Kareem Ansari: Roots Beyond Borders
Kareem Ansari is an Arab-American of Palestinian heritage. Here, he discusses his cultural roots, his family, and why he feels like traveling and moving around while he was growing up helped shape his identity.
I’m Palestinian originally. Both my parents are from Jerusalem and Palestine, and I’m a first-generation Arab-American here in the United States. I didn’t grow up in Palestine, unfortunately. I always say this because I was born here in the United States. And, yeah, we kind of grew up here in the U.S., but most of my family lives in Austin [Texas].
So I typically go over [to Palestine] every other year to see my grandparents. Both my grandmothers are still alive and from the land and then all my uncles and aunts also lived there. So we have very, very close ties back home and we try to go back as often as we can.
Growing up Palestinian, has been very interesting to me because we are a very prideful people. We’ve been through a lot and I learned a lot from my grandfather on my mom’s side, because he was there during the intifada. And, you know, anywhere I would go, people would ask me where I’m from, and I would say, I’m from Palestine. I wouldn’t say I am from Washington, D.C. or Virginia or wherever I used to live. I would always have that the first thing that would come out of my mouth.
When I was younger, I was born in California and my uncle lived out in California at that time. My parents lived in Saudi Arabia. My dad’s a pharmacist, and my mom works for an airline, a U.S. airline, actually. We were visiting my uncle and my mom was pregnant, and she had me in Oakland, California. We never actually lived there–we were there for, I think, about four months. And then when I was born, we left and we went and lived in Riyadh [Saudi Arabia], obviously, where my parents lived. So I lived in Riyadh until I was about four or five years old. The second Gulf War started, and right when that happened, my parents were like, we need to leave the region, and my dad figured he would find some pharmacy work in the United States.
So we left. And out of all the states he picks Kentucky, and we were actually the only Muslim family, like, I think in the entire state! That’s how it felt. And we moved to a very small town called Hazard, Kentucky, and this was pre 9-11, so, you know, the good thing is it wasn’t the same climate [of anti-Muslim bigotry], right?
A lot of people were very warm to us. We had our school actually in a church, but, you know, every day I would go home and learn about the Quran. My mom would teach me Arabic, my dad as well, and we went to an Arabic school that was maybe four or five kids total. It wasn’t as many as you would think back then, especially in a small town in Kentucky. We grew up there until I was in preschool going into kindergarten, and then my parents figured we would move to where there’s more Arabs–or, there’s just more people–so we moved to Ohio. In Columbus, Ohio, there’s a pretty good population size of Muslims, and that’s where I went for elementary school up to my freshman year in middle school [sixth grade].
Then, my parents decided to move again–we always kept moving. I don’t know why my parents just loved to move, they wanted to find new places to live and to meet more people. So we moved to Virginia. And then in we stayed in Virginia, Northern Virginia specifically; I was there for since seventh grade, all the way up through college, and I’ve been here ever since. And then about five years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. on my own. And yeah, I’ve been living here ever since and I love it.
I have two sisters, one who’s older and then one who’s younger. The younger one just got into law school at USC yesterday so we’re very, very proud of her. And then my older sister, she is a schoolteacher and she loves her job. She just had a baby about like two years ago and she’s like the first one in our generation to have a baby in our immediate family and we love her dearly.
So it’s been me and my two sisters and my mom and my dad just in the United States. We have an uncle in California who’s been there, you know, the same one that I was conceived near. And he’s been there forever. And then I have an uncle that lives in New York who actually just moved down to Virginia to kind of be closer to us.
We never grew up with cousins, which always made me a little jealous because I always saw, you know, most people in our community, they all have their cousins around them and they get to go hang out with them. So we never had that, which was kind of stinks because, you know, if you’re ever bored or you’re looking to do something, you can’t just hit up your cousin here. They’re all the way in Jerusalem. So I never had that. But it’s been a blessing in disguise because that made us go back home, and I know a lot of Palestinians in the U.S. haven’t had a chance to ever go back there or even go there that often. So I’m so thankful that they’re all out there because it brings me closer to my people.
I kind of grew up in Palestine because every time I went there, every other year. My uncle owned a showroom, a shop in the Old City that’s pretty well known out there. He actually was an actor on a TV show out there back in the seventies and eighties. It was an Israeli Arab TV show, so that was kind of groundbreaking back then. I used to work there when I was a chid, I would sell shawarma out to tourists out the window of the shop.
So I would go back and forth between the others. And a lot of my memories were very beautiful back then because, you know, me and my cousin were kind of similar. We were the same age, both boys and we’d go play soccer near the wall in the old city and we’d meet so many different tourists that would come by the shop. Like people from Sweden, people from Fiji…so many people come to Jerusalem to look at the city, to see the history…so many cultures and religions that come there.
I met a lot of Christians, a lot of Jewish people, a lot of Muslims, and a lot of people from Asia come out with big group tours, too. So I’ve had the pleasure to meet those people and also learn about their culture. And that’s kind of what developed my sense of ability to be a people-person and to meet anyone and to talk to them about their life and, and to also want to travel more and see more countries. Thankfully, that’s definitely worked out for me.
I’ve traveled a lot and I always recommend to anyone if they want to actually really live life, to travel and to see people and to meet people and to see new cultures and to to eat the food out there and try and look at the history and how those people grew up and what their history was. That’s actually kind of shaped me and made me who I am today. I feel like I can be put in any sort of situation and be successful and meet new people and develop new friendships. I thank my parents for that; I feel like if we were stagnant and we just stayed in like either Kentucky or Saudi Arabia, we wouldn’t have had that chance to to meet all these different types of cultures–and for me to develop a personality that gives acceptance to anyone, even if they don’t look like me.