Mahdi

I was born in 1994 in Rabat, Morocco to a Moroccan father and an Algerian mother. We lived there for about 3 years, but my father quickly got out of the picture; I haven’t seen him since. After that we moved to Algeria, where my mom taught math. My grandfather still lives in Algeria and we have a lot of family back there. My mom has seven brothers and sisters but they all live all over the place: Seattle, Montreal, Torino.

My mom’s brother was at the barber one day in Algiers and he met my now-[step-]dad. My uncle was really into American culture and learning English so he invited him over to the house and they met. He’s half Japanese, half white, and had converted to Islam way before meeting my mother. He worked in the foreign service, which is why he was in Algeria in the first place. They got married and we moved to Bahrain for three years, then Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for another four years. It’s funny because when they first met, my mom didn’t speak English, so they communicated in French. But my mom always spoke to me in Arabic, and my dad always spoke to me in English. Eventually my dad got relocated to the main office in D.C. and we moved to Virginia. I was about 11 years old, I’ve been here since then. It wasn’t a complete transition, I’d had experiences of America and Canada either by visiting cousins or from T.V. so I had some idea of what to expect, I guess – sort of. Plus, I was leaving one foreign country to go to another, so I already had a pretty fluid sense of home. I remember one of the interesting things that happened to me actually was getting confronted during lunch time in middle school. I was eating lunch, minding my own business, and this Pakistani kid came up to me and said “you’re not eating halal.” I was so confused, what is this kid talking about? I went to my mom and asked her, that’s when she explained what the word meant and all the different things about thabeeha. It was definitely weird because this was the first time I was questioned about the way I practiced Islam, and by another Muslim in America nonetheless.

When I came to America I got this very specific definition of what being Arab meant, and it was kind of imposed on me. Like when people here think of Arab food they’re thinking Shami food, and we don’t eat that. When I tell people where I’m from they’re confused: are you African? Why aren’t you black? At that point I didn’t consider myself African, I didn’t understand what that meant as a distinct identity. I guess I considered myself Middle Eastern but I have this love-hate relationship with Arabs and it’s mostly due to my interactions with them. I hate it when I meet another Arab and they find out where I’m from and their first response is “ohh, I don’t understand you guys.” It’s like they’re excluding ‘me’ from ‘them’. No one complains about the Lebanese accent and their half-French dialect, why is Darija and North Africa in general so exotified and othered? It’s like a white person is talking about it. I know that often they’re being nice or well-intentioned, but it’s just off-putting and loaded with void assumptions. All the Arab world knows about North Africa is that our dialect is hard and we eat couscous. And white people have their assumptions too: as an Arab in American, I should inherently feel some sort of connection to all other Arab-Americans. I had this whole crisis my senior year: am I African? Am I Middle Eastern? It’s complicated. I think North Africa is at some weird crossroads. When I run into Moroccans here and tell them I’m Moroccan, they say “you don’t sound like it” because of my Algerian accent. But why would I lie about that? And then I have to explain myself, and this is what I have to do with Americans, explain myself. Why do I have to do it with my own people? That’s something that always frustrated me.

I do go visit Algeria whenever I could since we still have a lot of family there, but we don’t go as much as I’d like to. I was there last November. It’s shitty because the last time I was there my mom was introducing me to relatives that knew me and all about me and my life here, but I knew almost nothing about them. It just made me think, who do I think I am to be known to them in that way? But I enjoy visiting. Call me a colonial apologist but I miss the smell of fresh baguettes every morning in Algiers. I miss seeing the guys selling loose cigarettes, and having a guy for everything you need any time of the day. It’s refreshing although sometimes you don’t want to pay a random guy that decided to post up at a public restroom just to use it. When I graduated undergrad and was jobless for a few months, I made my mom teach me everything. I cook a lot of North African stuff, I can even cook a pretty good Kabsa. I always liked cooking, it intrigued me. I like the idea being able to sustain myself and I love my mom’s cooking. I love these recipes she shared and I’d hate not to know them in the future, when she’s not able to cook them for me anymore.  As for Morocco, sometimes I feel that there’s nothing to go back to there. When I want last time I was there by myself. Everything I knew about Morocco is what I’ve learned by myself or what my mom told me and she didn’t tell me much. All she said was “you were the only good thing to come out of that country.” My last trip really got me thinking about how I identify, I thought “what’s here for me?”