During graduate school, I worked at the library with an African American girl named Carmon. One quiet Saturday morning, she asked if I would mind trimming her hair. Carmon had handfuls of thin braids that she wanted layered in the back so there would be a cascading effect.
We sat outside the library--our fifteen minute break--and I snipped away as instructed.I was curious about the texture of the braids and she explained that in weaving you could choose what kind of hair you wanted, synthetic or human and that human hair was usually Asian. When I wondered aloud why I almost never saw braids on White women, she explained that Black hair was very dry, which was why it was more suited to adding braids to than White hair that tended to get oily.
Over the years, this conversation evolved into a larger look at hair choices made by African American women and what it meant politically and socially to have braids or an afro or dreadlocks or to use a relaxer. I learned a great deal about African American culture during those conversations (because it was never only about hair) and I have always been grateful to Carmon for being so open with me.
During those same years, she asked me a lot of questions about the Middle East, about women, and particularly about Islam. I was happy to offer whatever knowledge I had and was often struck by the overlap in what we each had to say: personal decisions often carried larger social or political reverberations; and you are always an ambassador for your culture. To this day I am thankful for those years of talking we shared and I firmly believe that we widened one another’s horizons with our conversations.
In the intervening years, the last few in particular, I have been approached with all sorts of questions about the Middle East and Islam--some of the very same ones Carmon asked me, though usually presented in a rapid-fire sort of way, without any context or conversation to go along with them. The questions range from the simple (why do women cover their hair?) to the more complex (how can you tell the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?--which sounds like it’s going to be a joke rather than a question) to the personal (how are you raising your children?) to the ignorant (does your husband wear a turban?) to the blatantly racist (how can you show that Islam is not a violent religion?). I am always happy to offer any understanding I can to offset American “jahiliyya,” or generalized ignorance of other cultures, but more and more I am struck by the assumptions that are made in the asking of these questions, first and foremost that any and all questions are acceptable, and second that Arabs/Muslims are almost solely governed by their ethnicity/religion.
It has been very difficult since 9/11 to be an Arab or a Muslim and not be forced to think often about your own Arabness or Muslimness. Many times there is a context, a conversation, but quite often there isn’t. Not long ago our mailman, Clarence, and I were having a conversation about race. He said that someone had asked him once how it felt to be the only Black man working at the post office. “I thought it was strange,” he said. “I was just thinking about myself as Clarence working at the post office.”
Which makes me think there needs to be a Dare I Ask? Book of Etiquette regarding Arabs/Muslims (or any Others).
It might only need to include five rules.
Rule One: Pause first.
Rule Two: Ask yourself a few questions: Do I want the answer to this question or am I looking for an opportunity to share my own agenda? Would I be prepared to offer equally candid information about my own cultural, ethnic, and religious practices? How would I feel if this person asked me the same question, except instead of Arab or Muslim, it was about Black or Caucasian or Latino or Baptist or Hindu or Jew or Asian?
Rule Three: Rephrase if necessary. Is there a context to your question?
Rule Four: Listen to what the person is telling you and not just the sound byte answer.
Rule Five: Enjoy your conversation.
Most people are patient and truly want others to understand their culture, but at the end of the day we Arabs/Muslims/Others are just like Clarence, thinking/hoping, that our selves override the label or stereotype that has been assigned to us.
The following video is by the MAS Media Foundation of the Muslim American Society
Laila Halaby is the author of Once in a Promised Land, which was named one of the 100 Best Fiction Books of 2007 by the Washington Post. Halaby was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Jordanian father and an American mother. She speaks four languages, won a Fulbright scholarship to study folklore in Jordan, and holds a master's degree in Arabic literature. Her first novel, West of the Jordan, won the prestigious PEN Beyond Margins Award.