Bringing Home an Arab
I like to think myself as the ‘curveball’ that upset the norm of my familial history, at least when it comes to detaching color and culture from one’s perspective of another. My biggest contribution to this process to date is bringing home an Arab.
When my husband and I first met, I knew he was ‘from somewhere’ by the curvature of his nose, heavy-lidded eyes like the saints of old painted frescoes. A mutual friend he played in a band with introduced us one night before their show. His voice was deep and slightly abrasive, his hand warm and incredibly soft when he told me his name was Omar. Right away, there was something. And while I tried not to be so obvious while I watched him play, I felt like that something might as well have been the spotlight blazing down on me in the dark.
Eventually I found out he was Lebanese, and when he finally took me home to meet his family, I didn’t know what to expect. But I found his mother and father to be kind and welcoming, and the camaraderie in their household was very new to me. They had something that my family was missing- an easiness about them that made me comfortable right away. There were few formalities and his mother and I quickly found more similarities between each other than differences.
However, when I brought him home to meet my family, his experience was a bit different. The poor man had to win over three generations of women and my cantankerous grandfather, whose nickname, ironically, was Happy back in his high school football days.
I was very curious as to what my great-grandmother would think, an octogenarian who had recently witnessed an interracial kiss on her soap opera and exclaimed, “Well, don’t that beat all you ever saw?”
To my mother who was born in the early sixties, the fact that my new boyfriend was Lebanese from a Muslim family didn’t faze her a bit. I think she was just glad he didn’t have blue hair and face piercings.
But her parents, my grandparents, who had always been a large presence in my life, still struggled with the typical old white southern ways of thought. During holiday dinners, they awkwardly did their best to bridge the differences they perceived between my husband and their Oklahoma roots. “Omar, I made you a ham,” my grandfather would say in an attempt at humor, year after year, knowing my husband didn’t eat pork. The funny thing is my grandparents were brought up on working poultry farms and don’t eat chicken or turkey because they think their filthy, but they never drew the connection that this was the same reason many religions forbid swine.
My grandmother once confessed to Omar that she’d always had some kind of personal conflict with Indians and thought their getting along was a good sign of progress on her part.
The small southern Oklahoma town my maternal grandparents grew up in was rather shallow in the ethnic diversity pool. They were the first to finally leave the small-town life for the city and settled in Houston during the oil boom, a city that had become a hub to immigrants also seeking a place to establish their families that would provide more opportunities at success.
It was here where they began to unlearn what they’d been taught to believe. I didn’t really pick up on their mindset for a while, not until I noticed that my grandmother had this odd way of telling a story where she inserted small descriptions of anyone in the story who wasn’t white.
“The security guard at the mall, a black woman, had to help me find my car.”
“A man in line at the store, an Oriental, told me a funny story about his grandkid.”
See, the last time my family’s bloodline mixed with non-Caucasians was at least five generations ago and while there are stories and photographs that strongly point to our Native American ancestry, I haven’t found any hard proof.
This is because unfortunately, yet understandably, families weren’t open about their Indian connections, especially not during most of the 1800s when the Indian Removal act was being plotted out. Being identified as having native blood meant you would be forced to leave your land and any compensation would be a pittance compared to the true value of your acreage.
Since their ties to their Native blood were still close, intermarried families would often hide their children behind formal names of popular white male conquerors. So when the census workers came knocking, they found homes full of Andrew Jacksons, Thomas Jeffersons, George Washingtons and even Napolean Bonapartes.
And while many Cherokee had lighter skin than your average English-blooded farmer, it seems so obvious when you see most of their old photographs—the dark, deep set eyes and prominent cheekbones—that there had to be some underhanded way to get the census worker to mark you down as white.
While the generations who were closer to their Native ancestors held a quiet, private reverence for them, the further away the generations became and the more times began to change socially, the reverence for their elders was all but lost and replaced with the notion that being white was where it was at.
So when my grandmother points out the ethnicity of someone she encountered, it not only speaks of the void of cultural diversity and acceptance of her time, but it tells me that she’s slightly impressed with herself for how far she’s come and wants others to be as well.
When I see her and my husband conversing, I imagine a little voice inside her head is saying, “Would you look at this old Okie girl, just chatting it up with her Lebanese son-in-law!”
Granny, my great-grandmother, is the enigma. She was the oldest, the one least exposed to other cultures. But she was also one who still privately revered her Native American elders. I know now that when she said, “Well, don’t that beat all you ever saw?” in reaction to seeing a white woman kiss a black man, she really did mean: Doesn’t this beat all you ever saw?
Interracial couples were no longer hidden behind names of dead presidents. They were there on television for our viewing pleasure. They were her great-granddaughter and her future great-grandson-in-law, snuggled together next to her on the couch.
And despite the little race-bombs she’d drop when you’d least expect it, it was Granny who made Omar feel most welcome with her humor and the easy way she held herself around him. That he was a good man, pure in heart, and loved me dearly was all that she needed to know. She could see the something.
Read live (and trembling) at Voices Breaking Boundaries: What’s Color Got to Do With It? – A show exploring “the many sides of interracial relationships”