The Arab world seemed sinister
I lived abroad for 14 years of my childhood as the result of my father’s diplomatic work in Europe and Latin America—my memoir Embassy Kid is expected to be published in 2023 by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and New Academia Publishing–but there are huge swaths of planet Earth that I do not know. They remain foreign to me. This includes the Arab world.
Its people and their language exploded into my consciousness on 9/11 when we lived in upstate New York. My husband, who frequently was in New York City on business, narrowly escaped death when he decided to travel part-way home instead of staying the night at the hotel in the World Trade Centers. In the years since then, Showtime’s Homeland and countless other terrorist narratives cemented the sound of Arabic in my narrow mind as malevolent. The opening lines of the Muslim prayer—Allaahu Akbar—sent chills up my spine.
However, I was jarred out of that disappointingly jingoistic mindset three years ago when a Muslim family adopted me in a Dutch hospital. And two recent television encounters—the U.S. Open women’s final tennis match and a new Netflix comedy—have made realize that the Arabic language is not so foreign after all.
You are our Florida family
On May 5, 2019, my heart stopped as I was being rolled into an Amsterdam ER. The cruise ship my husband and I had been on sailed for Oslo as the Dutch doctors got my heart beating. Within minutes, the team had sealed a ruptured aneurysm in my belly.
However, the slow leak had filled my body with so much blood that I hovered between life and death for a month in that Amsterdam ICU while my husband—and daughter and sister, who flew in from the States the next day—sat at my bedside.
They were supported in their vigil by an amazing Turkish family whose father was also in the ICU. From sharing food to trading updates, Yasemin and her family took my family in as their own. The men greeted my husband with the traditional Muslim hand over the heart, and the women simply enveloped them in bear hugs. When I was finally out of danger and was moved to another hospital unit to begin the process of recovery, I got to know Yasemin and her family myself and cheered when her father was able to go home.
That was three years ago. The ties between us have only grown stronger thanks to social media. When Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, Yasemin was relieved to know that we were safe.
You are our family in Florida.Yasemin
Just as they are our family—our Muslim family—in Amsterdam. We hope to return to see them in 2023.
My more recent awakening happened this fall.
Tennis is the sport our television is often turned to. From the Grand Slam January kickoff at the Australian Open in Melbourne through the close out at the U.S. Open in New York City—and loads of smaller tournaments all over that pop up on The Tennis Channel—we know we’ll find someone remarkable to cheer on.
Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur came into our consciousness a couple of years ago when she made it into the quarter finals in Australia, a feat that led her to be described—as she probably almost always is—as “the first Arab/African woman to …”. She is also described by fellow players on the tour as the nicest person they know. Somewhere along this year’s tournament cycle I saw this in action when her opponent cramped up and Jabeur was the first at her side with ice. It’s easy to like Ons.
And what pulled me across the line to think of Arabs as friends I haven’t met yet was the slogan on Jabeur’s team at the U.S. Open women’s final.
Yalla, Habibi!Ons Jabeur’s team t-shirt slogan
“Let’s go, my dear.” Or, in Midwestern lingo, “C’mon, kid!”
You have got to love that. Well, I did. Ons did not win the match, but she won my heart and that of a whole lot of folks like me who are learning to overcome prejudice.
Prayer becomes familial
The new Netflix dramedy Mo, a quasi-autobiographical series by standup comedian Mo Amer about a Palestinian-American family in Houston. The Arabic woven into the episodes includes lots of my new vocabulary word habibi.
Although it’s a refugee story, an immigrant Palestinian story, it’s also a love letter to Houston. It’s also like an everyman struggle (story) — people who are working paycheck to paycheck, they’re trying to take care of family, people that are dealing with addiction. It has all these layers to it.Mo Amer, as quote by Gary Gerard Hamilton, AP
Among the storylines is the loss of the family patriarch. I shed another layer of my prejudice during this scene, when the Muslim prayer—Allaahu Akbar—became a deeply personal declaration of faith by three adult children standing over their father’s grave.
Bringing Muslim and Middle East stories to the masses.
I’ve been speaking Arabic all my life
The character Mo’s longtime girlfriend is Mexican-American and Catholic, and it’s the difference in religion that he struggles with, not the cultural difference. As he explains in this clip, 700 years of Muslim control over Spain has left Arab DNA in Latinos’ language, food, and culture.
Spanish was my first language, learned as I emerged from babyhood in 1955 on the lap of Josefina, the Galician woman who lived with our family during my father’s four-year Foreign Service post in Caracas. My Spanish skills were reinforced during subsequent posts to Colombia and Spain, and the language feels deeply personal. It was an immediate connection between me and my Puerto Rican husband when we were dating, and it now links us with our daughter’s new Latino in-laws.
So, it turns out that I’ve been imbued with the Arab culture my whole life.
It’s so easy to find differences between us that we overlook all we humans have in common. Let’s keep talking.