Can You See Me? The American Adolescent of Arab Descent

By Lama Z. Khouri


braidsI was invited by the president of Section IX of Division 39 of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Lynne Layton, to share with you, the readers of the Psychoanalyst Activist Newsletter, my thoughts about an organization I founded a few years ago, the Circle Of Arab Students In Schools (Circle OASIS). The purpose of the organization is to help middle- and high-school–age students who are first- or second-generation immigrants from the Arab world adjust to school and life in the United States.

When I began writing this essay, I thought I would start by placing the population I work with, American adolescents of Arab descent, in the sociopolitical context of present-day America: I thought I would tell you about the racism, discrimination, and alienation they experience. My first draft was peppered with statistics, results of studies about this population, and the sociopolitical dynamics that frame their experiences. I decided, however, to refer you to my previous writings on the topic (Khouri, 2012, 2013, 2016). Instead, I would like to share with you the personal journey that led me to founding Circle OASIS—a journey that dates back to 2004, when I began making my way into the mental health field.

In 2004, I had been living outside my country, Jordan, for almost 20 years, 14 years of which I spent in the sociopolitical and cultural bubble called the United Nations (UN). I call it so, because, after leaving the UN, I realized that being an Arab behind its walls is nothing like being an Arab in the city that hosts it: at the UN everyone is a minority, everyone is an Other, and in our Otherness we all belong to this one dislocated international family. Of course, life at the UN is not perfect and it is not by any measure a melting pot, but it is certainly different from life in New York City. At the UN, there are no quizzical looks that pierce through your skin, suspicious glances that make you question yourself, and odd comments that remind you of your alienation. In its building on the East River, I am much more than an ethnicity.

Boys’ Group

Between 2004 and 2007, I would spend every Wednesday morning at a middle school inboys11 Brooklyn with boys who were Arabs like me and came from a war-torn country. It was the first time I had worked with my own people in a clinical setting and the first time I had worked in my mother tongue. Early in the treatment, I dreaded the advent of each session. God forbid one of the boys should want to enter the room before the beginning of our meeting: I would eat him with my eyes. I brushed my feelings off as a reaction to the anxiety in the room. I thought the sessions were so difficult that it was understandable that I wouldn’t look forward to seeing the boys.

The boys, although they came to the sessions willingly, could barely sit still. They fought with each other and anyone who poked his head into the room. It felt impossible to contain them or to alleviate their anxiety and mine. To this day I remember how much this anxiety weighed on me. I was at a loss. I wished for a manual with distinct clear steps that would instruct me how to conduct the treatment. Or perhaps a curriculum of sorts to contain me and the group. For me, they were interpellated Arab immigrant boys in the post-September 11 era. I could only see them through a political lens.

Have you ever had a dream where you went to an exam unprepared or to class in your pajamas? This is how I felt during each session: vulnerable, unprepared, and exposed. For them, I was the white teacher: I wore Western attire, my hair was short, and I had a nose-ring. Although I ran the sessions in Arabic, a language they used among themselves, they spoke to me only in English. In addition, they took liberties that I am certain they wouldn’t have taken with an Arab woman: I conducted the treatment through artwork. If they were not drawing the flag of their country of origin, they would build clay structures that resembled erect penises with testicles or would throw food at each other and make sexually tinged jokes.

My feelings toward the boys and the treatment didn’t change until I presented my work at a case conference, where I was the only Arab and, as far as I remember, the only immigrant. The audience had only positive statements to offer. Nonetheless, I couldn’t escape my feeling of being an Other. I couldn’t overlook the fact that we spoke a different language, literally and figuratively. I realized that I did not fool my audience with my Western appearance. I am different. This early feeling of disconnection and alienation came back in full force. I felt as if I had just gotten off the boat. I appreciated that it would be hard for my audience to see through the social, cultural, and political layers between us. But I felt as if the boys and I were a specimen for study. We couldn’t be understood intuitively. We needed to be dissected and examined. It felt so sterile, disconnected and cold.

Following the case conference, my feelings for and experience of the boys shifted. I could no longer hide behind the fact that I could pass for a non-Arab. I could no longer project disavowed aspects of my identity on the boys. I realized that I had dreaded the sessions because they were making my interpellated self intelligible to me. I had to concede that escaping this self was as impossible as escaping my own skin. The alien feeling I had at the case conference reminded me of how things were when I first landed in New York: scared, alone, and vulnerable. This memory helped me hold the boys in mind (Allen, Fonagy, & Bateman, 2008). I could feel their sense of alienation; experience the lack of warmth they might have been feeling; taste the dread of living in a land as alien as Mars; and feel a heart broken by seemingly endless losses.

My work with the group was no longer only about the participants’ transition and integration, but also about my second chance to connect with my origins. It gave me an opportunity to create something of value, so that perhaps, just perhaps, I could make life at least a little easier for Arabs like me. That was the point at which I began thinking of founding something like Circle OASIS.

