We Are More: I Can’t Tell


It’s February 1991, and I can’t tell you where the Middle East is on a map, or why it’s called the Middle East. But my family eats Syrian bread with every meal (I can’t tell you the difference between Syrian bread and pita, but I know they’re not the same). My grandmother speaks Arabic, or more specifically, swears in Arabic. She won’t tell me what it means in English, but she does translate مجنون (mujnun), which means crazy and which she calls my me and my brother every chance she gets. I can’t tell you if she ever considers why my brother and I act a little ‘off’ sometimes, but I share a bedroom with her, and my brother shares a room with my father, and my uncles get their own rooms: one in the attic and the other gets a regular bedroom. There are six of us in one house. There’s not enough house for any of us to get a second’s peace. We don’t say I love you. Instead, Sittoo says مجنون. She says other things too, of course. Every morning, she asks if I’ve washed my face, and I lie and say yes, and she tells me, “It doesn’t look it.” And after I take a bath at night, she hugs me and tells me I smell pretty, which doesn’t mean much because she basically mainlines packs of Pall Malls and coffee. After she switches to Lucky Strikes when I’m in middle school, I lose my ability to know what’s true. But it’s hard for me to tell her so. It’s hard for me to understand why she says what she says, why she does what she does. Then again, there are all sorts of things I barely understand.

Toward the top of my list: the day my math teacher wheels a television into our classroom and turns it on without explanation. He’d already chosen the channel—CNN—and his eagerness erupts while we watch. On the screen, U.S. soldiers wear brown camouflage and march in tight formations across a field of sand. Their guns touch the edges of the screen, end to end. I don’t understand why we’re watching TV at school, though our teacher will later mention that he’s a veteran, as if that means anything to us. I don’t know that this event, this thing they call the Gulf War, is the first with live feed from the front lines. Admittedly, I’m not sure I would’ve cared even if I’d known. I had other concerns. Watching those soldiers, I felt exposed. I wasn’t afraid America would be attacked. I didn’t assume we’d suffer any consequence for invading someone else’s country. In that moment, I thought only of myself. “Please don’t let anyone notice I’m Middle Eastern.” I was in fourth grade. I’d turned nine the previous September.


Ten and a half years later, my brother calls me on my birthday. He wishes me a happy one and says, “Whatever you do, don’t turn on the TV.” I mumble my gratitude and go back to sleep. It’s barely 9am. When I get up later, I remember my brother’s warning. I don’t have cable and can’t afford the internet, so I turn on the radio. Winding the dial to the lowest FM station, I pick up the audio for ABC, a habit I picked up from my roommate, who regularly fell asleep to Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. ABC’s soundtrack is somber: “Smoke is streaming from the Pentagon.” I sit in my living room and hold my own hands, aware that I’m alone. My roommate is out of town. The descriptions continue. “—an organized terrorist attack.” I look toward the window at the late morning sun that belies the day’s events, and my mind sets forth dramatic upheavals: tanks in the streets, skyscrapers fainting, men who look like me and my family making demands I don’t understand. In the months that followed my twentieth birthday, white people theorized about who was responsible. My brother, a former Marine, blamed Saddam Hussein. Reporters discussed the last time the World Trade Center had come under attack. “1993. Ramzi Yousef. Another al-Qaeda terrorist.” Yousef was a Pakistani from Kuwait. I can’t find either on a map, but— “Another al-Qaeda terrorist.” Anyone can tell what that means: another Middle Easterner.


“Syrian? Really? What’s your last name?”

I can’t tell if it’s worthwhile to recount the whole thing at a party. Sittoo’s maiden name is Abraham, mangled when her father came through Ellis Island at the end of the 1890s. In Syria, it was وهبي (Webhe), but since her father’s father’s first name was Ibrahim, the Ellis Island agents picked up Abraham and deemed it close enough. But, extending this new name back to Amar where Ibrahim still lived, he becomes Ibrahim Abraham. And if that’s not enough to make the story too strange to tell, way back in the eighteenth century, before Ibrahim was born, he had an ancestor, Webhe Webhe, whose name I find fascinating in the same way I think novels from the middle of the twentieth century are fascinating, like the character from Catch-22 whose name becomes Major Major Major Major. Catch-22: another war story. But suddenly, my family feels literary. Yet that’s not what my new white acquaintance at this party wants to know. I can’t tell what they’re expecting, so I give them the last name I was born with.

