You wanna know something interesting about me? I was born an immigrant. My parents are Egyptians, and they had been doing a lot of traveling before I was born. It just so happened that I was born while they were living in Saudi Arabia, a nation notoriously infamous for how bad it treats immigrants. Now, having no actual Arabian blood and no Saudi relatives meant one thing: I could not become a Saudi citizen. Instead, it was Egypt that granted me a passport and citizenship.
And so I was born an Egyptian, outside the borders of the Egyptian republic, but not really inside anyone else’s borders either. Saudi Arabia doesn’t like foreigners joining their local culture. You’ll never belong, if you were never one to begin with.
Well, lucky for me, I don’t remember much of Arabia. My family moved to America in 1998, and they’ve been there ever since. In America, my family had a home. They got jobs, they sent us to school, and they made friends with people from diverse backgrounds. My earliest memories are in Maryland, in the US, but it wasn’t until 2004 that my family became American citizens. From birth to citizenship, I spent my entire life as an immigrant. The one country that would recognize me was a country I had little connection to, outside of family. I had an accent when I spoke the language. I didn’t understand the culture, often offending people by accident, but it was an identity I embraced. It was the only one I had.
“Where you from Retrieverisk?”
“Yo thats cool! You ever been to the pyramids?”
“Where you even born in Egypt?”
“Do you speak the language?”
“Who was the first president of Egypt?”
“….” (For the record it’s Muhammad Naguib.)
I embraced it, but I often ended up embarrassing myself. I knew nothing when it came to Egypt’s history and culture. I even confused Egyptians and Arabs, thinking them to be the same thing. But any real Egyptian can tell you, there is a pretty big difference. Thing is, I was Egyptian in name and blood alone.
America was a different story. I never really felt that American as a kid. I kind of always stood out, and as I said earlier, I embraced that. But I knew everything there was to know about America growing up. I was easily the best history student in my grade. I remember being accused by another student that I studied to show off. But in reality, I studied because I enjoyed history. And American history was so…action-packed that I couldn’t help but read. I was the only kid in my grade that knew who Aaron Burr was. What he did, where he was from. That citizenship test my parents were given? I could have passed that easily. I never felt American but I did feel a connection to America. It was weird, because I wasn’t one of the American people, but America was different than the Americans in my mind. America was where I went to school, where I made friends. America was my history books, my memories. But I was still an Egyptian. And after 2004, that line became remarkably difficult to walk.
In 2004, my family finally became American citizens. After years of traveling around, my family had found themselves a home. A welcoming home that took them in and accepted them as their own. And here is where things get weird, right. Because its not easy to go to sleep one night as an Egyptian, come home to your parents celebrating our new country, and then go to sleep as an American. Its an odd feeling, and it challenged everything I had accepted about myself. Was I still an Egyptian..was I more American than Egyptian…was I more Egyptian because of the way I looked? What made me Egyptian? What made me American?
Its the curse, and the blessing, of someone with a foot in two different identities. Its the challenge of balancing two different identities, turning your cultural conflict into one unique identity.
There was really only one way to solve this problem. I had lived most of my life in America accepting my identity as an Egyptian. I had to experience Egypt.
And nothing makes you realize just how American you are, than when you are in North Africa. Five minutes driving through Egyptian traffic and it hits you.
“Dude. You’re from MARYLAND.”
Thing is, Egypt is a different…everything to America. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. They’re just different societies. I moved to Egypt. I offended so many Egyptians, and I returned to America. Here was my reality: Egyptians didn’t really give me the space that they would give a foreigner when it comes to learning Egyptian culture. I should have known it all before arriving. If he looks like us, has one of our names, and has his roots in Alexandria, then he isn’t a foreigner. I was seen as a native son. And a native son shouldn’t act like an American.
But nevertheless, everything became clear to me. Of course I was Egyptian. Of course I belonged here. This is where everything I know came from. All those ridiculous stories that I learned growing up, they weren’t unique at all. Apparently, all Egyptians went to the same school of story telling.
“When I was your age we had to cross the Nile and fight the British to get to school.”
My mom’s favorite sayings that made no sense:
“A dog’s tail will never be straight.”
“They told the liar to swear and he laughed.”
And my personal favorite:
“Wait until your dad gets home.” (Nothing happened when dad got home.)
Apparently none of those were unique either, and they were as common as hummos among the Egyptian people.
It was all familiar and strange. A return home, and a new adventure. A cultural awakening.
The familiar made me understand my connections. How I was Egyptian. And it made me understand how I was American. When it came to my beliefs and ideas. Things I valued, the way I viewed the world. Where I felt most at home.
Maryland was the one place that best resembled a home. I’m more Marylander than American or Egyptian. I always felt like a guest in Egypt. And I never really identified with any of the other 49 states in the US.
All my life I’ve been an immigrant in one way or another. I was born an immigrant, to immigrant parents. We immigrated to America, where I was always more Egyptian than American. I immigrated to Egypt, where I was more American than Egyptian. And here I am. I finally understand who I am. And it doesn’t matter what passport I hold, because its not a piece of paper that makes me Egyptian, and its not a piece of paper that makes me American. Its the memories and the friends. The experiences, the history. Its a feeling of home, a feeling of connection.
I’m an Egyptian from Maryland.
Its a curse, but its a blessing as well.