Location: Montreal, QC, Canada (Atwater Metro Station) Year: 2004
A snippet of a conversation an acquaintance of mine, Alex, and I had while waiting for the subway to make an appearance:
Alex: “Oh wait, you’ve only been in Canada for three years?”
Me: “Yep. I used to live in Lebanon and, before that, Saudi Arabia.”
Alex: (In surprised disbelief) “But…your accent though. It’s flawless!”
Me: Oh, hah. Yeah, I went to an American international school in Saudi. Hell, I had classmates and teachers who couldn’t speak a lick of Arabic.
Alex: Really? That’s pretty cool.
That was the first of a good handful of occasions where my accent—or lack of one—was a topic of surprise. Although it didn’t strike me as odd at the time, it did make me wonder if people honestly thought all Arabs sounded like the marketplace merchants in Aladdin. (I do love that movie, but it’s so overrun with cultural misconceptions that it kinda ruins the experience).
In short, my incredulity stemmed from this notion: Globalization has enough of an impact that it should be taken for granted that there are going to be people who never touched US soil that could speak just as well as any born-and-raised American. I went so far as to believe I would never judge anyone by the way they spoke.
HAH! Life, you know how to humble a person.
Fast forward to 2008 – Doha, Qatar: I’m sitting on the roomy windowsill in the Student Representative Council office, chilling with friends. Three feet away, a student I’d never met before was speaking in an accent so perfectly American one could easily assume she’d lived there her entire life.
People: I can’t deny that I became a replica of Alex that night in the metro four years ago. Why?
She was dressed like this:
Talk about jumping to conclusions. In my (somewhat lame) defense, I had twelve years of life in Saudi Arabia and a year in Qatar by then. Up until that moment, every Qatari I met who dressed that way spoke with a visible Arabic accent at best. (Doha has excellent American and British international schools, but those who dress this traditionally don’t make a habit of roaming their halls).
I had to ask, “Did you used to live in the States? Or…??”
She smiled at me. (What face coverings, called a niqāb, have offered me is a way to discern smiles, frowns and general emotion just by focusing on someone’s eyes). I knew from her expression that she had received variations of this question a thousand times but was still good-natured about it. “Actually, my mother is American and my father is Qatari.”
I hadn’t thought of that. I laughed shyly and added, “That’s cool. I’m sorry for asking but I really wasn’t expecting that accent to come out of you.”
I felt hypocritical for being shocked that someone who chose to dress the way she did would be able to speak English so well. But it did open up a conversation, and later, I got to know more about her tough and inspiring history. I was on the verge of sharing it here, but decided that it isn’t my story to tell.
I have to admit, it was a humbling experience to know that I was not incapable of surprise in these situations. I also learned, again, that I had to work harder on erasing my preconceived notions on a people I thought I knew because I’d lived in their societies for years. You learn that whatever fault (for lack of a better word) you may find in someone, you have just as much a chance of finding it in yourself.