Labels

I got this flash of genius about Labels around 1 in the morning while laying in bed trying to solve all of the world’s problems instead of sleeping. Damn insomnia! Anyway, with Randa asleep next to me (because it’s HER bed when her father is working overseas) I can’t flip the light on and start rummaging through nightstand drawers searching for pen and paper to write down my brilliant epiphanies. So I grabbed my phone and used the recorder app. God bless technology. I hadn’t even known that thing was on there until my kids, who are not allowed to even touch my phone, found it and began making really bad attempts at gangster rap. *face palm* 

Here are my thoughts:    LABELS.

They’re what people use to define us. Sometimes they’re what we use to define ourselves. And those labels with which we define ourselves are not necessarily the ones that others would use to define us. This is true in any kind of label. It doesn’t have to be a good word or a bad word or whatever. We sometimes find ourselves in a position where others are defining us in a manner with which we do not agree, specifically, when people only see our outward appearances. My family is American. But when we live in the United States we are labeled as “Foreigners” because we are bilingual. We speak Arabic as well as English. We’re Muslim. And because of our appearance (my daughters and I wear the hijab and cover our hair and wear modest, loose-fitting clothes in public) a lot of times in Texas, and other states too, people cannot look beyond our clothing. Immediately, we’re “Foreigners.” We’re “Ragheads.” We’ve been told “Go back to your own country” when we’re in fact, already IN our own country. Every one of my children was born in the United States. My ancestors go back about 200 years of mostly Irish-American roots. My husband was born Egyptian, lived in Greece from 15 years old until he was 28 and after he and I married there, he came to the United States where he was naturalized. So, pretty much, we’re an American family with very long roots that span several different continents and the labels that others have for us are not things by which we define ourselves.

The name of my original blog was “Square Peg in a Round Hole.” And how does that fit me? Perfectly. Where you’re trying to force yourself to fit into a society where you just don’t fit. Being a family, inter-racial, inter-color?, international?….however you want to look at it…..couple with children, we don’t fit anywhere.
In the States, we’re viewed as “the Foreigners,” “the Muslims,” “the Terrorists,” “the Weirdos who are always overdressed” no matter where we go. We have those, not necessarily prejudiced, labels applied to us in the United States.

We’ve lived in Egypt now for 11 years. And here we’re also labeled. We still don’t fit into the package people want to shove us into. We’re “the Americans,” “the Foreigners,” “the Weirdos….how could you leave America to come here?” or the reverse “How can your country bomb all of these innocent people?” It’s all just more labeling. Here, at least, most people understand that Ahmed Q. Public is not writing foreign policy for his government. So in Egypt, people tend to be more forgiving of your countries actions with which they disagree. In the US, people forget that people are separate entities from the governments that represent them sometimes.

But the point is, we don’t fit the labels of any place where we live. I’m very strict with my kids. I’m a lot stricter with my kids than my Egyptian counterparts are with theirs. In the States, I’m stricter in some aspects and laxer in others seemingly. I guess we have different parenting styles. I know my mom thinks that I’m raising my kids wrong. I guess. I don’t know. But the things that we prioritize are different than those she  prioritized while I was growing up. We don’t fit into a particular mold. Where my sarcasm and sharp-tongued wit is acceptable in the States. In Egypt, it’s less acceptable. They think I talk “weirdly.” I mean, they laugh and think I’m generally a funny person. I get comments to that affect all of the time. But self-deprecation is not something that people “get” or appreciate as much and it catches them off guard.
   “How are the kids doing?”
“They’re brats….so I guess they’re just fine.”

That kind of a retort is considered scandalous. But we come from two different types of cultures. And where I am so adaptable in so many cultures, I still stick out like a sore thumb. In the States, I’ve been labeled as “leaving my American heritage” because I’ve chosen to conform to Islam on some points that I’ve come to agree with more than the things I was raised with. Not everything….but some things. The manners here are different than they are in the States. There are so many things culturally different….and so many things that are exactly the same.

I fit well here because of my Southern background. The Southern part of me is very generous. We’re very good hosts to our guests. We offer refreshment immediately to our guests and come to aid those around us and we get to know our neighbors. And that’s very much how it is here in the Arab world. It’s like Southern-hospitality meets Lawrence of Arabia. Respect for elders is a huge part of society here like it was the way I was brought up.

