I am an Arab American, and I believe that eye contact is not always so scary. When I was eighteen, I took a trip to Rome to visit my friend Joanne. She worked all day, while I wandered the streets enthralled. She gave me one stern warning: Do not even think of making eye contact with a soldier. Italian soldiers are like gum on your shoe: sticky, annoying, tenacious.
One night Joanne and I were about to board a bus back to her apartment, when she grabbed my elbow and pulled me back. The bus was empty except for a hoard of Italian soldiers clumped together in the back. “We can’t get on this bus,” she said, but then she realized it was the last bus of the night. We boarded, with her whispering instructions in my ear. “Don’t look back there. Don’t even look up.”
We sat behind the driver and kept our heads down. But nothing happened. They all seemed engrossed by an object one of them held in his hands. That same soldier was speaking, and the rest of them were silent, enrapt. We looked closer. He was reading aloud from a book of poetry, reading as if in an altered state brought on by the beauty of the words. Not one soldier even noticed us, though we might not have minded if they had.
I’ve never fit in as an Arab or an American. Nameless, I look typically American. Faceless and voiceless, I seem 100% Arab. I’ve never felt true belonging in either culture. I returned to Damascus, for the first time since childhood, when my father died. After a journey with five airport connections, I was funneled into a hot, windowless room in the Damascus airport, handed forms I could not read, and asked questions I could not understand.
I started to cry and the customs agent took pity on me; he let me through. But I wasn’t in the clear. My body was searched. Then my bags. By then I was sobbing, exhausted, longing for my Dad. I was almost to the door when one more person stood in my way. He was dressed in rags, had hardly any teeth, and his hand was out. “I am not in the mood for this,” I thought, and “I will go around him,” I decided, and “Whatever you do, don’t look him in the eye,” I told myself. But somehow, I couldn’t help it, he was persistent. Still crying, I looked up into his red, watery eyes and down into the palm of his hand and I saw: a handful of pistachios. He was offering me a snack.
I was born an Arab American, and I believe that eye contact is not always so scary.
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