November 23, 2010 Amman, Jordan
***I have really debated about whether to post this piece about my identity as it feels really personal and exposing and I am unsure of how it will be received. Finally, I decided that this trip is all about risks and pushing myself to not always do the thing that is easiest but the thing that will provide the most growth. So in an attempt to be authentic and true to that, here it is…honest and raw.
I spent the last month hiding a piece of me. One that I thought would be easy to push away but once I did, felt like cutting off the blood supply to a vital organ. I could not exist as a fractured person.
Revealing it now feels exposing; like I am naked in front of the world. I tucked this piece of myself deep inside because it innately represented a political debate. How could I, as one single person in this world be the intersection of the most controversial, deep-rooted conflict in the Middle East?
Being a Middle Eastern Jew has become a dichotomous relationship; one that on the outside is fiercely being pulled apart but within me is still strongly intact. I feel torn and confused with no space or time for ambiguity. Yet, my identity is nothing but vagueness.
My position is pre-determined by which piece of myself I reveal. I feel compelled to choose a side, take a stance, pick one part of who I am over the other. Deep down I know that even if I try, I can’t ignore either piece of me. One does not exist without the other yet the piece I repress is paradoxically the one in the forefront of my experience.
Waves of guilt take over when asked about my religion I reply, “Yes, I am Muslim.” My ability to ‘pass’ in the Arab world is not only a protection but a mechanism through which I gain access to a culture and connect with people who might reject me if they knew who I really was. But at what cost?
Turning a blind eye and walking across the Israeli flag on the floor of the Damascus souk, I feel like a trader filled with internalized oppression. Swiftly reversing the years of sacrifice my ancestors have made.
Walking by the abandoned houses of the once Jewish neighborhood in the old city, I feel deeply connected to the loss my family members have endured.
Hearing “I hope you are not one of them” or “I don’t like them…the Jews” I feel scared and exposed. Like someone is seeing right through me and all I want to do is go deep into hiding.
Finding out officials will monitor my trip to the desert, I feel vulnerable and threatened….secretly aware that I have something to hide unlike everyone else; implicated in a crime that I did not commit.
Learning about the 10 Syrian Jewish families who were forced to leave the country or convert, I feel fortunate that through all the historical turmoil, I am still connected to this part of who I am.
Listening to a local say, “It’s wrong that they were pushed out. Everyone should be free to be who they are. Just like we don’t represent the actions of our government, we know they don’t either,” I feel comfort and hope for mutual compassion.
Driving by the Palestinian refugee camps, I feel responsible… guilty that my right and privilege to a homeland, has caused the same pain and displacement for another community that has been inflicted on my family.
Being asked if I will visit Iran and reluctantly saying, “No, I can’t,” I feel disappointed to be separated from a country within arm’s reach that I am so intimately connected to. One that owns a large piece of me yet I cannot legitimately claim.
Responding “America” when asked where I am from, I feel disingenuous …like I am wearing a mask. Trying on a label that doesn’t fit but is the only one in which I can avoid explaining the anomaly of my heritage.
Showing my American passport to exit the country and being told “You are Iranian, you must wait here,” I blatantly feel the pieces of myself that I can successfully hide and the parts I cannot prevent from being exposed.
I am not the average backpacking tourist in the Middle East; there are many layers to my relationship with this land that makes my experience emotionally difficult. I feel a denial of my existence, not as a Jew, and not as an Iranian but as the two together: an Iranian-Jew. Though I have reconciled these two pieces within myself, this part of the world has forced me to dislocate them from one another. I feel pressured to either mask my Jewish identity under my Middle Easternness or my Middle Eastern identity under my Jewishness.But in each country, my internal struggle and foreignness is invisible to others. I am anonymous to everyone on the street. Presummed that I belong but on the inside, no matter where I am, I know I am an outsider.
I have chosen to come to the Middle East to feel raw, to be open and ironically allow the pieces of who I am to harmonize through feeling the sting of denying one or the other. A Palestinian friend advised to not let my identity carry the weight of the world. “It will tear you down, and drain you,” like it did her. Right now, I feel that weight. I badly want it to be lifted but I succumb to baring it for the time being…In hopes that one day, the strength I gained from carrying it will allow me to put the pieces of myself that have been torn apart back together, heal the fracture and be who I am…in total completeness.