And, of course, they redouble their efforts, “Syrian: really? Tell me what percentage—”


I get similar responses, the demand for percentages, when I talk about my maternal relatives. I don’t learn the phrase “blood quantum” until I’m well into my thirties, but I know it’s what my father used to undermine my mother’s ancestry. Blood quantum is the denial of citizenship and community, as well as access to any material resources, to Indigenous people whose ancestry is lower than x%. The value of x changes depending on the nation, but blood quantum was the U.S. federal government’s attempt to sow division between Native peoples when it came time for them to receive federally allotted land. Robbed of their claim to ‘authenticity,’ they also lost their chance to foster belonging. My Syrian-Polish father took that from my Irish-Creek mother, and in doing so, he also took it from me. Around the time I first learned about blood quantum, I also confirmed my mother’s heritage through census records. My father had always called my mother a pathological liar. She was Lillian Hellmann to his Mary McCarthy: according to him, every word my mother said was a lie, including and and the. But my mother’s grandfather is on the 1910 Indian Census as a member of Creek Nation, and his mother is on the Dawes Roll before that. So, even if she was lying about and, her the checks out under scrutiny.

I can’t tell much beyond that—I’m estranged from both my parents—but having these details reinforces the only detail I’ve always known. I was raised by my Syrian relatives, so I identify as a multiracial Arab. My best friend recently asked, “Why multiracial and Arab?”

“Multiracial for race. Arab for ethnicity. I can’t believe we’ve never had that conversation.” Then I remembered how long it took me to figure out how to talk about it, how long I went not knowing how to navigate the blast radius the U.S. rigs around race, especially for Arabs, who aren’t white unless it comes to a government form, and who aren’t American, even when we definitively are.


It took me decades to decipher the convoluted colonial map called the Middle East, and that’s only because I noticed the Far East and the Near East. Everything configured in relation to the Empire, not the Ottoman Empire, which my Syrian ancestors left as it teetered on the brink of collapse, but the British Empire. Though as long as we’re on the topic of that other empire—the Ottoman—my great-grandfather, Joseph, was born يوسف (Yusef) in Amar Al-Husn, a small village in Homs, Syria. My great-grandmother, نافع (Naifeh), renamed Minnie at Ellis Island, was also born in Homs. They both came to the States in the 1890s, and met in Pennsylvania. Census records sometimes list Minnie’s nationality as Syrian. Other times, she’s Ottoman Syrian. One outlier labels her Turkish. The flattening of the region, her home, her identity—sends a message loud and clear: We’ll tell you where you’re from. We’ll tell you who you can be. We’ll say what you are and what you’re not.

The borders of any country are bound to move the further you recede into its past, but the fluidity of my relatives’ identity in ‘official’ records matches the West’s depiction of Middle Easterners, not their own: personal details matter less than divergence from the norm. So, when Western whites say you’re praying to the wrong part of the sky, or maybe it’s the right part but with the wrong words, or maybe you’re wearing the wrong clothes or signing off with the wrong name—when one or two or all of this happens, as occurs with some Middle Easterners, then they embody what white America isn’t. What they are, white Americans aren’t. Which is how and why, for white Americans, turbans and hijabs and burqas and keffiyehs signal elsewhere. Being born and raised here, I learned all about elsewhere without knowing my connections to it, and though I can’t tell you when I learned to suppress my curiosity about the Middle East and other Arabs, I’m trying like hell to earn the right to grow that curiosity back.


I’d always had Arab classmates. In grade school, many were distant cousins—not that we knew, since my Sittoo’s married name was Polish, and my father changed his last name before I was born, so my birth name is doubly removed from Abraham/Webhe/وهبي—but in fifth grade, I met my first Middle Eastern classmate who I knew wasn’t a relative. His name was Mahmoud and he had something I was both compelled by and afraid of: certainty. He knew where he was from. He could tell you without hesitation. And, because of his name and his appearance, he didn’t have to tell me. He had what I thought of as bona fides. All I had was Sittoo’s grape leaves, kibbeh, and tabouleh. And her bursts of Arabic that, to this day, I still don’t fully understand. I was jealous and scared of Mahmoud’s certainty, scared because I believed everything I’d heard in the year since the televised war. The war was in Kuwait and the other soldiers were Iraqi, but no one I knew used those terms. The war was in the Middle East. The conflicts were Middle Eastern. Middle Easterners hated the U.S. They were so foreign but so familiar: I was and wasn’t one of them. And so, for a time, being Arab American was a practice in conflict and confusion.


