When I was 16, my Saudi father and I spoke for the first time. In his heavily-accented English, he told me that Saudi Arabia was my second home, despite the fact that I had never been there. Thus began the opening up of my second world – a part of my identity that was both foreign to me, and yet strangely familiar.
The movement from one identity to two was an indescribably enriching and confusing experience. I had always been a Midwesterner from the United States. I have my mother’s last name – she is the one who raised me – and I did not know Arabic. I didn’t even know very many people of Middle Eastern descent, and here I was being told that I belonged, in a way, to this distant country called Saudi Arabia. I had heard about Saudi Arabia growing up, of course – my mother made sure to tell me what she knew about my father and that side of my family. I had images in my mind from the maps she had shown me; basically, Saudi Arabia was one giant desert, and I had relatives there. When I did a History Day project on the Hajj in 7th grade, this inspired many more conversations with my mother, and my brain gathered as many stories as possible from my mother about what she knew about my father and his family. I knew that I had blood ties to people in Saudi Arabia, but with that first phone call with my father, everything seemed to change dramatically.
The first time we spoke, I did not know what to say. There were too many questions and it was impossible to know where to begin. So, I mainly listened. My father told me about his life, his time spent in the U.S. during which he had married my mother, and he kept apologizing for his bad English (it was not bad, actually). We had many very complicated feelings, justifiably, during that conversation, and the phone call left me both elated and angry. I do not recall the specifics of what all we talked about, but the vivid memory of my emotions will never fade.
On one call with my father later on, “Soak Up the Sun” by Sheryl Crow was playing in the background; I told him I could hear it, and he said, “yes, yes,” and said he enjoyed the music of Sheryl Crow, especially that song. This American hit, from that point on, would remind me of him, and consequently, Saudi Arabia. That has never changed; I occasionally put on that song to relive the positive aspects of those initial conversations.
From the age of sixteen on, I rapidly became acquainted with my Saudi family – my many aunts, uncles, cousins, and my two siblings who share the same father. I met quite a few of them on more than one occasion, and I am now very close to some of these people. My sister and I began seeing each other at least once a year; I can barely imagine or remember a time without her in my life. I received flowers and family photos by mail, regular phone calls from cousins, and spent hundreds of hours over the course of the next sixteen years (I am now thirty-two) hearing anecdotes, learning various Arabic words and phrases, and gaining a truly deep understanding of this fascinating culture.
As with any cross-cultural exchange, there are some “Lost in Translation” moments that go along with it. A first cousin of mine, who saw a photo of me eating ice cream, wrote in an MSN instant message to me, “you need a date.” I wrote back. “I don’t want a boyfriend right now,” I responded. We wrote back and forth for the next few minutes, with him telling me that having a boyfriend had nothing to do with it, and then eventually, with me finally understanding that he had meant to write, “you need a diet.” I told him it was rude to talk about someone’s weight like that. He sent back several emojis to convey that what I had pointed out was hilarious, and that telling someone eating ice cream that a diet was necessary was just a normal joke. Basically, he went on to tell me to chill out and to be less of an uptight American.
Because of the context in which I grew up, which was literally and figuratively very far removed from a Saudi Arabian identity, my new identity and my familiar one almost always stayed separate from one another. Over the years, as I grew accustomed to my father’s side of the family, their specific brand of humor, and the boisterous nature that was unfamiliar to me within my mother’s side of the family, the ways in which I spoke with my Saudi family differed drastically from my dynamic with my mother’s side of the family, the one I had always been around and been raised by. I would tell my mother’s family vaguely about my Saudi family when asked, and vice versa; however, beyond that, there really was zero overlap between my two lives – until recently.
Inevitably came the next movement – from that complete separation of two identities to this gradual hybrid of one. Slowly, the two sides of my family are becoming acquainted with one another. My mother and sister immediately bonded when they met (and I bonded with her mother), but beyond that, there was no overlap until even more recently. Now, I have had a Saudi cousin of mine meet one of my cousins on my mother’s side. There are connections that have formed on social media between my mom’s side and my father’s side of the family, conversations that now take place when I’m not even there. The two parts of myself seem to have found a way to connect.
My father has since died, but that did not put a wedge whatsoever between my connection with my Saudi side, or the connections that have been made between both of my families. The cultural understanding between them has grown, and I celebrate both of my cultural identities for what they are. Life is complex, which is not a bad thing. I will continue to listen to Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun” when the mood strikes me, and I will embrace my unusual perspective on it. I am an Arab-American woman, and this is my story.