Hey, Where You From?: I’m More at Home In Mideast Than Midwest

“But you don’t look American.” “Where are you really from?” “Where were your parents born?” I’ve heard this overseas, both in Europe and in places like Afghanistan and India, and I’ve heard it here in New York, but only from visitors. My black hair, dark brown eyes and olive skin reflect my Jewish ancestry, but presumably some of the people asking these questions are familiar with the existence of Jewish Americans, not to mention Hispanic and Italian-Americans.

“They ask if I’m Italian in France and French in Spain and Spanish in Italy,” I complained once to a Jewish American friend.

“They’re really asking if you’re Jewish,” she replied. “Take it from me. I grew up going to resorts all over Europe, and when they say that, they’re just too polite to come out and ask you.”

Of course, such delicacy argues that the trait being queried is seen as a stigma. But these questions annoy me for another reason. My family has been in the U.S. long enough to have won decorations in three American wars and have roads and factories with our name on them. We are no more and no less American than any other late-19th- or early-20th-century immigrants.

Most New Yorkers are sophisticated enough about our own little melting pot not to ask such questions. Even at New York’s private schools, there’s enough diversity that my friends’ kids have play dates with little boys and girls with interesting mixes like half-Ecuadorian, half-Iranian-Jewish.

It’s about time that the rest of the world adjusted to the idea that not all Americans are blond and blue-eyed. That should be obvious from the composition of our military. How can Europeans who watch American movies and TV and see us on the news all the time still think we’re all WASP’s? And what about The Sopranos?

Most Americans are by now too P.C. to say anything that might be construed as an ethnic slur, at least in front of members of an offendable group. But some still assume that Americans are people who look like them. “Americans stand out,” a fair-skinned and fair-haired reporter-not from New York-said, talking about his stint in Baghdad. Well, not this one. And maybe it’s because after 25 years of hearing that question-”Are you really American?”-I’m finally reveling in not looking like the blond, blue-eyed people that he-and presumably the Iraqi terrorists-think of as “real” Americans.

I feel an ungenerous zest creeping into my voice as I reply, “I don’t have that problem. With my coloring, they don’t know I’m a Westerner.” And I proudly tell about how the non Farsi-speaking Pashtun at the Kabul immigration counter handed me his disembarkation card to fill out in Farsi, and how the customs officer started to go through my luggage with the rigor reserved for returning Afghans. It’s the same complacency I feel explaining that I don’t use sunscreen and don’t need sunglasses, or that I prefer Arab and Afghan food to anything you can get in the Midwestern United States.

I might as well come out with it: I’m not most foreigners’ idea of a real American at all. In the Middle East, I feel a sense of belonging that I don’t feel in Middle America. I could live more easily in Kabul than in suburban New Jersey, where I grew up (especially now that there are a number of tennis courts and pools open there). I’d happily give up alcohol if, in exchange, I didn’t have to see another fast-food restaurant or strip mall; I’d trade all the processed foods in the supermarkets for a home-cooked Afghan meal. And at least in Afghanistan, Land Cruisers make sense.

Maybe I feel this way because my great-grandparents came from places more like Kabul than Paris or London; maybe it’s because Jewish Americans like me who grew up in the 60′s and 70′s are a little alienated from mainstream consumer culture. And maybe it’s because Hebrew and Arabic are closely related, and Muhammad borrowed heavily from Judaism, that the deep structure of Islamic civilization resonates with me.

I will always feel more at home in a mosque than a church or even a synagogue. It’s not about doctrine. Intellectually, I find Jesus’ message more impressive than either the Jewish traditions I grew up ignoring or the Islamic ones I’m studying now. But that cross-not to mention statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints-infallibly strikes me as idol worship. In the great early mosques, I find the austere grace my Jewish suburban temples conspicuously lacked, but which I like to believe our long-destroyed Temple possessed. For me, the visual culture of Islam is Judaism as it perhaps never was, but as it should have been.

And when people in the Middle East say I don’t look American, they have more of an excuse. Afghans didn’t grow up on American TV; if they’ve seen any Americans, it’s only in our military. (This fall I had to tell an Afghan friend who’d worked as a translator for the U.S. Army that it was not acceptable to ask, “So do you have many friends who are niggers?”) There’s also usually a tone of approval when Arabs say I don’t look American, because I look like them and most human beings unconsciously prefer people who look more rather than less like them. Arabs may dislike Israelis, and some may dislike all Jews by extension, but they don’t view them as alien in the way that European anti-Semites did and do.

I also resent the implication that Muslims are my ancestral enemies. Afghans didn’t incinerate six million of my people. And from the early Caliphate on, while Europe slumbered on in illiteracy and superstition, Jews who practiced their religion openly held high office in Muslim courts and contributed to the culture of a great civilization. Yes, there was discrimination against Jews and Christians in the Islamic world, and even pogroms, but things were still a lot better than in Europe.

I like to quote an Iraqi friend who says, “No matter what we feel about Israel, we still like you guys better than we like white people.” And I guess it’s the same for me. I’ll vent about the Iraqis’ pessimism and defeatism, and the Afghans’ hidebound traditionalism and lack of common sense, and the Yemenis’ insularity and the Iranians’ melancholia and slipperiness, but there’s a stylistic similarity, a way of expressing emotion and wit, that makes me feel at home with them, and them with me.

Ann Marlowe is the author of How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z (Anchor paperback) and The Book of Trouble (Harcourt, February 2006).