Some of the things that I now find unimportant, things I’ve adapted to in Islamic/Egyptian culture leave some of my American family members at a loss. Like thanking everyone for every damn thing they’ve ever done for you in their entire lives, I don’t think that’s important. I would rather God thank me for those things on Judgement Day. I also don’t want my kids to accept money for helping anybody with anything. Like if they were to babysit their cousins or to look after a neighbor’s pets or plants while the neighbor is away, they’re not to accept money for that unless there was an agreement in place for that ahead of time. Monetary rewards for being a good neighbor seems counterproductive to me. You’re just a hired hand and no longer a good neighbor. You do this and you will be paid by God, in blessings. If you accept the offered cash, you’ve been paid and the blessings offer is no longer on the table. In Islamic culture the same is true of a verbalized thank you. When one thanks you for doing something, the customary reply in Arabic is ” There is no thanks needed for duty.” Because it is one’s duty to assist his neighbors and no thanks should be required.

I want my kids to learn that not everything needs to be paid for. They have learned that. I have witnessed this in action. They’ve noticed their aunt struggling with groceries from the car to the house and without any prompting from me or anyone else, immediately go to her aid. My kids immediately offer to help neighbors or relatives by carrying heavy packages, groceries, or hold doors open because they know that that is what makes them good neighbors; good Muslims. They’re very polite. They see that something needs to be done and do it. Okay, they’re still not helping me with the dishes or whatever, because they’re still teenagers for crying out loud. But if there is broken glass on the steps of our building, they’ll not think twice about getting a broom and dustpan to clean it up before someone gets hurt. My two older boys climbed up on the roof of the bakery next door to us and cleaned up all of the trash and junk that neighbors had tossed on top of it from their windows or balconies over the last few years. It took them and a neighbor boy 4 hours to get the job done. And instead of thanking them, the neighbors all told them, “May God shine His light on you.”

These are their expressions of love; their expressions of respect. And they don’t expect payment. They don’t want payment or tips. They don’t want thank yous. They understand the appreciation is there, just as their appreciation is there for things that we do for them. They know that. And they know that if they’re not thanked in this world, that in the Next World, they will be. That’s the difference in the way that we’re raising our kids. We trying to teach them also to respect each other.

We’re having a hell of a time attempting to get that through to them right now. Respecting one another and respect for me are both pretty much out the window at this point. I’m only missing one in my teenage spectrum right now. Aiman will be 12 in January but because he’s the youngest and prone to early-starts in everything developmental, he’s already begun the “put upon” drama and teenage angst early. This is only because he’s already witnessed it 4 times over in his older brothers and sisters. So, a houseful of five teenagers, I’m losing my marbles. My oldest is only 17 so I have a couple more years of all of them being teenagers at the same time. Oh yeah…back to labels…which, “teenagers” is just another label, isn’t it? But with all of the hormonal crap I have to  put up with on a daily basis, I think it’s appropriate.

So, labels. My son and I had a long discussion about the N-word recently. To him, it’s something that he hears in video games like G.T.A. (the bane of my existence that I’ve deleted from our computer at least 3 times), and in gangster rap. He hears it used by 50-cent, by Ice Cube, by Snoop Dogg and others. To him it is nothing more than a word used by cool guys. I’ve tried my very best to influence him with original hip-hop from the early 80’s, where rap was more about self-promotion and pride and not about keeping others down with the use of the N-word, “bitches,” and “hoes.” He likes that stuff, but still seems to be drawn closer to the  “clippin’ N’s with my 9” kind of lyrics. His response to my continued efforts to break the use of these words is always, “It’s just the song. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Well, YES. It actually DOES mean something. The degradation of words like the n-word, is used to hold people down; to dehumanize. It was a term applied to people who were given a status one step above that of an animal. It indicates stupidity, ignorance, laziness, less than human. And it was meant to make our black brothers and sisters to feel inadequate and powerless. That is the history behind the word. It’s a word that we hear the younger generations use interchangeably with “dawg,” “brother,” “homeboy” now. Maybe they’re too young to remember the insult attached to it. I don’t know. But I don’t like it.

A similar comparison can be made to words like “bitch” and “ho.” The degradation of these words is used to hold women down; to slander them; to make them feel like their sole purpose in life is for the sexual gratification of men. They are terms applied to women, usually by men who do not respect them. Or by other women, who seemingly don’t respect themselves. While I agree that we’ve come to associate the meaning of the word “bitch” to someone who is crabby and complains all the time, this ultimately is NOT what it means. Bitch is a female dog….which means what? Pretty much the same as whore. Since dogs don’t mate for life and tend to mate with anything anatomically opposite when they’re in heat, wouldn’t that be an appropriate definition? And when my son gets mad and calls his sister a bitch, isn’t that true definition of what he’s insulting her with?

