Arts & Culture

How I’m not Arab enough for people

What it means to be a half Yemeni, half Indian who doesn't speak Arabic fluently.

By Lubna bin Zayyad

Artwork by Aya Mobaydeen.

“Show us how to dabke! Come on, don’t just stand there.”

I am at a community function in London, UK surrounded by a bunch of people – classmates included – who come from a South Asian background. After dancing in a circle to some Bollywood music, partaking in their own cultural dances, the DJ begins to play Hisham Abbas’s nari narien (the song most DJs with limited knowledge of Arabic music default to). A classmate grabs my hand and drags me into the circle. Together, everyone begins to clap their hands and urges me to dance. I feel like I am five years old again, at a family gathering where cousins and aunts urge me to dance, and I revel in the attention and laughter because I am five and I do not know any better. But at 25, this experience is much different. I feel like I am being paraded around. Being half Yemeni, half Indian makes me the token Arab for this group, the spokesperson for the 22 countries that make up the Middle East and North Africa, with just as many regional dialects and cultural variances. Here I am standing in the middle of this circle, while the heavy bass and drums of Hisham’s song plays in the background.

“Come on! You’re Arab. You have to know how to dabke.

The group continues to urge me. No amount of pleading will make them stop. I begin to look for my way out of this circle, slowly swaying my hips in the direction of a little gap I manage to spot between two people. I turn to the group and explain to them that despite me being Arab, I do not know how to dabke. “That’s Lebanese!” I explain, or rather scream, over the music. I explain to them that the dance is very traditional to the Levant Region – and seeing as how I am not from the Levant, I cannot do the dabke. “The dabke shouldn’t be a marker of my Arabness!” I say, but my voice falls on deaf ears. They are just happy to dance to the music, and seeing as how I could not teach them how to dabke, I was no longer of any value. There was no need for me to escape the circle. They had already managed to edge me out.

“Being half Yemeni, half Indian makes me the token Arab for this group, the spokesperson for the 22 countries that make up the Middle East and North Africa, with just as many regional dialects and cultural variances.”

This wasn’t the first time I was edged out of a circle – both physically or proverbially. My status and legitimacy as an Arab has always been contested and debated, not by myself, but by others. By Arabs and non-Arabs alike. My identity as an Arab is not up to me, it is up to them. Although at times I have felt the need to assert my Indian side to others, it seems that more people have a hard time accepting that I am Arab. It isn’t enough that I say that I am Arab, I feel that I need to prove it. 

You don’t look Arab,” they state, because my hair is not straight, my eyes are not light and my lips are not plump. I do not fit the image of a Lebanese Arab.

“Your name doesn’t sound Arab,” they say, because they have a cousin back in Pakistan named Lubna as well, therefore I must be lying.

“You’re half Indian? Oh I was going to say you look really South Asian,” they tell me, because I love Indian food and watch Bollywood movies.

“You can’t be Arab,” they shake their heads, because I don’t speak the language. I am not Arab even if my name is very Arabic, and my curls are a marker of my paternity, the same curls my Yemeni grandma had and her mother and her mother had before that. Even if I can understand the cultural nuances of the Middle East and I am aware of my heritage, none of that matters because my tongue refuses to curve to the words of the Arabic alphabet. I am limited by the boxes people have created that exclude me.

“My status and legitimacy as an Arab has always been contested and debated, not by myself, but by others. By Arabs and non-Arabs alike.”

I have struggled my whole life to assert my heritage, my authenticity and my legitimacy as an Arab, but it has never been enough. It is met with disbelief, or jeers by my own Arab brothers and sisters, and outsiders alike. Growing up in a predominantly white city in Canada did not leave me much opportunity to make friends from my own cultural background.  The mosque, with their different activities and programs provided that platform. Or at least I hoped that it would. Instead I was just as ostracized there.

“Why do you say it like that?” one girl there giggled sarcastically. “The way you pronounce his name. It’s funny.” Immediately my face reddens, I become embarrassed. I berate myself for even mentioning that I love Egyptian singer and actor Tamer Hosny. It wouldn’t matter to these girls if I could name a hundred different singers, or that growing up I used to climb the palm trees in my aunt’s courtyard in Sharjah to grab dates. It wouldn’t matter if I could cook Arabic dishes and say a few words here and there. I could douse myself in attar (perfume), burn bukhoor (incense) in my house and dress in my prettiest abaya (traditional robe). None of it would matter. My entire being was not Arab enough for them.

“I am limited by the boxes people have created that exclude me.”

I’m learning Arabic now. I already speak three languages, but it is not enough it seems. I’ve tried to convince myself that learning Arabic is the secret elixir; that it is what is standing between me and them – them being the Arab community that for so long my heart ached to belong to. It’s hard because I mix fusha (formal Arabic), with Khaleeji (Gulf) and Masri (Egyptian) dialects. I don’t care, though. The pain in my heart eases a little bit every time I learn a new word in Arabic, even if the end result is just a fusion of different dialects. I am happy that I am learning it.

I met a friend for iftar (the post-fasting meal) last month. The iftar was hosted by a community organisation  in London and was open to everyone. My friend brought a few of her friends with her, who I was only just meeting for the first time. We began chatting about school, life and Ramadan, but they soon reverted to Arabic. Their body language changed as they turn inwards, directing the conversation to one another, laughing and sharing stories. They shared a salad, urging one another to continue to eat more. Towards the end there were a few wilted leaves at the bottom. One of the girls turned and offered it to me. I shook my head, “La shukran” I said meekly, naively assuming if I replied in Arabic, I would be allowed back into their conversation, or at least feel part of their group. Not registering my response to her in Arabic, the girl shrugged and turned back to her neighbor making some small conversation that quickly turned more animated. From where I was sitting the girl looked British. But she was indeed fully Arab. She unleashed a flurry of Arabic – she held the secret code needed to be part of this exclusive society. I envied her, and continued to eat my food silently.

“The pain in my heart eases a little bit every time I learn a new word in Arabic.”

We walked back to the train station together. The girl who offered me salad asked me where I was from. Canada I say, figuring she wanted to place my accent. No, she meant where I am actually from, “like your heritage. Where are your parents actually from?” She asked this not because of my accent but because she had noticed the colour of my skin.

“My father is Arab. My mother is Indian.” I don’t give her any more information.

“Oh you’re Arab? I didn’t know!”

I prevented myself from rolling my eyes. Perhaps before dinner began I should have interrupted the Imam. I imagined myself going on stage interrupting him mid-hadith. “Give me this!” I would say as I grabbed the mic. Scrolling through Spotify, I would pick the perfect song. The speakers would begin to blare Hisham Abbas’s nari narien and I would begin to do the dabke. The crowd would roar, the Arabs would go crazy, people would rush to embrace me. Finally I would be part of the community.

So on second thoughts, maybe I should learn how to dabke.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Lubna bin Zayyad is a food and travel writer. She is currently doing her MA in Islamic History.