On the Journey

three1Over the years, the adolescent boys and girls took me back to where I came from. By being with them on their journey to contextualize their otherness and locate themselves in a tumultuous world, my eyes were opened to my own experiences. They also opened my eyes to my internalized sense of myself and my internalized sense of other Arabs.

Although I have been working with this population for almost 12 years, I continue to be surprised by my own misperceptions and lack of understanding of the adolescents’ lives. I am ashamed to admit that taking off the orientalist glasses I sometimes wear when working with the groups has been a process.

About four years ago, I worked with a group of girls who were in middle and high school and were newly arrived immigrants. Most of the girls wore the hijab, a headscarf that covers the hair and exposes the face. When I started working with the girls, I mistakenly wanted to address their minds and inner lives without addressing their culture. I showed videos of pertinent issues as a way to engage the students in a dialogue. One such video was a documentary of interviews with five teenagers who had immigrated to the United States from various parts of the world. Two of the five interviewees were girls, one of whom wore the hijab. One of the girls in the group I was working with, whom I will call Houda, shared her reaction to the video. Houda, who wore the hijab, had immigrated to the United States just a year earlier. She was helpful, engaged, and engaging — a group leader’s gift. Houda was clearly upset and deeply touched by the experience of the girl in the video with the headscarf. She told us how the kids in her class often teased her. She said that once, and without warning, someone pulled her scarf off. The other girls in the group gasped and looked frozen. Pulling someone’s headscarf off is like being slapped on the face.

When she gathered herself again, Houda continued. One day a fellow student asked why she dressed the way she did. Houda explained that she was Muslim and that Muslims believed that God wanted them to dress like that. The student who had asked her retorted dismissively: “What kind of God is this God that would force you to dress like this?!”

Houda related the story with gut wrenching distress. She was choking, half crying and half laughing, swaying side to side, as if not knowing what to do with the pain. In Arabic she told us: “I wished I could have told her that our God is better than yours. You are idol worshipers.”

I realized then how blinded I had been by the prevailing culture’s values. Like her classmate, when I looked at her, I only saw the hijab. I used to tell myself that I did not want to address culture so as not to tread on what I saw as dangerous territory. I realized, however, that I was collapsing Houda’s identity, as an American Muslim girl of Arab descent, with the signifier of that identity: her religion and the hijab. In my mind the hijab was not a performative act; she and the hijab were one (private conversation with Stephen Sheehi September 7, 2016).

Following the session, I decided to do an experiment. I wanted to wear the hijab in order to know how it would feel to me to be signified by a piece of cloth. By the way, I want to stress that coming from a secular Christian family means I never wore the hijab growing up, nor was I expected to do so.

On several occasions I would wear the hijab and go about New York streets watching for reactions. On my first trip, I discovered that there was a social network hidden in plain sight. Women wearing the hijab and men who seemed to be Middle Eastern or South Asian acknowledged my existence. They greeted me with a look, a gentle nod, or some gesture, as if to say: I am here for you. I see you. I am like you. On other occasions, and for no apparent reason, my projections left me anxious and feeling in danger. I was worried someone would intentionally push me, or pretend to be tripping and bump into me. Or that I might be lynched in plain sight.

At the end of summer of 2013, I had foot surgery and had to use crutches. During those times, when I traveled around New York in Western dress, I felt cared for by many. For example, I never lacked a seat on the subway. Riders would rush to give me theirs. Dressed like a Muslim woman, I felt as if they looked right through me, as if I didn’t exist. Crutches or no crutches, they didn’t know what to do with me. I did not feel discriminated against per se; I just felt invisible.

I realized the otherness and alienation I sometimes feel in my own psychoanalysis: there is a point where I become unseen, unintelligible, and unrecognizable—a point where my well-intentioned and skilled Western analyst cannot enter.

I wish I could let him in. Perhaps I can hum a tune of a song he’d remember;

I wish he could smell the air of my land, see the beauty in desert roads, rundown houses, and joyfully running barefoot children with smudged clothes;

I wish he could taste the food I miss and know my teenaged friends who are grandparents now;

I wish I could mention the name of a neighborhood and he’d tell me about the street lamp that stood there;

I wish he could laugh at my Arabic jokes, know a poem or two, or remember a public holiday;

But I don’t want to expose fully my “spoiled identity”; I am afraid I might find out that he always “discredited” me (Goffman, 1963);

I don’t want to share my misunderstood traditions—I don’t want to find out how peculiar they seem to him;

I don’t want to introduce him to my beloved ancestors; I am afraid I might find out that he can’t understand why I would miss them;

I don’t want to share my dreams of recapturing earlier attachments; I’m afraid he might think I am enmeshed;

I don’t want to tell him what my true Jordanian self would do to protect her child; I don’t want to see the startled look in his eyes;

I don’t want to uncover my inner world and end up being a specimen—dissected by his psychoanalytic blade and disjointedly reassembled;

I really don’t want him to see me, all of me. I just want him to sit with me, hold my pain, blow on my wounds, and just answer yes, when I ask him: can you see me?


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