An Interview With a Palestinian American About Integrating Faith and Culture into the American Lifestyle
Zaid Alemam, a 21-year-old student at North Carolina State University, shares his experience of what it’s like being a Muslim Arab in America.
Assalaamu alaikum, Zaid, how are you?
Walikum Asalam. I’m well, thank you.
Winter break and New Years are almost upon us, so what do you and your Arab American friends do for fun? Is there a meshing of your two cultures, or do you just do American things?
I actually have two sets of Muslim American friends, which is kind of weird. It’s mainly because most of my immigrant Arab friends go to a different school than I. So I have those friends, but I also have friends that I made at my current college who are more “Americanized.” They’re all engineering students so I get to nerd it out with them when we hang out. My immigrant Arab friends are all business and med school students; we keep things more cultural and traditional.
I don’t live in a big urban city, so fun is very limited in our neck of the woods. If you look at the Raleigh subreddit, a lot of the posts are from users asking others about what they do for fun. The answer is usually alcohol, bar hopping, and clubbing. Other than that, there are very limited options. So our fun ends up including things like going to restaurants, going to the theater, watching different types of sports together, and sometimes actually going out to a sports event, like a football game. We’ve also been doing this thing where we all go buy snacks and food (falafel, shawarma, sfeeha, mana’eesh, etc) and meet up at a friend’s house and play FIFA or some sort of board game. Our favorites are Monopoly and Cards Against Humanity. Occasionally we will go to a hookah café, and ironically not order hookah but just chill and chat. We like the Middle Eastern setting and environment there.
Strangely enough, my two groups of friends don’t know much about each other because they never really crossed paths before. I have non-Muslim, non-Arab friends too, but we don’t hang out much outside of campus.
Many first or second generation Americans can relate to having a sort of split life, where one part is more traditional than the other. I suppose it depends on how traditional your family or background is. Do you have any memories of living in the Middle East?
I visit Jordan every couple of years. I was only 3 years old when we moved to the US. The only memories I have of Jordan before we immigrated to the US was of the truck my dad used to own. It was a 2-seater, so I would be seated in the middle where the engine compartment was. I remember how hot it felt sitting there.
What are some Arab customs you want to bring back into your life?
Mainly being more family oriented. I feel like my family is slowly becoming individualistic rather than collective, and I’m sure my children (iA) will have a hard time being Arab, if they are fully Arab. I also like the idea of having an elder everyone respects: the person people go to to resolve problems. Nowadays, the elderly say things and people just laugh at them and don’t take them seriously. It’s a real tragedy.
I’d also really like to have relationships with my neighbors; caring for them, asking about their health, exchanging food. I know none of my neighbors on a personal level. The only neighbors I happen to interact with are also Arab, and very few.
Middle Eastern weddings are very nice, too. You simply can’t have one the same way as they do back home. No people in cars honking their horns down the streets on the way to the wedding hall, no celebratory gunfire, no zafes [musical receptions]. I miss that.
America is a melting pot of cultures, but hasn’t yet accepted the Middle Eastern culture as its mainstream. It’s safe to say that the two are very different. Do you feel like you’re more Arab or American?
Not sure really, I feel more Arab, but at the same time I have a lot of American traits. Marriage is a good example: many Arabs only accept other Arabs as spouses, but I don’t mind where the person is from as long as they’re a good Muslim. I don’t long to live in the Middle East, though, for numerous reasons. I’d only go back for Palestine, but I don’t see that happening in the near future. I love some aspects of Arab culture, but I feel like a lot of it is backwards and not for me.
Do you think that living an American lifestyle would compromise your religion?
Not really, living in America gives me the freedom to change what the American lifestyle is, therefore I can keep the halal parts and throw out anything that’s haram. So it really just depends on what you make of it. I already live my own version of the American lifestyle.
Can you give examples of what that’s like? Some people living outside of the US might have the wrong impression of what it’s really like being Muslim here. What is your version of the American Muslim lifestyle?
I just do typical “American” things like go to football games, eat American food, listen to their music, etc.. I stay away from alcohol, girlfriends, and basically anything that would compromise my religion. Honestly, when you think about it, the world is so globalized, you see many similarities between Arab and American culture. Everything I mentioned can be done in the Middle East. There are some national holidays that I partake in that may be considered exclusively American, like Thanksgiving, so that really is the main difference.
Have you ever felt discriminated against, judged, or avoided because of your faith and culture?
When I was in middle school, people made fun of me for being Arab, even in front of the teachers, who didn’t do anything about it. But that’s just middle school and kids can be really rude there. I get weird looks when I pray in public, too. Two weeks ago, I went to my university’s football game and during halftime, I prayed ‘asr in a corner, and when I finished, I saw a man staring at me with an ugly look on his face… He didn’t say anything to me, and I didn’t say anything to him.
Are you optimistic about the future for Muslim Americans, or do you feel that recent events have pushed us back several steps? How can we rectify this?
I’m positive that in the long run, assuming ISIS doesn’t become a permanent thing, Muslims will be okay insha’Allah.
The most important thing is for us to engage in our communities, and not act like outsiders or strangers. Many bigoted people are bigots because they’ve never met a Muslim or spent time with them. When I meet new people and my religion happens to come up, they have a lot of questions. Many times the answers I provide for them really surprise them, so getting to know people and telling them about yourself helps out all Muslims. There are so many people that defend Islam and Muslims simply because they had a good interaction with another Muslim.
I do have high hopes for us. Most Americans are very friendly and accepting, but it’s always the loud minority that we hear about in the news and media.
Thank you for your time, Zaid, May Allah (swt) put barakah in all you do, and grant you happiness in this life and in the next. Assalaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
Ameen, jazaki Allah khair. Walikum asalam warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.