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first person

illustration by Rachel Wada

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What’s it like to feel like an outsider in your own country? First Person writers tell their stories.

My hair is extremely curly and it’s usually the first thing people notice when they see me. My skin is not black, but it’s also not white. My eyes are a soft brown and shaped like almonds, and my nose sits fairly prominently on my face.

I am ethnically ambiguous. I don’t have an accent because I was born and raised in Canada, but that doesn’t stop people when they meet me to immediately ask, “Where are you from? What’s your background? What are you?”

The last one is too much: What are you?

I get asked these questions often, and it always, always makes me cringe. My back immediately stiffens and my brain starts assessing why they want to know.

I am proud of my lineage, and it will likely come up in conversation fairly quickly as we talk about how we grew up, food we eat, all that wonderful getting-to-know-you stuff. My family is from Egypt, one of the most historically rich and influential countries in the world and I love talking about trips we would take there as a family.

Our ancestors invented paper, writing, some would even say modern civilization with their ancient advancements in agriculture and irrigation. And let’s not forget the glorious staples of bread and beer. The wonders and mysteries of Ancient Egypt have captured the hearts and attention of humanity for millenniums. Egypt today is still vibrant with amazing people, food, music, landscape and art, fashion and more, but that’s not what jumps into some people’s minds now when I tell them I am Egyptian.

It’s the questions and comments that come after “What’s your background?” that make angry. Questions no one would dream to ask me if I said, “I’m Italian, I’m Greek, I’m Spanish,” all of which I have been asked, and then some.

These questions and comments range from idiotic, to ignorant, to insanely offensive. A smattering of which include some form of reference to the 1986 Bangles song Walk like an Egyptian. Of the many times this has happened to me, the most ludicrous was in a business meeting with a new client. Those ones you laugh off, because you have to.

Sometimes, people ask extremely personal questions without a second thought, such as “Are you religious? Are you Muslim? Did your parents have an arranged marriage?” And my two personal favourites (read head-on-fire questions) “Do you know any ISIS supporters? Why don’t you wear one of those beekeeper things on your head?”

How does one answer those questions and stay sane?

In 2019, it feels ridiculous to have to write this out, but being Middle Eastern doesn’t mean you are Muslim, and being Muslim doesn’t make you dangerous or suspicious. Zayn Malik, who used to sing in the boy band One Direction, is Muslim and the only thing you can be suspicious of him about is his taste in music.

The sad part is I know why I am getting asked these questions. They want to know what my skin colour means. They want to know what’s behind my curly hair and prominent nose. They want to know if I pose a threat to them, their family and this country, that I was born in. It is exhausting trying to prove I am “just like them.” Someone who rides her bike to work, goes to art shows, goes to the same restaurants and bars as them, someone who is as likely to have as many ties to ISIS as I am to know Santa Claus. I wish it was as laughable as it sounds, I wish I could just shrug it off, but those pesky follow-up questions still come at me.

This has become something people who have Middle Eastern last names, and physical characteristics similar to mine, have been dealing with on the regular since Sept. 11, 2001. In a former job, my sister told her manager she was going to New York for the weekend, and the manager said to her in an off the cuff remark, "Oh you better hope they don’t think you’re a terrorist.”

But this is what we have to deal with now, “jokes” about us being terrorists, people asking us our religion out of the blue. My family is diverse: some are Christian, some are Muslim and some are Jewish. What my personal religion is, is just that – my personal religion.

Middle Eastern people are some of the kindest, most giving people in the world. One of the hardest things to do when visiting the home or shop of someone who is Middle Eastern (in Canada or in their homeland) is refusing a cup of tea, glass of wine or another scoop of food. They want to feed you, they want to break bread with you in some form or other. They are hospitable almost to a fault, regardless of their religion. It’s a wonderful quality that is passed down to all of us first generation citizens, just ask anyone who has eaten at my table.

There was a time when the questions were innocuous and light about my Egyptian background. “Oh, have you been to the pyramids? How hot is it really? Have you seen the contents of King Tut’s tomb? What’s the food like?” Of course, I still get these questions: Yes, I have been to and inside the pyramids, it’s 100-per-cent worth seeing in person; it’s really hot; I have seen King Tut’s tomb, there is so much gold! And the food is beyond amazing.

But it’s sad to see that being Egyptian, while interesting, is also suspicious. This is why asking, “What’s your background?” is such a loaded question for me and why I dread the follow up questions and comments. I have to assess who is asking, why they are asking it and what box they think I belong in. It is exhausting.

So please, before you ask me what my background is, ask yourself why you want to know.

Caroline Shaheed lives in Toronto.