I can’t tell my brother why it’s hard for me to understand his choice to serve in the military. Even if he didn’t serve in Syria, even if he didn’t leave the United States, even if he’d sat in an office and worked as a military clerk the entire time, he served an organization that deployed soldiers to the Middle East, a place that remains so highly politicized there’s no way to even begin to ask him: what if we have family there? It’s honestly not even a question: we absolutely have family there.

Many of the borders between Middle Eastern countries are political rather than ethnic. A complicated example: the first Gulf War began after Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi soldiers to Kuwait because he purportedly believed Kuwait to have been carved out of Iraq by British colonialists. While it’s true that Britain named Kuwait their protectorate by 1899, Iraq also became a British mandate in 1920. The Empire strikes again. And again. And again after that. That said, Lebanon and Syria were both French mandates before achieving independence in the 1940s. As a result of the convoluted turns of colonialism, national identity is hard to separate from either country. And even beyond nationality, options for ethnic identity abound. If I lived in Syria, I might be Arab, Syriac, or Syrian, with the last being a reference to Syrian nationalism, and within each category, there are religious and cultural branches that yield more terms.

But in the States, those branches don’t exist. According to mainstream media, Syria is the faroff, to be avoided, the whitewashed, the war-torn, the tragic. Its neighbors, like Lebanon, look better in comparison, distilling Arab American identity down to conflicts or peace, loud politics or mute assimilation. Anyone in between gets erased, and Syrian identity gets ignored in favor of combining majority-Arab countries. To be fair, this conflation lands differently depending on the source. Arab Americans who engage in calls for pan-ethnic solidarity draw from a long history of other communities of color, often led by Black activists, who’ve summoned strength from unifying across disparate nations. It’s not unlike the power in the label Asian American, the identity that encompasses the opposite end of the continent. Though that term has its problems too, it also retains power: while it denies the nuance and history between people whose families have ties to countries in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands, the term allows them to band together in order to gain resilience. Which is why I’m admittedly heartened by the push to move from MENA (Middle East and North Africa) to SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa), but of course, “the Middle East” has robust traction in the west as a phrase and identity. So, until SWANA gains more steam, I’m stuck being called ‘Middle Eastern,’ and more importantly, I’m stuck figuring out what that means for me day to day.


“Don’t tell me. You’re . . . Italian, right? Or maybe Greek? No, wait: are you Jewish?”


“Oh. Oh. That must be—really hard.”

“Not really.”

“Oh. So, wait. You’re something else too, right? I can’t tell what it is, but—”

“Polish. I think. I can’t really tell—the country’s name changed during the Austro-Hungarian war. Also, Irish and Native American. Mvskoke, specifically, but I don’t have affiliation with—”

“Oh! My sister wants to be Native!”


On every form that asks for racial identity, I always read the options hoping they’ve somehow changed. By and large, they haven’t. According to census forms and the organizations who get federal funding, Middle Easterners are still categorized as “white” in the U.S., and my estrangement from my mother stops me from claiming my Native ancestry. I’ve long wished for another option, to acknowledge the space between white and not. As in, A White That’s Brown and Red. As in, Some Middle Easterners Are Brown, But Not Quite Brown Enough.

People from SWANA countries come in various colors. Olive, tawny, bronze, taupe, ebony, russet, gold. I tend toward a light olive-yellow. But again, in fifth grade, when all the white kids had lost their summer tans, I’d kept my color, much to the dismay of two white girls in my class. They whisper to each other before one announces to me, “You’re green.” I look at the backs of my hands, those telltale symbols of identity, and find they not only looked sickly in the fluorescent light, their tone has also changed. What color did these girls expect me to be? What color should I have been instead? And if, according to official forms, Middle Easterners are supposedly “white,” why was I something else?

That same year, a boy in my class named Cecilio asks me, “What are you?” I know what he means. But my answer is tied to official forms and my father’s cynicism and the surveillance of sheltered white girls, so I tell him I don’t know. Yet ignorance doesn’t cut it for invasive ten-year-olds, and Cecilio laughs me out of the room. “She doesn’t know??” He says this to the air. Even as I stand in front of him, he talks as if I wasn’t even there, as if I wasn’t worth acknowledging. And, in a way, I wasn’t. Much like Mahmoud, Cecilio has certainty. His last name is Gutierrez. His family immigrated from Puerto Rico. He knows exactly who and what he is.


