Grounding in the good is something I’ve been learning to do more and more as a mixed heritage woman. How can I lean into and learn from the cultures that made my parents who they are, while separating out and discarding elements that might not help me on the paths I am moving forward into.
How can I have pride in my background(s) and manage to be successful in witnessing generational baggage that I was never meant to bear. I have seen much that is difficult to digest in Arab culture and have also seen much that I admire so much that I’d want to sew the memory of it into the valves of my heart.
My sisters and I experienced varying degrees of rigid gender double standards. They were at once ridiculous to us and also sadly reinforced in ways that for sure did a fair amount of damage. To this day I am trying to learn to sit with the ways that my childhood may have left me ill prepared for success in the dynamic social world that is the American workplace/homeplace/heartplace.
But I have also learned to cherish the amazing cultural products that I am able to connect to and the artistic lineage I can draw from. Although I have only been to Egypt once thus far in my life, I will always be carrying with me the spirits of my aunties and female cousins. They are my living (and ever-living) reminders that not everything about Arab culture is as painfully enraging as my childhood was.
They were radiant and funny and sought to make the best of each moment and each day. They would wink at me from across the table to reassure me when I started to feel ashamed at how bad my Arabic was. They would cherish going out for ice cream in the evenings in Port Said. One of my favorite moments was learning to get used to any number of kisses on my cheeks when I would greet one of my aunties. Sometimes it was one kiss per cheek, sometimes it was 5 total.
Yes, there is much I do not like, to this day about Egyptian culture. About the stagnancy and vestiges of patriarchy that still exhibit quite a powerful hold. The sometimes narrow mindedness, racism and overly superficial emphasis on (western standards of) beauty. But I am also open and finding so much to love.
The interwebs allow me to find Egyptian shows and movies and actresses and singers that I can connect to my baba about. Or I that I can share in adoration of with my cousins. I am learning to incorporate more of the spices of my childhood into my everyday meals.
Do I make perfect molokhyiyya? Not yet, but I’m learning to embrace and celebrate the horticultural contributions of the SWANA region by learning the Arabic words for things (Curcumin comes from the Arabic word for turmeric and is the chemical that gives turmeric its color). I am messing up. And learning, and messing up again. The process IS the goal so I am trying not to cringe at the imperfection of it all.
Being of two (or more) cultures but raised in one country has meant that for too much of my life, I could not reap the amazing benefits of connecting to the cultural productions of one half of my identity. And now I am aiming to remedy that. Egypt has long been home to artists and creatives and getting to experience them is supplementing who I am in ways I felt I was deprived of previously.
With a baba trying to just be seen as normal, to just not be called “foreign”, I suppose he thought he was doing us a favor by not teaching us Arabic. By not sharing the music he loved or the movies he remembered. I have gotten rich on the gold of getting to learn about what a qanun is while listening to music with him. Or asking about recipes. In these ways I can reclaim things that I was a part of all along, and ground myself in the good. I am proud to be a part of that lineage and excited by the possibilities of learning more and grounding in the good.
Mary Barghout is a mixed heritage multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Minneapolis. Her experiences as an Egyptian American woman, and the many spheres of juggling that come along with it are complicated and help her to see the complexities in the world. She likes to name them, address them and live in empathy for the complexity in all people.