Slipping Through the Cracks of Identity

Sohib Boundaoui: Slipping Through the Cracks of Identity

Sohib Boundaoui’s insight into the mind of a child of immigrants is both encouraging and eye-opening. His insight into the mind of a child of immigrants is both encouraging and eye-opening. He talks about how he struggles to understand his identity as Northern African in America and in his Arab community. He shares how he tried to follow the classic immigrant route to med school but instead found a passion for film-making.

I was born in Chicago, and I was born in a neighborhood called Bridgeview.

Bridgeview is also called “Little Palestine.” So I was raised with mostly Arab friends. I don’t think I made my first non-Arab friend until I left for college. I’m from a very predominantly Middle Eastern community. In the early, I’d say 70’s, the first immigrants to that community were Palestinian immigrants. They really built that neighborhood with their businesses, and the early group of Palestinians that got there put their money together and built a mosque there, which is called the Mosque Foundation now. So, that was kind of like the central location that drew a lot of other immigrants. I feel like the community that build that school, they really just wanted to put their ideals, their ideas, what they knew of back home in this community and to really make sure that that culture and those religious values are kept. I respect that, but I also feel that the way that they went about it does not really correlate well with how you grow up in this country. So there was a harsh divide between being in the community itself and in that little bubble environment, and being outside of that.

It was my senior year, and it was about, probably a week or two weeks before graduation and I was in AP Calculus. Before the class started, I walked in and I was speaking to a girl across the room since we didn’t really sit next to each other. She was a family friend, I knew her outside of school ,and we were cool with each other. The teacher walked in, and she looked at us, and she just kind of stood there, staring at us. I kind of paid it no mind, and then we continued talking, and she reprimanded us in front of the whole class.

She said, “Why are you guys talking? That’s enough speaking to each other.”

At that moment – it still resonates with me, because I felt like I was in a position that I’m able to handle, like whatever experience with a girl that they really wanted me to. I feel like why they did that, the separation, is in those years of maturing and puberty and all that, they really want to take extra precautions. But  two weeks before graduating, I felt like I was in a position where I am mature enough to have a conversation with a female, and being reprimanded in front of the whole classroom was really demeaning. It felt like I was being sheltered, and then once that shelter broke it’s like, go ahead, you’re free, and figure it out. So we weren’t really prepared for being out in the world, we kind of just had to figure it out once we got out there.

I felt like I just really wanted to get out. You know? I just wanted to get out and have that experience, that college experience, that brand-new, completely different from what I’ve been doing experience. Up to that point, I was always in that neighborhood, I was always with the same friends, I was always seeing the same things.

My biggest fear in college was graduating and not knowing what I was going to do, and that’s exactly what ended up happening. Even though that was the one thing that I tried to not let happen. I graduated, and I was just there with my hands in my pockets not knowing what to do next. I was just super confused. And during this time, my sister had just moved back from California to Chicago because she’s working on a documentary called, “The Feeling of Being Watched.” She was working on it for three years prior. She came to Chicago for the last bit of a lot of filming, and you know, because it’s about the 20 years of FBI surveillance that was happening in the same community that I grew up in.

Growing up in that community it was like a norm to just be like, don’t go by that car – that’s an FBI car. I was really interested in it because you know, she interviewed me and my friends during that year after I graduated from UIC about like, the FBI building, and it was really fun to be a part of it. She needed some more help, and so I told her like, I’ll help you, I don’t know what I’m doing right now – I’ll help you out. So, you know, curiosity peaked and I just started watching videos on filmmaking. And then I would grab my friends as actors and we would shoot short films, and so my interest in filmmaking grew and grew and grew and grew. Until I showed my sister a film that I made, and she said, “Did you make this?”

I’m like, “Yeah, I shot this on my phone before you even gave me the camera.”

She said, “You should really think about filmmaking, you have an eye for cinematography and storytelling. Why don’t you go for this?”

And at that point, I was juggling: should I become a PA because that’s only two years, should I do nursing? So I asked her, I’m like, “Do you think I should put aside all these other things and really just focus?”.

She said “Yeah, go for it.”

So I’m like, ok. From that point on, I never turned back and it all just filming after that.

I feel like one of the reasons that I wasn’t able to fully connect with these white Americans is that, I didn’t understand who I was, really. It was just a few months after I left that community that I really just wanted to get out, that I wanted to leave. So I guess I could say I kind of felt like I wanted to run away from that culture. And then when I went to U of I, and I saw white Americans in the culture, I didn’t really connect with them either. It was sort of a confusing experience to me like, who am I really? Because I’m not like these immigrants in my community that are there, and I’m not like the white Americans that I went to college with. So who am I?

And so, it took a lot of confusion and a lot of flip-flopping for me to realize that there are so many people like me that have these same conversations that I’m having with my friends but everybody’s so hushed.

Everybody’s so in their own circles.

Nobody wants to say these out loud because it’s such a taboo thing to say because the community might not like it and the mainstream society might not even understand what you’re saying. So it’s like, I don’t know what to say.

So that’s really what I want to do. I want to bring these people out of hiding. To start this conversation, make this a real conversation that we are a demographic that slipped through the cracks of identity, but now I want us to rise up and say we are unique and we are a specific type of people. We just have to recognize each other and talk to each other.

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