‘You Look Arab’ — What Else Am I Supposed to Look Like?

I am 10 years old.
It has been almost two weeks since my family and I moved back home to Palestine from America. My cousins, numerous and grouped within generations, come to visit us again for the nth time since we’ve arrived.
I am elated, finally reunited with my relatives for the first time since birth.

She resembles an Indian princess with her jet black brows and olive skin, a shade or two slightly darker than mine.  As we converse, she confesses her expectations I would be light-skinned with golden hair.

Four of my female cousins and I linger in the doorway, conversing in fluent Arabic with our hair in simple braids. One of my cousins, only three years younger than me, has hair as dark as night and as thick as forest.
She resembles an Indian princess with her jet black brows and olive skin, a shade or two slightly darker than mine.  As we converse, she confesses her expectations I would be light-skinned with golden hair.
She tells me how she and the other girls in the family were so excited to see me, presumably a Barbie doll.
“Bint Ame, (my uncle’s daughter), a blonde,” she boasts.
The girls stare back at me.
“Yet, it turns out you look just like us, Arab,” she snickers.
I thought I was home.

***

I am 14 years old.
My school was an all-girls school for Arab-Americans. It united our jagged world, bearing our hyphenated identity, merging the tectonic plates of who we were: both American and Arab. The beauty standards for both cultures were surprisingly unified: blue-eyed with fair skin.
Just having just one of these features increased your attractiveness level; it was a plus, even if you weren’t conventionally pretty.
If you had light skin, you were deemed prettier than a girl with darker skin, even if the girl with darker skin had more beautiful features.
To my luck, this Litmus test of beauty seemed to be further applied at school. Maybe it’s because we, the students, embraced both continents, both cultures that share the same beauty standards.
It was the only kind of beauty that we ever knew.

If you had light skin, you were deemed prettier than a girl with darker skin, even if the girl with darker skin had more beautiful features.

One afternoon, a friend and I waited for our parents to pick us up from school. She examined my face as if she had seen it for the first time and passive aggressively said, “You know…you look Arab.”
What else was I supposed to look like?

***

I am in my second year of university.
I was sitting in the front row of my Current Issues lecture. The instructor was a short, pudgy woman, with milky skin and a newly dyed black bob cut.
Her eyes were a beautiful shade of honey-brown, and her voice was sharp and demanding like a principal’s. I admired and feared her strength.
“What do we think of fair skinned girls?” She started off lecture.
“We consider them the prettiest of girls, don’t we?” Immediately she turned to me, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Well, what about our olive-skinned girls?  Why do we dismiss our own beauty? Why do we think a White girl is automatically prettier than a Brown girl, even if the Brown girl is prettier? Why do we like White girls while the average Arab girl is not White?”
Silence.
“It is because of Western Imperialism. When the British occupied Palestinians and Palestinian land, they occupied our minds as well. Our culture. They left, but their occupation of our minds has not. The superiority of White people still stains us.”
Her words were a hammer that split my brain into its two hemispheres.
Finally.

When the British occupied Palestinians and Palestinian land, they occupied our minds as well.

***

I am almost 21.
One of my best friends and I were sitting in the waiting room, awaiting the nurse to call our names and allow us entry into the doctor’s office.
Standing in front of us was a woman in a long, black abaya, comforting her crying toddler.
“White and blonde!” My best friend cried out as she laid eyes on the weeping girl.
“She is so beautiful!”
“Oh, you love White children too much!” I pointed out.  She took a moment to digest what  I had just said.

I pitied her in that moment along with the string of other moments that consisted of her idealizing White beauty and White beauty alone. She could never see what I saw in her.

She finally replied, “Well, they’re beautiful.”
It was true, the girl had blue crystals for eyes and the sun for hair. My best friend was brown, with the Earth for skin and her eyes were round, chocolate, and warm. I pitied her in that moment along with the string of other moments that consisted of her idealizing White beauty and White beauty alone. She could never see what I saw in her.

***

It’s true.
I do look Arab.  I have almonds for eyes and the richness of olive oil in my skin.
My hair is dark, a forest that you would be lost in if you choose to stop searching for golden fields.
 


Written by Lina Abdul-Samad
Lina often writes poetry, essays, and short stories on her blog.