Like really, if you eat at Middle Eastern person’s house, go hungry.”
R continued “Also, don’t believe everything you read online. For real, like people believe lies or second hand information that is just wrong. I’m Muslim, and it is NOT a part of our belief that we have to kill Christians to get into Heaven, that is just a big lie. Also, and I get really tired of explaining this one, you are not infidels. In Islam, that word is used to describe idolaters and pagans. Christians and Jews are both referred to as People of the Book, and are to be treated with respect and as equals to Muslims. The lies that are out there just keep the hate going, and you can’t defeat hate without information. At least that’s what my Mom says. I’ll just keep correcting misinformation about my culture and my religion. Oh, before I forget, my Dad only has one wife and no he cannot trade me for two goats and a camel. I hate that joke.”
The interview was concluding at this point, to which this was stated Thank you very much R, for your time and your input on these topics. R stated: “You’re welcome, I’m glad I could help you. Keep in mind that everyone has issues that they have to deal with because people assume things about other people’s cultures and their religions. You might not want to ask because you may be afraid they’ll laugh at you or get mad that you asked, I promise, the majority of us will be happy to answer questions, as long as you don’t make any racist jokes. No Middle Eastern person wants to hear another Omar the tent maker joke, ok?” R smiled widely as the interview ended.
“As of 2016, there were about 3.3 million Muslim Americans living in the United States, comprising about 1 percent of the country’s total population, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center” (Wihbey, 2016). It is important to note that Muslim and Arab are not synonymous with one another. There are people from the Middle East that are Christian, Atheist, any variation of faith or non-faith, just as there are people of every ethnicity that could be Muslim as it is a religious belief not an ethnicity. As R stated in her interview, there were two other Middle Eastern children in her school, but she did not state there were two other Muslim students.
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“Arab Americans' classification within the United States' racial schema as White makes them invisible as a minority group” (Abuelezam, El-Sayed, & Galea, 2018). R’s mother shared this information, prior to the interview being conducted. When a person is born in the United States, one has to fill out a birth certificate for that child. One of the questions on the birth certificate is the ethnicity of the child. Under Caucasian, there is a list of different ethnicities that one could be that is considered Caucasian by the United States government, Middle Eastern is among those on said list. R is considered a minority by politicians and society, but is not considered one by the government.
“A new survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) reveals that 42 percent of Muslims with children in K–12 schools report bullying of their children because of their faith, compared with 23 percent of Jewish and 20 percent of Protestant parents” (Ochieng, 2017). This was confirmed by R in her interview. R’s mother also shared, outside of the interview, one specific memory that R was too young to remember. She stated: “When R was in Kindergarten, they had an awards day at the end of the year where every child was receiving an award. As each child’s name was called to receive their award, the families in the auditorium would erupt in applause for that child. When R’s name was called, I was the only one to applaud. It was a very upsetting experience, one that R, thankfully, does not remember”. R has been bullied because of her faith. The most concerning portion of her interview was when she shared that there were adults at the school who did nothing with regards to the children who bullied her.
It was also clear, from R’s interview, that she had interactions with people that made ‘jokes’ about her culture or her faith, that she did not seem to view as bullying, at least not in the interview. Many people would not have to explain to others that their fathers cannot sell them for livestock. That was absolutely astounding to learn. There are quite a few misconceptions still being perpetuated by children in Middle School, misconceptions that really should not exist as we enter 2020.
R has a good understanding of her culture and her faith, and can offer up age appropriate explanations of both. It is clear, however, by her interview that she feels at least slightly isolated due to the views others hold of her culture and her faith. For example, one may wonder if other children are asked personal questions resulting from their lunch choices. It also makes one wonder why, when cultures area discussed, the children from European descendants are not asked if they can speak/read Greek, French, Celtic, or German.
It appears as if being a Middle Eastern, Muslim, teenager has its own unique set of difficulties. R went out of her way to state she was just like her female peers, with the two exceptions she listed. That shows that she wants to be seen as ordinary. In addition, R wanted to make sure that people did not fear Muslims. Her adding that discussion into the interview shows that the fear others have of Muslims weighs on her.
Speaking with R, and having a chance to do some research on Middle Eastern culture as well as the Islamic faith shows that they are just like any other culture and faith. The culture has specific foods, music, art, and interpersonal customs, like any other culture. The Islamic faith also has similar guidelines to other faiths. For example, as a Muslim girl R cannot date, the faith puts a restriction on that, as well as, requiring her to wear modest clothing. Other faiths also require this, for example there are many sects of Christianity that do not permit dating and also require females of the faith to dress modestly.
The differences in cultures are interesting to learn about and understand. It also shows that similarities exist between cultures that one may assume are extremely different. One can learn everything about a culture through reading and study, however, making it personal and speaking with someone of that culture/faith really helps make things personal. When you put a face and a name with an idea, you no longer see aspects of that culture/faith as an abstract idea taken from the pages of a book or a journal article, you now hear the voice of that person explaining it to you, you see their smile as they speak, and you feel a connection with another human being.
- Abuelezam, N. N., El-Sayed, A. M., & Galea, S. (2018). The Health of Arab Americans in the United States: An Updated Comprehensive Literature Review. Frontiers in Public Health, 6:262.
- Ochieng, A. (2017, March 29). Muslim Schoolchildren Bullied By Fellow Students And Teachers. Retrieved from National Public Radio: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/29/515451746/muslim-schoolchildren-bullied-by-fellow-students-and-teachers
- Wihbey, J. (2016, August 1). Muslim Americans and cultural challenges: Research roundup. Retrieved from Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy: https://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/culture/muslim-americans-islam-culture-research/
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