I have worked and lived in the Middle East for the past 5 years. I did not come for hijrah; I was perfectly fine living my deen in America, even with the pitfalls and negative assumptions therein. I moved abroad because I wanted to contribute something to the global ummah. What I have found, however, is that my perception of American reality has been forever changed and I find myself wondering where exactly I fit in.
Living in the Middle East was never a dream of mine. I grew up on a block adjacent to a sizable Arab community. My early interactions with Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, were not always favorable. As a woman who converted to Islam at the age of 23, I was never privy to the beauty and nuance of Arab culture. My first interactions with Arabs were not always pleasant. In our neighborhood, there was always constant strife between Lebanese and Jordanian shopkeepers and the Black families who formed their customer base. The first Arabic words I ever learned were racial slurs. I knew well enough that the people I encountered who were overtly racist did not represent the majority of Arabs. I wanted to see for myself what life was like in an Arab nation. I wanted to feel what it would be like to be surrounded by Muslims. I wanted to see what it would feel like to be truly included. The experience has been one which has caused me to question my own identity at times and has helped me to strengthen my already passionate allegiance to the Black community in my country of birth.
“Miss, stop saying you’re Black. You’re not Black.” My student did not understand why I liked wearing traditional African clothes. She didn’t understand my connection to a people and a place which seemed so far removed from an American reality. To some people here, I cannot be Black because I am American. I am not Black because my skin is lighter than some of my peers. I am not Black because I am educated. In the minds of many people I have encountered, to be Black means to be lowly, uneducated, and foreign. It is difficult for some people to imagine the reality of Blackness being a good thing, much less a symbol of pride and dignity.
There are Black people amongst the local population, those who were born and raised here and carry the national identity. They are also often the victims of racial discrimination; it seems that Black bodies are not safe anywhere on Earth. But just as their nationality trumps their skin color so, too, does mine. When a parent at school orders me to retrieve his child from inside the school because he thinks I am a service worker, he feels it is his right to do so. When the same parent later finds out that I am an American, he profusely apologizes. He then tells me about his time spent studying in Florida and asks if I’ve ever been to Disney World. An hour earlier, I was a dark pariah, but by virtue of my blue passport, I became someone worthy of respect. It happens time and again. Sometimes, I find myself speaking loudly English with a perfect Midwestern accent while in public. It has become a way for me to wrap myself in American privilege to avoid poor treatment. It makes me feel ashamed; there are many other Black people here who do not have the same mantle with which to wrap themselves. One of my greatest disappointments has been seeing the discrimination which is rife in what has historically been a haven for Muslims of all races and colors. I feel guilty that, even amongst my Muslim brothers and sisters, I have to wave the American flag in order to be treated like a human being.
Not every interaction is fraught with bias. I have forged strong bonds with fellow expats from neighboring lands. Where I once thought I would have very little, besides religion, in common with my Arab neighbors, I now know that we share a fervent bond forged by the communal atrocities we mutually face. They ask me about Ferguson. I ask about Aleppo. I facilitate a class project promoting Palestinian sovereignty. My students discuss the necessity of African American reparations. They speak about Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray as if they knew them. We trade stories of tragedy. Duma. Baltimore. Sana’a. New York. We lament the bodies of brave Syrians washed up on lonely shores. We talk about the irrationality of Black men killed for riding bicycles, selling cigarettes, of little boys gunned down for playing with the same toy guns sold in the local souk. “Did you hear about Muaz?” This was the first thing my colleague said to me as I walked in the door one morning last semester. She was referring to the Jordanian air force pilot whose death at the hands of ISIS was broadcast in gruesome detail on social media. With tears forming in her eyes, she recounted the look of horror on her husband’s face as he watched the man burn alive on his smartphone screen. She didn’t have the stomach to watch. For the first time, I knew what it truly felt like to live with the survivor’s guilt which plagues those who live far away from their ravaged communities. I felt the same pang of guilt and feeling of hopelessness as I watched news of the murder of Tamir Rice, a boy whose beautiful brown face reminds me of my own son. It has become disheartening to watch the news and hear stories from home. It is hard to watch Al Jazeera and see the faces of my people talked about as though we are residents of a war-torn underdeveloped nation. We are American, but our Blackness seems to take precedence over all. Tragedy has become an unlikely unifier between me, an African American woman and my Arab friends. My friends fight for land and country and the freedom to move. My people fight for the right to breathe and exist as sovereign beings in our whole Black bodies. I take comfort in knowing that even though we may not share the same skin color, many of my friends in my new home share an understanding of what it is like to feel hunted.
As I write this, I am preparing to return home for the first time in 3 years. I have only been back once in the last 5 years. It almost feels like I am rushing headfirst into a burning building; my home is set ablaze with news of constant killings and harassment. But America is just that: home. Undoubtedly, the expat lifestyle is addictive and I am certain that we will continue to travel and explore the globe, by Allah’s will. But I will always return to the complicated place of my birth. America does not own the copyright to oppression; Black bodies are under siege in many places around the globe. I will claim my stake in the land of my forefathers and I will relish in my privilege to leave when it all becomes too much. There have been too many lives lost and battles fought for me to run away from the country of my birth forever. As troubled as it may be at times, America is, and always will be, my first homeland. I do not allow myself to indulge in an elitist escapism. Wherever I go, I carry my Black American self with me. Here is not always better than there.
Angelica Lindsey-Ali is an educator and community activist from Detroit, MI. She currently lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with her husband and four children.