I was reading on Arab-American women writers as part of my research and for the first time I find a lot that defines me and speaks for my experience. For the first time I felt inspired, and found my true voice. I could find myself in the words of Lisa Suhair Majaj who yearns for a recognition of her identity, not as the stereotyped "harem" girl, nor as the "Americanized" female. But I know that I am not eligible to dream that dream, nor to aspire that one day to free myself from the burden of people's expectations of my identity. Like Majaj, and many other Arab -Americans I wish to "walk into the forest empty handed, /climb up a mountain and down again,/ carrying no more than what any human needs to live". Like them, I want "to stand alone in a high place,/send [my] voice echoing across wild rivers"
These writers always struggled to define an identity that is denied by both: the Americans who always considered them "foreign", and framed them in an orientalist stereotype of exotic harem, and the Arabs, the other half of what they are, who considered them "Americanized" or "westernized" women who rebelled against their cultural traditions.
For an Iraqi girl who spent the time passing from teenage to adulthood reading Jane Austen, Emile Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, who loved poetry because of Emile Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove, and took "Still I Rise " as her motto in life, this girl was not less confused about who she is, and didn't struggle less with stereotyping and positioning as much as her favorite writers.
I lived most of my life in Iraq. My first travel happened late when I was already above thirty-five, but my mind traveled way before that, when I first read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and learned that in faraway land, miles and century and half away from Baghdad 1998, there was a girl names Elizabeth Bennett who refused to abide by the surrounding conviction of marriage, and sought someone who could win her mind and heart before winning her body. My mind took me to a room of my own, where an isolated 19th American girl, who might have lived unrecognized in her family's house, with suppressed screams for freedom and spiritual release, but loud enough to reach a girl of 22 in Baghdad. My traveling mind took me everywhere, to all the magical places my books offered, and brought me back to Baghdad, to my family house, different adult who can't live by the rules of her restricted culture.
By the time I finished my PhD, I could no longer identify myself with world around; it just seemed to me so small and so limited. I felt that I had the energy to reach to the stars, but my world was putting my down. At that time, I knew I don't belong to this world. I was so different from my sisters, for I never shared their interests, I was a disappointment to my mother, who suffered a lot with me for not being what she wanted me to be, and I know that I wanted more from my world that it could really offer. I developed a yearning to travel and live abroad, maybe in that world I have read so much about in literature, where I can be free, and only the sky can be my limits.
After years, the dream came true and now I am in London, where I can be whoever I want to be. However, only after settling in London. I realized the liminality of my position, that I have carried with me two cultures whose struggles against each other is still unresolved. In Baghdad, I failed to play the "good girl" part, and has been always my mother's worse headache, and my sisters' worry for not dreaming similar dreams. They all seemed to play in one team, playing one symphony, while I always felt like the black sheep, the one with uncanny voice.
The same sense of alienation seems to follow me in London, where I always wanted to be, because I wasn't as "westerner" as a European woman could be, nor I was the "wild" girl who can now set herself free after years of suppression. In London, I was "conservative" and "up-tight" girl who is "foreigner" to all other girls of her age! The same feeling of "I don't belong here" still overwhelms me, and I still couldn't find "my kind of people", till I started reading these Arab-American women writers. They speak to me, they know what I have been through, they were caught between two worlds neither seemed to be "home" enough for them.
Like them, I long for a status of being human, and nothing else need to follow in an identity card: I don't want to be defined as woman, as Muslim. or as Iraqi. I don't want people to build expectations, and characterize me once they see my head-scarf. I don't want an identity built on features I didn't choose for myself: for a biological reason I became a woman, and because my family was Muslim I was raised as one, and I didn't choose to be born in Iraq. But I choose to be everything else: I chose to be educated, to have a career, to sing a different song! I chose to survive and rise again from every fall I had to suffer in my adult years. I chose to be simply a human being.
N. F. Mohammed