Changing Visions of Ourselves > From Generation to Generation

Chicago

Widad Albassam

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Director, Arab American Arts Council

The kids are trying to figure it all out. There’s a backlash in the schools — you’ll hear comments like, “you should be in jail because you’re an Arab” or “their religion allows them to be violent.” My kids go to a private “laboratory” school connected with the University of Chicago; my son has a reputation in school as a radical. So on all his papers he writes in Arabic, Long Live Palestine / Allahu Akbar [God is Great].

His teachers have no idea what it means. His French teacher challenged him by saying, “I don’t like to see foreign language on your papers.” He answered, “you’re teaching me a foreign language.” I told him you have the right to write whatever you want, and I will stand by you. If they want to know what it says, they can ask you. I have always taught my children you should stand up for what you know is right.

After 9/11 I went to the principal and said that teachers need to be more respectful in their statements about Muslims and Arabs, for the sake of the Muslim students in the school. We brought in someone from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the university to talk to the teachers. We started the process two days after 9/11 when my son came home and told me about the comments he was hearing. We initiated it but the school was receptive. They worked with us to put together a display for Arab Heritage Month. …

I’m very wary of how my son will figure things out. He’s bombarded with what we all get ... He’s very keen to go “home.” This is home - this is where he was born and raised.

They’ve been beating the drums of war for ten months, and he told me he can’t live in enemy territory. Up until now he’s traveled home every summer, to give him some sense of where we come from — he’s been to Saudi Arabia, Beirut, Syria. We get there and feel a sense of relief, like we can finally breathe. It’s ironic to feel freer there than here.

My son hangs out with Asian and Black students, he has no friends from the “mainstream.” It is quite a phenomenon for us to see this happening. It’s a link we haven’t attempted to make.

My daughter has a different reaction. She doesn’t deny her Arab-ness, but she’s trying hard to find her niche here, her place, to figure it all out. She is 16 years old ...she doesn’t want to talk about Palestine with her friends, she’d rather be quiet and write papers about Zionism.

Women adapt better than men to whatever situation. We’re more malleable, we try to appease others.