“Are you a boy or a girl?”

This question from a four-year-old. I unzip my hoodie so he can see the shape of my chest. He hides his face in his mother’s side. His mother, my co-worker says, “Kids. They can’t tell sometimes, you know?”

All through middle school, my brother’s classmates called me his little brother. One of my classmates took to calling me Boy-Girl. Adults were never direct about my androgyny, but family and friends assessed our faces, sometimes to our faces. When I was fourteen, my brother went to visit a friend and I tagged along. His friend was a girl he’d known forever: a fair, blond girl whose dark-complexioned Egyptian father determined our authenticity in a single metric, gauged us on a previously unknown scale while we waited for his daughter. According to this scale, he said my brother didn’t look Middle Eastern. Then he pointed to me. “But your sister,” he reached toward my face in appraisal. “There’s a Middle Eastern nose.” Presto Change-O: my very own bona fide, a sudden certainty. My nose: proof positive of the genuine article. A Middle Eastern nose, my entire identity distilled down to a single aspect of my body. We were one and the same. He’d said it himself: There’s a Middle Eastern nose.


“Your nose has been broken how many times?”


A pause. Doubt. Or its twin. “You know, from the one side, I can’t tell.”

My father and I used to have the same nose—though that’s based on assumption rather than fact. He worked as a fashion model before he met my mother. During that time, he had his nose broken and trimmed to attain a leaner structure. But shortly after meeting my mother, he got in a skiing accident—a skier ran over his face—so his cosmetically broken nose was broken all over again. For that reason, cosmetic surgery seemed normal to him. In his defense, I think he believed it would help me.

In middle school and high school, my classmates literally made games centered around my face. They shot rubber bands at me during class. If they hit my nose, they got a point. During lunch, white boys declared the changes I’d need to make in order to have sex: namely, a bag over my head. When my grades took a dive in high school, my father diagnosed me with “low self-esteem,” and wasted no time in offering to have my nose surgically altered. A septoplasty and rhinoplasty.

When I tell this story to friends now—an admittedly rare occurrence—my white male friends invariably ask, “Why did you say yes?” It happened more than 20 years ago. I still can’t tell anyone what his house was like. I’ve invented dozens of ways to talk around it. Short version: I got the short straw when it comes to parents. The longer version: I once tried to run away. The police brought me back. When they left, my father took the phone off the hook so I couldn’t call anyone if I needed help. An offer for surgery wasn’t a multiple-choice question. I was his property.

But it wasn’t forced—not that part. I was raised to recognize my position.  Living in his house was a crash course in How to Hate Women As a Woman, cross-listed as Ironic Orientalism 101. My father displayed statuettes under glass, sculptures of geishas in shelving units he called curio cabinets. He also had sculptures of Japanese fishermen, but those he kept out in the open. The geishas were made of high-gloss porcelain, their skin a shiny white. The fishermen were made of unglazed clay—an even, muddy brown. My father’s idea of feminine beauty was clear to me early on. If a woman was Asian, he preferred she be from the eastern end. Also, pale. And delicate, of course. And let’s not forget fragile. There weren’t any women in his life he couldn’t break if he wanted to.

In adulthood, I’ve heard jokes about SWANA women getting nose jobs, but few call a rhinoplasty what it is: literal erasure. Grind the bone. If it won’t grind, break and realign it. Snip the cartilage. Eliminate the large, eliminate the bumps. Cut away the drooping ends. Pretend they were never there. Sew up what’s left. Keep it under wraps. And there: a censored face. You can’t even tell. Don’t talk about it. Not a word. I can’t tell.

And if that wasn’t confusing enough, on the day I met the Ear Nose and Throat specialist, my father told him I’d fallen off a skateboard. “She landed on her face, the klutz.” Implied: my face looked like an accident. Not my genes, or his genes, not the shape we’d inherited from a long line of Arabs before us.

To be clear, if he could convince the surgeon the procedure was reconstructive, the insurance would pay for it. Surprise, surprise: the surgery didn’t cost a dime.

But still, my nose remains crooked, despite doctors breaking it twice. So, still, people ask what I am. And still, I’m tempted to tell them, “I don’t know. I can’t tell.”


HER: “And you’re Middle Eastern, right?”

THEM: “She’s Iranian.”

ME: “I’m Syrian.”

THEM: “That’s right! I can’t believe I forgot. Your nose is so—so interesting!”

