- Published on Sunday, 19 June 2011 17:10
- Category: Literature
Struggling to bridge two cultural identities can be a gruesome process and a life- long struggle. As a female Arab-American, I fear the day when I may find myself caught in an ultimatum between my Arab and American cultures.
Perhaps that is why I initially wanted to deny the truth behind the title of Dalel Khalil’s self-published book "FromVeils to Thongs: An Arab Chick’s Survival Guide to Balancing One’s Ethnic Identity in America." The title, though a bit long-winded, is perfectly descriptive and sure to grab the attention of many Arab-American girls (It is also a rather clever way to attract boys who are drawn to the book’s provocative title and picture).
I finally had my chance to open this “guide” with eager anticipation. Needless to say, I was hooked! Flipping through chapter after chapter searching for the answers that would make the struggles to ethnic identity any bit easier, I felt I was not alone in my search for a dual identity.
Khalil’s powerful “call it like it is” attitude has connected her to a supportive and engaged audience. With the hilarious and assertive impulses of both Arab and American customs, Dalel Khalil has found a way to express her side of the story, adding the voice of an ever-growing youthful population, a population that truly encompasses differences from veils to thongs and anything in-between.
After reading in the book, I had the opportunity to chat with the humorous woman behind the words. Dalel Khalil, a Syrian-American who grew up within the cultural crossfire, was gracious enough to answer my questions in a recent interview for Aslan Media.
Aslan Media: Did you write this book in order to bring attention to the sexism/double standards against women in Arab culture, or more as a “guide” for “how to deal” for the women who are already aware of the double standards?
Dalel Khalil:...It was a bit of a challenge because I had to write it in a way that Americans would be able to pick up the book and identify with it, and Arabs would also be able to identify with it. It would be fair to say I started out writing it for the “Arab chicks.” The purpose of writing this was not to do anything…it was just to get all the funny things out of my head...
AM: Do you believe that the men who also have their feet in both cultures face similar challenges?
DK: Absolutely, the men are also in the same position. When they see this book they automatically think, “Oh it’s a girls book,” but it really does pertain to them. And in fact it’s really cool when I have guys who buy my book, read my book and tell me how much they relate to it…. For example, marriage: selecting the right husband and narrowing to the final four, “March Madness” essentially… men are on the other side of that, the men are the ones that have to do the shopping, interviews, they have to become the doctors, the engineers. They have to present themselves as marketable. The second part of the book just deals with being Arab, so it doesn’t matter if you are an Arab woman or Arab man, it talks about the culture itself and men definitely relate to that.
AM: Have you found yourself acting as a personal mentor to anyone? If so, was this before, during or after writing this book?
DK: Definitely after the book, I have people from everywhere in the country and around the world [saying], “You are talking about my life, you hit it right on the nail, I can’t believe someone is saying what I believe or what I think or what I go through”. So many people have expressed to me they were in a similar situation… They see me as a person who has gone through what I call the “real” war on terror, this “intifada” between your American brain and Arab brain, this constant insurgency. I’ve been there, I am there, I know exactly what it is like so I think they look up to me and think “Oh my God, I cant believe there is someone who understands my life just the way you do.” In that way, I’m more of a mentor.
AM: With this book as personal and public as it is, do you find that you see yourself as a more credible source about these issues facing other people?
DK: I actually do… I wrote really from the heart. I'm not an “established” writer who went to writing school. But with more and more speaking engagements I definitely have a lot more credibility, this book has given me validation, that everything I was feeling was right and true and essentially universal.… I do understand how to explain it to the American audience and the Arab audience because I've lived it. The confidence allows me to translate to the Americans who don’t understand who Arab chicks are. It also gives me the confidence to explain and relate to Arab chicks who have these feelings but don’t know how to articulate them…I do envision myself now as being a strong force and as much of a cultural ambassador to these two worlds. The key component is humor.
AM: The humor in the book is anything but shy. Is this a direct reflection of your personal character, or did you feel this was a necessary way to reach a certain demographic?
DK: No, I tell it like it is. “The Sperm in the Air,” the title of chapter fifteen is a true story. It was created when I was fifteen years old… We [Dalel and her female cousins] were being followed in the store by a male member of the community to kind of watch and spy and make sure we weren’t talking to any boys. And we went crazy! “What is this? We are in America, these people are crazy! Who gets followed walking around the store and the streets to see if you are gonna be talking to guys…” We had this five-hour crazy insane argument on the front porch of my mother’s house. We were just so angry that this was happening in America… I understand overseas, but here! Naturally to deal with all of this insanity, the humor in my personality came out to deal with it… And I tell it like it is, people maybe don’t want to hear it, and I try to tell them in a way that is truthful… but absurdity is a wonderful way to show truth for people who cant handle the truth…. That’s the power of humor.
AM: With the revolutions in the Middle East, do you see the gap between the traditional Arab and the more modern Arab cultures closing or do you worry that the condition right now is so fragile that it might actually make the identity crisis even harder to deal with?
DK: It’s definitely going to make it harder to deal with...even twenty years ago there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter or satellite, there was nothing…. They really didn’t have much influence from the outside world so the East and West were pretty much separated twenty years ago. Now with these revolutions, a lot of their identity is going to be in question. I’ll pray for this, they are really going to have to charter new territory… “What are my boundaries?” The political revolutions are shaking up the Arab world, and the social revolution is gonna happen next and they are gonna be in a lot of hot water because they’ve been holding these positive traditions for thousands of years and now the younger generation is thinking “How far do I go? What does it mean to be an Arab chick now?”… Arab girls are waking up and thinking “Hey there is a little bit of hypocrisy going on and we are gonna talk about it” … They are gonna be challenged now because they are gonna have these freedoms that they have never had before.
AM: In the wake of these revolutions, do you also see the Arabs turning to a kind of “sexual revolution?” Do you see that now, or do you think it will come with a punch later down the line?
DK: I think it’s coming later down the line… we ain’t ready for that now, we are so not ready for that. They are just shaking the ground a little bit. I think when the dust is settling, that’s when a social revolution is going to pick up, then a sexual revolution. Women are going to question the double standards held on them, and men are going to have to admit that they are pretty much in control of that. Men are going to have to admit that they have to change in order to move forward… When I say “sexual revolution” I'm not talking about burning bras. Our sexual revolution in America may not be their sexual revolution in the Middle East…Women in the Middle East are so severely punished in many ways, through guilt or whatever, for doing very small things, whereas the men do that and more and nothing is said… They (women) don’t want to be so depressed or chastised for just being a girl or just wanting certain things… This is a very important point to make, I don’t advocate being wild and crazy, that’s not my nature… but the men shouldn’t punish or hold as much double standards when women do things that they are “not suppose to do”… Women are gonna say “Hold on a minute, I'm not a whore for hanging out with these guys, I'm just hanging out with these guys, get over it.”
By Hend Yahya, Aslan Media Contributor