Naseem Kaduuh & Bayan Jaber: A Conversation on Identity

Naseem and Bayan recognize their privileges living in the United States of America, having switched between their cultural and social identities frequently layered. A conversation between a 1st generation Lebanese and 5th generation Palestinian, both recognize the struggles of the previous generations as being Arab and American, and understand that one’s future goals can be based on upraising.

This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps at the Arab American National Museum.

Bayan: I’m fifth generation Arab-American. My great great grandmother first settled in Pennsylvania and they moved over to Dearborn because of Henry Ford and the automotive industry. And it was funny because my great grandmother used to describe her childhood in Dearborn as her running the store that her parents owned. And Henry Ford used to drive by in a car and people used to think that he was an alien. These are her exact words.

Naseem: So for me it’s a little bit different because both of my parents came here I guess in response to like the civil unrest that was going on in Lebanon. I think if it wasn’t for my parents coming here as a result of adversity I think I probably would’ve settled into the whole yeah, I”m Arab, but I identity more as being an American. Not to say that I don’t identify as being an American. I love being here and I love this country and there are so many rights obviously and privileges that I get in living here that I probably wouldn’t get being in Lebanon. I think I’m definitely more aware of being an Arab than I am of being an American. It’s interesting, it’s flipped. Like now, being an American has fallen into being like the background white noise and being Arab has become the forefront of my identity.

Bayan: It’s interesting because if you look at like our identities like you’re, I mean newer, or like you’re first generation and I’m fifth generation. So people tend to look at me and say I’m a fake Arab.

Naseem: I hate that so much.

Bayan: Insert quotation marks. And it’s really frustrating to have to dealt with that because where do you fall in. Like how do I claim an identity if people are like constantly denying my heritage just because I don’t speak Arabic. My family is very Arab-American infused I guess and we take the words separately. We’re very American because we’ve been here for so long, but we eat traditional Arabic food.

Naseem: And you guys cook it so well.

Bayan: Yeah like my mom is the best cook which is so funny. Yeah so there’s that aspect and we have a lot of the American traditions like Christmas. Even though we’re Muslims we still celebrate Christmas and that’s like a big thing in my family but it’s mostly just us coming together I wanna say. But even at the same time, I think that, I don’t know, I feel like we’re a very American family, but very Lebanese at the same time. Like you walk into my grandmother’s house and it’s constantly not only smelling of Arabic food, but you can see that she has like paintings on the walls of like oriental themes. It’s just, I don’t know, I don’t think we actually do anything specific.

Naseem: But I think that’s what makes it special like you don’t have to think about being surrounded by all that stuff, it just naturally exists in your life. It’s not like, I mean, instead of so she’s going to have a painting thats like oriental or oriental in theme as opposed to having a landscape of a picture in like Virginia you know what i mean. Like you guys have been here for so long, but I think that the fact that it is possible to fall in the background, but still be so comfortable with it is intuitive almost. Like your culture has become intuitive. It’s not something that you have to really try at. It’s just there.

Bayan: Exactly. She’s constantly quoting Khalil Jibran, but at the same time she has little Yorkie that runs around her house constantly so it’s like…

Naseem: A perfectly struck balance between the two.

Bayan: Yeah, it’s just an interesting combination. I don’t really think about it. I don’t think that there are certain things that we do to preserve the culture, but it’s definitely there and we’re all definitely aware of it. Especially like I’ve been more aware recently like just listening to people. The other day I told someone I was fifth generation, well actually no, this was a couple years ago, I told someone I was fifth generation and they called me a pilgrim. Which I found very interesting and funny because I

Naseem: Wrong part of the globe.

Bayan: Yeah, but at first I didn’t think about myself being here for so long, it’s not something you say. Like hey what generation are you. I don’t really ask people that question and when people find out they’re just like shocked. And I’m like, oh.

Naseem: I think it’s really common in Dearborn where like you hear about. So a long time ago someone was like what war was your grandfather in and for us it’s like so what war did your parents have to run away from is like the equivalent for us. So for my dad, it was the civil war. Like around the time of the civil war, he left and he had to come here because it was just getting really bad. for my my, they stuck out. I mean they weren’t the wealthiest of people, but they stuck it out. They lived in Beirut. They actually lived in a part of Beirut that was actually really heavily populated by like four or five different factions of fighters. So like there was the Syrian army and there were like two religious factions and there was like the Lebanese communist party or something. So she decided to, because they literally decided to shut down their schools, that was the norm. They were like you’re going to have to come up with something to do alternatively or you’re just going to fall behind. So she joined the Lebanese civil defense in ’83. And she was there during, her team was like the first responder to the ’83 barracks bombing, like the US marine barracks bombing. So what I’m trying to say here is that our family and like my family and my house even cling so hardly to being Lebanese because we kind of had it ripped away from us like repeatedly tried to be ripped away from us. So my mom literally had her friends that were like in the civil defense with her like die by bombings from Israeli planes. So when they were building our house we put obviously like all the pictures of Beirut in ’63 which was still perfect like nothing had really effected us at that point. They’re like black and white photos. There are pictures of cedar trees everywhere. We actually like, all of the painting we got from Syria when we fled, so I was a part of that, in 2006, during the summer of 2006 there was obviously the war where Israel and Lebanon got into it yet again. And we fled to Syria and my moms like, I think her coping mechanism of dealing with that was like buying of these beautiful pieces of artwork that alluded to like Arab and Lebanese culture and heritage from Syria to take back with her on the plane back.

Bayan: And I think that my goals and my hopes and wishes deal with dispelling that anti-Arab rhetoric but in the long run I just want to help people.

Naseem: So when you say help people, where do you think being an Arab falls into helping people? I mean do you think that like, where do you think there’s going to be a place for that?

Bayan: I’ve always said that my political ideologies and my ideologies on life have been shaped by not only Dearborn, but Detroit. Growing up and like just being around people that care so much about something that the world views as dying. Detroit in a sense. I think that my entire perspective has been shaped by that. And even more so lately with being an Arab-American.

Naseem: So how do you think all of these experiences that you have collected by the time that you’re an adult or by the time you’re choosing a career path knowing that you are an Arab and being aware of that. How do you think that’s going to find a place in what you do going forward.

Bayan: I definitely feel like I care way more about minorities than the average person or somebody that’s not

Naseem: Or somebody that’s not an Arab.

Bayan: Yes exactly. I think i feel a much stronger connection with Arab-Americans and I will always fight on the side of Arab-Americans. Just be very pro-Arab, but at the same time I don’t know. Honestly, that’s one thing that I figured out.

Naseem: Yeah, it’s complicated for sure.

Bayan: I wanna take all these experiences and figure out for sure. And I think that I’m on a journey and I don’t wanna name my destination yet.

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