Language is a Funny Thing

Here’s something people may find amusing about Arabic.

Consider this request: “Mama, help me find the remote control.”

To almost anyone, it sounds like the child is asking the mom for assistance. And? You wouldn’t usually be wrong.

But, in this case, it’s the exact opposite. The mother’s actually talking to her child, using “mama” as an alternative to the kid’s name or any other call for attention.

No kidding.

For a reason I have yet to discover, it’s common for moms to call their kids “mom” or “mama” and a dad to call his kid, “baba”. (Gender of the child doesn’t matter). Even aunts, uncles and grandparents do the same thing—and it’s very much a sign of affection. 

“Hi Amo, how are you? I’ve missed you!” An uncle living in a different time zone would tell a niece or nephew during a phone call.

“Yii, Sitto, why haven’t you eaten anything?” A concerned grandmother would say to her over-stuffed grandchild.

It’s so common that you never really think about it until it randomly dawns on you that you regularly respond to your mom when she calls you “mama”. 

But it does make you wonder…are there other languages out there that do the same thing? And which ones are they?

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You’re What??

That up there is the reaction (in so many words) that I get whenever I tell someone I’m Lebanese. Apparently, according to friends and strangers alike, I don’t look like one.

Some people may take offense at being told they bear no resemblance to their fellow countrymen, but I’m not one of them. Instead, I like to take it as a chance to engage in a little guessing game with those who can’t pinpoint my nationality just by looking at me. It’s fascinating to see what stereotypes or labels people ascribe to certain ethnicities, and I often find people good-naturedly struggling to “place” me kind of cute.

Mind you, I don’t exactly enjoy it when the stereotypes are negative (and I haven’t gotten any of those yet) but I do take the guesses as a window into how others see the world around them. I especially like it when I get a country or ethnicity I haven’t gotten before, because the more variable it gets, the more intriguing it becomes.

When I was a kid, I was often asked if I was Indian or Pakistani because of my constant suntanned skin and dark hair. As I got older, people gave me Greek, Spanish, Italian and even, one time, Native American. (That was an interesting one, to say the least). Some others, to be safe, would simply say I’m American because of my accent, which isn’t wrong since I was born there and have citizenship. (I just don’t identify as one because I’ve spent maybe three months of my entire life on American soil, and the last time I was there was 18 years ago).

People are usually shocked (SHOCKED!!) to learn I’m Lebanese. I don’t find it too surprising though because even I admit that I don’t look like your typical Lebanese woman. Hell, even my mom and sisters are often guessed to be Russian, German, Polish and just about anything but Arab. (We’re like a rainbow of nationalities under one roof!)

When people have a pre-established image of your race or ethnicity, and you come along and defy almost every feature, it becomes really difficult for them to box you into that ready-made package. It feels pretty good to break those kinds of stereotypes…it shows that there is way more to people than meets the eye.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Arab’ation

A buddy of mine asked me a pretty interesting question today. We were in the car with a couple of other friends and we had parked outside a masjid (prayer space) because one of them wanted to pray. While we were waiting for her to finish up I mentioned that I’d never been in one before because I’ve always just prayed at home instead. This sparked a short discussion from my friends about the occasions in which they had gone to a masjid or mosque, like during Eid or Ramadan. After a short pause, one of them asked me, almost randomly, “Do you consider yourself Arab?”

At first I wasn’t sure what he meant. I told him I was Lebanese, and thus yes, I am Arab. But he said, “No, I meant do you consider yourself an Arab? Do you see yourself as one?”

That gave me pause for thought. Believe it or not, no one’s ever asked me that before. I’ve said several times that I don’t feel particularly Lebanese, but I’d always taken my being Arab for granted…which is kind of odd considering that I’m always turning over ideas about the complications of my identity in my head.

Still, despite that, I found that it only took me a few seconds to state that, yes, I did identify as such and was proud to be one. I added that I was also definitely “westernized”, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t embrace my Arab culture and traditions. (My definition of westernized is being exposed to American or European culture from a young age and having it subconsciously incorporated into your identity/behavior as a person). I’m thankful and proud that I can speak and understand Arabic, even if I’m not as fluent as I’d like to be. I’m thankful that I was taught to read it, even if my current skill is only at an intermediate level. I’m proud to be part of a widespread ethnic group with a deep and rich history. The fact that there are so many Arab countries, and that each one has its own culture while also sharing many elements with its Arab neighbors, is pretty awesome. On the other hand, it’s also rather sad considering our countries tend to be in conflict with each other more than anything else. (But that’s a whole different story).

My friend added that Arabs raised outside tend to be very westernized and that those who have lived in the US or Canada for a generation or two tend to be more distant from their “Arab roots”. Thus, they become just another American or Canadian while being “Arab” becomes relatively meaningless. However, even if I’d lived in Canada or a similar country my whole life, I would still identify myself as Arab because the environment I was raised in was Arab. True, my family is modern and open-minded enough to take the best out of everything we’re exposed to, but we also have a strong connection to being Arab and Muslim without being remotely fanatical about it. It’s just who we are.

And for that I can only say, above all else, I’m extremely grateful. I feel more well-rounded and exposed to many more ideas than I think I could have ever been otherwise, while not sacrificing my connection to where I came from.

Question for Readers: What ethnicities or nationalities do you identify with? Is it  easy for you to pinpoint who you are and where you’re from?