I’ve explained to him that according to his religion, what he is saying is 100% haram, wrong. In Islam, we are ALL equal in the eyes of God and no man is better than another save for ANYTHING other than his deen, religion….AND HOW HE PRACTICES IT. Also, in the Quran, women have the same value as men. (Oh, yeah….far different than what many people in the West believe.) Women, just like men, have rights and responsibilities. And there is an entire book of the Quran called “the Women ( النساء ). Throughout the Quran and in the Ahadeeth or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) the sin of sullying a woman’s name or spreading untrue slander about her is a sin punishable in this life AND in the hereafter:

Al-Noor 24: 23 reads as:
Those who slander against chaste, innocent, believing women shall indeed be cursed in this world as well as the hereafter. For them shall be a grievous punishment.
Al-Noor 24: 4 – 5 reads as:
Those who slander against chaste women and then do not produce four eye witnesses, shall be awarded with eighty lashes and their testimony shall never be accepted after this. These are the [true] transgressors, except those who [sincerely] repent after this and correct themselves, for, then, God is indeed forgiving, merciful. 

(**These texts are from a source I fully respect, Understanding Islam. You can see it here:  http://www.understanding-islam.com/articles/sources-of-islam/can-slander-of-chaste-women-be-forgiven-32 )

Anyway, I didn’t start writing this piece to proselytize. I’m merely pointing out how I explained to my son the wrongness behind the use of these words. I also tried to explain to him by examples he might get since he’s a boy whiter than mayo on Wonder bread. Because he isn’t black or a girl and imagining just leads to all kinds of tangent conversations because that is how ADHD works. (Trust me. I know THAT first hand, too.)

I tried it this way:

     “Ismail, you know how when we lived in Texas those four months and the people across the street would let their kids play with you until they saw Randa and me come outside in our scarves?”

     “Yeah. That was weird the way their grandmother came out and ran them all back into the house and shut the door and they weren’t allowed outside anymore after that. Why’d she do that?”

     “I heard what she was saying. She told the kids to come inside because we were terrorists.”

     “But she was speaking Spanish.”

     “I speak Spanish, too, son.”

     “But why would she say that? We’re not terrorists. We don’t blow up planes.”

    “I know. But a lot of people associate the word terrorist with Arab or Muslim. And so they think we’re bad people because a lot of people want the world to think that about all Arabs and Muslims.”

     “But we’re American.”

     “It doesn’t matter where someone is from, what religion they are, what color they are, whether they are boy or girl, fat or thin, young or old, rich or poor. Labels are not a good thing to put on others and they are definitely not something we should judge others by.”

     “So what does that have to do with gangster rap?”

     “Well, I think that you’re missing the point of some of the lyrics. The underlying meaning of SOME of those raps have more to do with a situation or background that you cannot relate to because whether you were born in downtown Augusta, Georgia or not, you are NOT from the hood and you’ve lived an incredibly sheltered life. I am not certain why some rap artists find it necessary to use degrading words to define themselves and their family or friends and women in their lives. But I do know that the use of those words has done so much more harm than good. And I want you to stop using them. They’re not cool words. They are 1,000 different types of inappropriate. Do you understand?”

     “Yes, ma’am.”

Has it stopped it completely? Well, come on. He’s a teenager. So, no. But he has agreed to work on it and I’m trying to stop dropping F-bombs. No reason to just blame THAT on my Irish label either, right?

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2 thoughts on “Labels

  1. I LOVE this post, and I love that you fly your “freak flag” with pride. So do I. Although I don't have to deal with a lot of the things you do, we live in an area with A LOT of mennonites, and the looks I get from them in summer for wearing shorts and a tank are not always nice, no one has ever told me that I was being un-Canadian. You're brave and wonderful and I love you just as you are!

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  2. We really have far too much in common; first, places we live and now, how we are raising our children. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I tell my neighbor not to pay my kids, she does – but frequently by taking them out to lunch instead of with cash. It's a small win, but I'll take it.
    I, too, hate labels. With a family of 4 ADHD folks (three diagnosed, one self-diagnosed – hey, I've read enough by now to be honest with myself), that is where my label hating began. Our ADHD doesn't make us any different than your religion makes you. After all, we are both mothers, both women, both wives. . .we have more in common than not. Labels irritate me.

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