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.

13 Responses

  1. This so beautiful. I feel every word of it living in Iran as a Jew and in America as an Iranian. Rox this one is the best and brought tears to my eyes. I love you

  2. Wow,this has to be a very challenging period of your life if not the most. One thing that you should always carry with you as an “identity” is; before you are a jew, Muslim, Iranian, or American, you are a human being, part of GOD, someone with courage more than average, someone with a mission and at the same time well equipped with tools to accomplish it.
    Whenever you are caught between all the struggle, think of your true identity ” A soul with a mission” the rest is a joke. Borders, bad guys, good guys, and all the lablings are games created by sick and egoistic minds to keep our brain engaged during at this “Era”

  3. Hi Roxanna. James and I have been following your travels via your website. As another Jewish woman, one who is ashamed of the actions and policies of the Israeli government (as well as befuddled and ashamed of my “cousins” who implement these policies and atrocities) I send you strength and courage. Though obviously you lack neither! Thanks for allowing us to see, feel and learn with you. Janet

  4. Hi Roxy. What a wonderful way to share your adventures with us! Thanks and looking forward to continuing to “travel” with you!

  5. Hi,
    The always excellent Arthur Shwab sent me a link to your blog and I’m so glad he did. Thank you for your lovely, raw, and honest writing and for sharing your journey.

  6. Rox thank you for sharing. You are inspiring. I hope the best for you on your journey. Sending prayers your way friend. Laura Rollins

  7. hey roxanna. your experience is heartfelt. i know where you are coming from because i had a similar self-reflective experience during my last visit to the middle-east. even though i spent the first 8 year of my life there, i still felt a sense of confusion about my identity, especially at the borders.
    it might be easy for me to say but you are a ‘traveling chameleon’ and keeping your identity on the ‘hush hush’ is only a means of surviving as a chameleon would do – sadly but true especially in that part of the world. you are a brave woman roxanna.

  8. Dear Roxana,
    Thank you for sharing all this with us. I wish we could see each other any time soon so that we could talk and discuss in detail. It is obvious that travelling as a Jew in Arabic countries is difficult. I’m sorry that this multi-faceted background makes you feel torn apart, but it is also a good experience for it allows you to see what life in Iran must have been like for our parents and grandparents and why our dads chose to leave their homes and families.Of course, there are more aspects to it which we will have to discuss when we will see each other. Roxy joon take care and try to enjoy without too much thinking. Love you. Roya
    P.S. I loved the pictures you posted.

  9. Hello Roxy Joon, Peyman and I love reading your posts! Thank you for sharing and including all of us in your journey.. Be safe and enjoy.
    Love, Peyman & Melisa

  10. Wow Roxy, this blog is so emotional and personal. Loved reading it and I can totally relate to it personally. Your writing is so immaculate and simply flawless. The minute I open your blog, and by the time I’ve finished reading, I feel traveled, experienced and full of emotion. Thank you for taking the time to share your adventure with us. Miss you!

  11. Roxy,

    I am sitting down to catch up on a month’s worth of your posts. I had read this one before, but I find myself continually revisiting it. Your natural ability to dig deep, and to really experience the layers of what makes us human has never been so eloquently stated as you did, here. Your gift to see beyond what is visible, beyond what makes sense, is incredible, and it seems to be getting sharper and more nuanced the further you travel. Thank you so much for sharing this one; I know it was difficult.