Two years ago, I was walking around Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, eagerly taking in its bright colors, loud sounds and tantalizing smells. I foolishly wasn’t planning on buying anything because I had left most of my cash at the hotel and was content in watching the bazaar bustling with its people and vendors. But then I saw the scarf.
It was the most beautiful scarf I had ever seen: the deep, rich red mixed delicately with sparks of molten gold. Its silkiness could have been felt from afar. If that scarf had had a former life, it would have been a queen’s scarf — no, Cleopatra’s scarf, only worn on special occasions and otherwise tucked safely between sheaths of soft tissue so as to prevent wrinkling.
“Can I help you?” an old man with broken English asked me after I had been standing there, caressing my precious for a few minutes. I asked him how much the scarf was, and he told me. I was quietly contemplating if it was worth it to spend all the cash I had on me, when he asked, “Where you from?”
“I’m Syrian,” I replied absentmindedly, now wondering how on Earth I got here from the hotel so I could retrace my steps.
“No,” his accented voice said, matter of factly. He shook his head no and put up his hand, shaking his palm no at me. Three nos.
“Um, yes, I am,” I told him, now annoyed.
“No, no,” he said again. “You? No.” He switched to Arabic, “I mean do you speak Arabic?” “Of course I speak Arabic,” I half-yelled at him in our native language. I grew up in Damascus, my parents are Arabic — how dare he question my Arab-ness?
His face lit up when he heard my very clearly Damascene accent. “Shamiyeh!” he said, using the commonly used word that describes someone from Damascus. After asking about my family (they’re safe) and why I looked so white (I wish I knew, man), he gave me a huge discount and added two scarves to the deal. I walked away happy, our little dispute over my identity forgotten.
Although I know I am Shamiyeh through and through, regardless of how long it has been since I’ve seen my city or country, or how American my English accent is, it seems that everyone else has a problem with this identity, including my countrymen and countrywomen. I sometimes joke about getting the word “Arabic” tattooed. On my forehead. In Arabic. To battle everyone’s assumption that I’m white, I started dropping hints alluding to my identity whenever I would meet someone new: I’d comment on how something is different back home or would throw in an Arabic word in a conversation, leading them to asking where I was from. “Damascus,” I would respond, feeling the satisfaction of temporarily proclaiming my identity to the world.
And yet, not every person I encounter knows where I’m from. A man in Akumal, Mexico, was guessing where my friends and I were two weeks ago, and when he got to me, he lifted up his hands and shouted, “Gringa!” When my dad lived in a small Texas town on the border between the United States and Mexico, I felt the whiteness of my skin more than ever, standing in contrast with my father’s darker one. Everyone spoke Spanish to him and switched to English with me. People guessed at where he was from, most thinking he was from Spain because of his Mediterranean features and his distinctly Spanish accent. They usually thought my stepmother was Italian, and my sister was clearly Muslim, her flowery headscarves a huge tell, so they guessed at her nationality but never strayed far from the Middle East. And then there’s me, the gringa.
The reason this given identity bothers me is the meaning behind it: By making this assumption, people create a Sarah that is very different from the Sarah in front of them. Imaginary Sarah grew up in the States, went to a high school here, had the privileges people have when living in this country. Real Sarah struggled to get this American accent, had to fight to come to this country and study here, still struggles when forming thoughts in English. She misses home every day, unlike imaginary Sarah, who could probably get on a plane and go back to whatever state she’s from whenever she wants.
Most of the time, though, it is easy to get lost in imaginary Sarah’s world. I find myself speaking Arabic less, and my dreams are now permeated with English phrases and words. I do things I never would have done back home, such as online shopping and hosting Thanksgiving Day dinners. When visiting other states, I have twice found myself saying I’m from California — then hastily explained that I was visiting from there but am actually Syrian. My Syrian passport now sits quietly abandoned, while its American counterpart is constantly being examined by airport personnel around the world.
Real Sarah would have faded away a lot more had it not been for my father’s attempts to keep her alive. In the midst of my English-speaking world, my father reminds me to revert back to Arabic whenever he finds me speaking in English for too long (a.k.a. two consecutive sentences). His house is a haven for our Syrian family; I have yet to visit without finding at least one cousin already there. His car has Fairouz and Umm Kalthoum CDs, converting a grocery run into a trip down memory lane.
He keeps my Syrian-ness anchored. He reminds me that it does not matter that my American passport has a larger collection of stamps than my Syrian one or that I am currently learning my fifth language. It does not matter what people think I am or where they think I’m from, and it does not matter how long it’s been since I’ve been home. I only need to call the first person on my iPhone’s favorites list to remind me of who I am and where I’m from: Syrian and proud, although that tattoo is still not completely out of the question.