I’ve learned to distrust white people’s interest in my heritage. It’s not that I haven’t encountered white people who are genuinely kind, but part of me wonders: why is their interest valued more than my peace of mind? Do I value my peace of mind? Is the situation my own fault? Am I allowed to be upset when people misread me as white? Don’t I deserve to be misread when I’ve worried at various times in my life that white people would know I’m Arab? When I literally agreed to cosmetic surgery to reverse an obvious clue? Should I even be allowed to stake a claim in any conversation about Arab culture or art or pain?

I can’t tell what I’m allowed to say about Arab American identity.


My best friend and I have this bit we do for friends sometimes. He’s white. We’ve been friends for over eighteen years, and it’s happened ever since we met. The bit goes like this: “When we go to a Middle Eastern store, doesn’t matter if it’s a dry goods store or restaurant, if I walk in first, the first word we hear is, Salam! If I walk in behind him, the same person will greet me with, Hello!

No matter how many times we’ve gone through it, it always makes me laugh. First, because it’s 110% true, but also because it’s endearing. There’s so much joy in that greeting. When Arabs recognize me, I belong. It’s nice to be seen by someone who understands, if not the parts specific to my life, then the struggle of existing within and without Arab communities. I know they know—otherwise, they wouldn’t offer that friendly salutation or rescind it when they think it won’t be received.

To return their kindness, I give them my best smile, hoping it conveys both my desire to be in their company while also communicating the ways my very elementary understanding of Arabic stops me from engaging in conversation. Yet I continue to throw myself into situations with Arab strangers and shopkeepers. I’ve pulled aside at least half a dozen Iraqi and Lebanese restaurant owners in Boston to ask about their  كبة بيل صينية (kibbeh bil sanieh) recipes. I grew up eating my sittoo’s  كبة (kibbeh), a wheat and meat dish whose preparation varies depending on the region where it’s made. I can almost always count on the wide availability of Iraqi كبة—served as fried dumplings that look like tiny footballs—but I grew up eating baked كبة, which is commonly served in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, so that’s what I crave, and that’s what I ask these strangers for. But, even when they have it, they don’t. It’s never the same: Sittoo always put whole pine nuts in the layers of her  كبة بيل صينية, and no matter where I’ve gone, that’s the one ingredient that’s always missing. So, I pull these restauranteurs aside, and gently suggest they change their recipe, and every time, they tell me they don’t serve it that way. But, at the same time, they also reveal they know somebody else who does. Yet they never tell me who that is, and I haven’t figured out how to ask. If I push too hard, it seems like I’m telling them who and how I think they should be—a question that, if asked wrong, would rhyme with “What are you?”

I still can’t really answer that question, even in adulthood, which I learned the hard way when my Intro to Arabic teacher, an Iranian polyglot, asked me repeatedly about my interest in Arabic, about my name and what it means, about my family. But I tried to tell her with my eyes, Don’t ask me. Ask my classmates. They have easy answers, friendly answers. Please. Don’t you know I can’t tell?


“If TSA is trained to treat everybody the same, they can’t tell the passengers apart.”

The last time I spoke to my brother, he had a full beard. The longest he’d had to that point, so he told me, about an inch and a half long. He’d recently flown from Arkansas to Florida on vacation. He posted a photo online, a selfie as he waited to board. A friend commented: “I bet that beard gets you a pat down at security.” My brother had no problems at the airport, but his friend’s comment made me wonder—if I saw him from a distance, how would I assess my brother’s heritage based on his appearance? Would he read as Middle Eastern to me if I didn’t already know him?

I think of it again when my brother and I fight for the last time. A fight about the election. I ask him about his son. “If he met our ancestors—his own ancestors—would he be afraid? If we still lived in the Middle East, would he be afraid of us?” My brother didn’t answer my question. Instead, he called me a white Arab. I asked him what that meant. Again, he didn’t answer.

I frame this as the last time I fought with my brother, but we not only stopped fighting—we stopped talking altogether. When we spoke regularly, he used to tell me he didn’t recognize me anymore, that I wasn’t the person he grew up with. When I asked him to describe her for me, he couldn’t. All he would say was he wanted me to be his sister. I told him, biologically, he already got what he wanted, though what I believe he actually wanted was for me to never change. But no matter your strength, it’s impossible to hold the same pose all the time.


