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Color, Culture, and Compatibility; why just being Muslim sometimes isn’t Enough

May 9, 2016

As an Egyptian American, I have faced a lot of speculation regarding my roots. From

Greek to Italian to Indian, I have been mistaken for everyone. Well, everyone with an

olive-skin undertone. But when I inform people that I’m Egyptian, there are two specific

reactions that dominate the rest: fascination and disappointment.
 

For many non-Arabs, being Egyptian is an interesting and (forgive my use of the word)

exotic  conversation starter. Immediately, I am compared to some actress they once saw

in a show years ago when they were on vacation who happened to be Egyptian. Or maybe

they’ll tell me how much they love hummus, especially the kind served at a certain

restaurant. Was Lebanese the same as Egyptian? No? Oh...but that place still had good

hummus though.
 

However, amongst the Arab community, reactions are a little different. One of my best

friends (a non-Egyptian, hereby now known as ‘other’) told me that when she first met

me, she was really surprised that I wasn’t more “ghetto”. It was an offhand remark said

so casually, and yet I’d never really quite gotten over it. This was the stereotype that she,

an Arab but non-Egyptian, had of African-Arabs. Despite our similar cultures, despite the

fact that we ate similar foods, spoke similar languages, she had been raised to believe that

there were oceans between us.
 

Now, let’s gloss over the derogatory nature of term “ghetto” for a moment because that’s

an entirely different rant. But my friend’s upbringing made her believe that because she

came from a lighter-skinned Arab background, her culture was automatically superior to

mine. On some level, I couldn’t really blame her. Of course she had been conditioned to

think that. But over the course of a decade of friendship, I’m happy to say that she has

become less in-tune with that idea and more aware of just how backwards that thinking

is. But it took work. It took a lot of racist comments and patient explanations until we got

to a place where it wasn’t an issue where we came from anymore.
 

But this mentality is not specific to non-Egyptians. Even within my own culture, there

lies a color complex so profound that it dominates the idealistic view of a person,

especially a woman. When I was in the Middle East last year, a close family member

gave me the name of a soap (a SOAP!) that would supposedly “brighten” my complexion

and make me look like a “bride”. The reality of using a cleanser to wash my skin clean

(literally) gave me a bit of a litmus test of what to expect of the standard of beauty in the

Middle East.

Growing up in America, I was exposed to different cultures from all over the world,

allowing me a certain level of acceptance that might not be present in other countries. But

when it came to the topic of marriage, repressed racism and prejudice reared its ugly head

and it became evident just how important color was in a relationship, or at least an Arab

one.

This is not a new phenomenon. The problem is, members of the Muslim community

(some, not all), are overriding religious specifications in order to satisfy cultural criteria,

often at the expense of the bride or groom. Sometimes, potential spouses are limited to

being from the same country or, in some cases, the same village as the family. This not

only causes a rift between family members that want to marry outside of the culture, but

continues to reinforce the belief that the only people good enough are those who are “like

us”.

Now, we can list all the reasons in religion where this type of mentality is strongly

discouraged, even forbidden, but that won’t change the effect of the power of culture. But

there is a silver lining. The longer time passes, the less effect this cultural restraint has on

future generations. With the heightened effect of the Internet making the world smaller, it

becomes harder and harder to find reasons not to relate with someone. And like it or not,

cultural ties are becoming looser as we adapt our own fusion of influence in our daily

lives.

That being said, I believe it’s time to rewrite the narrative we teach our children. That

means not only meeting people you wouldn’t ordinarily talk to, but having dinner with

them, breaking bread; connecting on a level that goes beyond a stereotype formed on a

distant memory you had in your childhood. Accept marriage prospects because they are

righteous, not because they culturally convenient. You don’t need to change who you are

to be capable of opening yourself to someone else. You can still be proud of where you

came from while appreciating someone else’s contribution to the world as a positive one.

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