“Bisexual? Like half-gay, half-straight?” Again with the percentages. Next time, I should just say yeah, half and half. Fifty-fifty, a hundred percent of the time. Except when it’s sixty-forty. Or seventy-five and twenty-five. Or ten times ten. Or when it falls to zero after decades of questions force me to wonder how I could still be a person at all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered how to be a person that other people recognize without question.

Just like I can’t tell you the name for my gender. There’s really not a word for it. I’ve never met the standards to be a woman or a man. Not girlish enough to be femme, or masc enough to be butch. My gender doesn’t neatly align with any label in any language I know.

For so long, the terms in Arabic for homosexuality or queerness were slurs. The Arabic words for sodomite and abnormal were common parlance to describe any and all homosexual acts and people. Arab activists have worked to change that, but most of the terms they’ve coined are new, and it takes time, and they face backlash. So it goes in the U.S. too. Nicknames like “the alphabet mafia” replace LGBTQ+. Bisexuality is turned into a joke about threesomes, unicorns, mirages, and moon phases. Trans people are told we can’t expect people to understand “new” pronouns (PS: singular they is older than plural you.). And, yes, queer has been reclaimed in academic circles, but most people aren’t academics, so, while some people are strong enough to take back the words fag or dyke to describe themselves, it still hurts when strangers, family members, and friends have used either word to describe me. So it goes in Arabic-speaking countries. The new words don’t always fit, and the old ones are ready-made, right there at hand, when someone wants to try to strike a nerve. No wonder it took me so long to develop the muscle to talk about myself.


When I was a kid, my sittoo asked my father why she couldn’t give me a nickname. She was asking permission to use a diminutive version of my given name. And my father told her, “If we’d wanted to call her that, we would’ve named her that in the first place.”

Names are complicated in my family. I called my grandmother’s mother Sittoo Minnie, though she was born نافع (Naifeh), the Arabic word for beneficial or valuable. She was born in Syria, but when she moved to the United States with her parents, نافع was pressed through the gates at Ellis Island, and her name emerged warped on the other side. نافع became Minnie, short for miniature: the mini diminutive. This renaming is bureaucratic, like Ibrahim Abraham, an assimilationist tactic that says, “You want to live here? We’ll tell you who you are.”

My father fully understood this tactic. No matter what he’d told his mother, he gave me his own bureaucratic little nickname. Not a miniature version of my name, but something to make me feel smaller: my father called me Missy. Missy, a name men often use to take women down several pegs. Missy, the name that inevitably follows strongarm scripts like “Look here” or “Listen up” or “Not while you’re living under this roof.” Translation: “You want to live here? I’ll tell you who you are.”


I can’t tell you who I am. I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to tell someone anyway. The ways I’ve divided myself into parts in order to be understood. Syrian, Mvskoke, Polish-Hungarian. Multiracial, mixed, Arab, Arab American. Feminine, masculine, androgynous, genderqueer, gender-nonconforming. Queer, bisexual, gay, straight. Estranged, lonely, abandoned. And then, the things I’ve been called. And then, the things I’ve told myself. My bona fide broken bones. My former birthday: September 11. My Arabic illiteracy. My lies: “It’s fine to surrender to saying ‘Middle Eastern’ when people don’t know what SWANA means.”

I can’t tell you how many times. I can’t tell you how. I can’t tell you. I can’t tell.

But when it comes to telling myself, here’s the hardest of hard truths: I’m all of these moments, the sum of these parts, all the labels, all the names I’ve been called. Every mistake, every misstep, every misunderstanding. Every time I’ve fought with my brother, every time somebody mangled my heritage, every time I’ve wished my grandmother had taught me Arabic, every time I’ve avoided scrutiny. All of it. It’s all me. So, next time I’m asked “What are you?” instead of saying I can’t tell, I’ll point to myself: to my body, to these memories, to these cultures, a culmination set to seethe.




Logo by Mina M. Jafari
Column artwork by Abdel Morched.

We Are More is an inclusive space for SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) and SWANA diaspora writers to tell our stories, our way. Curated by Michelle Zamanian, this new column seeks to disrupt the media’s negative and stereotypical narratives by creating a consistent platform to be heard, outside of and beyond the waxing and waning interest of the news cycle. We’ll publish creative nonfiction, graphic essays, fiction, poetry, and interviews by SWANA writers on a wide variety of subject matter. 

Key K. Bird is a fiction writer whose stories have been published online and in print. They're currently working on a novel. More from this author →