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From Lara Matossian-Roberts…
I’m at the passport control counter. I greet the young Emirati sitting behind the counter in Arabic and hand him my passport. I watch as confusion plays across his face. He doesn’t say anything, just flips through the pages of my passport. He asks me in heavily accented English where I’ve come from. Again, I answer in Arabic. Now he stops, looks at my passport, no doubt looking at my veiled photo there, then looks back at me and takes in my head of blonde highlights, my tank top and my shorts. He asks me in Arabic, “How does this work? Your passport’s Iranian, you sound Lebanese, but you don’t even look Arab.”
I smile. I was expecting this; it gets them, every time. I launch into a brief, condensed explanation, and as he hands me my passport, he says in Arabic, “You don’t look like you speak Arabic.” I say, “I know,” with a smile. I thank him and leave the counter; story of my life.
I was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents. My mother was born in Lebanon too, to Armenian parents who were first generation refugees from the Armenian provinces in Turkey, having survived the 1915 genocide that claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians. My father was born to Armenian parents in a small town outside Isfahan, Iran. His great, great, great-grandparents had somehow moved across the borders from Armenia to Iran – a story long forgotten and unrecorded– and had settled down there and become Iranian citizens. Many years later, a chance encounter with my maternal uncle in Germany, landed my father an invitation to spend the Christmas holiday season in Beirut with my uncle’s family, which is when my father first set eyes on my mother. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I was only in Lebanon for three months after my birth. My mother joined my father in the UAE after getting married in Tehran, Iran just a year earlier, and she only returned to Beirut to have support from her family during the first months of being a mother. Before returning to my father in the UAE, my mother and I made a short stop in Tehran, so my relatives there could see me as well. My father was the last one to meet me.
I grew up in the UAE, along with my brother, away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. There was always just the four of us – a family. Neither of us has ever set foot in Armenia, but that’s what we consider ourselves: Armenians.
I’ve observed that, in my adult years, I’ve had to give people an explanation when asked, where are you from? An Arab from Lebanon would simply say, I’m from Lebanon. Not for me though, the succinct answer. My answer would have to involve quick history and geography lessons.
That was never necessary at school. The one I went to was owned by a Lebanese family. All the students were Arab expats, apart from the few Iranians. I went to that school from kindergarten to my graduating year. Everybody knew me; my classmates were the same every year, the administration never changed and the teachers never left. To them, I was Lara and I spoke Arabic. No mystery there.
I don’t ever remember explaining the whole Armenian story to anyone at school; to my classmates, I was just one of them. Members of the administration referred to it though, from time to time – like that year I won the secondary school award for best Arabic poetry recital. I remember at least a couple of members of admin saying to my father something along the lines of, among all the Arabs, an Armenian had to be the one to win the award for Arabic poetry recital. Of course they proceeded to say that he should be very proud of me and all the bla bla educators feel the need to deliver in such occasions.
The issue of my ‘Armenian-ness’ didn’t come up for most of my time at university. I went to the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Armenians were a huge minority there and had long been assimilated into the culture. The young generation spoke Arabic just like the Lebanese did, without any of the signature grammatical errors and the give-away accent of the older, first generation of Turkish-Armenians. The Armenians had their quarter, political parties, representation in government, church, music, sports clubs, daily newspapers and of course, their food – food that the Lebanese Arabs had not only become familiar with, but enjoyed eating as well.
Armenians were, pretty much, part and parcel of Lebanon – which is why I was truly surprised when, in my last year of university, I ran into a student I had never met in the English Department of our university who thought I was Russian. Genuinely. After asking for directions to a professor’s office, we had a little chat and she asked me, Are you Russian? I was intrigued. I told her, No, I’m not. I’m Armenian. Why do you think I’m Russian? She said that I didn’t look Armenian, that I definitely looked Russian. I asked her where she was from and she said she was Lebanese. It was really interesting for me: a Lebanese, completely aware of the existence of Armenians, thought I was Russian. Granted, Armenians were generally a tad darker, with darker hair, dark eyes, boney noses and bushy mono-brows. But, it is safe to say that Armenians did come in a variety of colors as well.
That wasn’t the first time I had been mistaken for a Russian, but usually, this mistake was made by people who didn’t know that there was a small country called Armenia nestled between the Western Asian countries of Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran. They looked at my fair complexion and ‘colored’ eyes, listened to the language I spoke and assumed I was Russian. I’m talking about cab drivers, cashiers and waiters, who were mostly from the Philippines or the subcontinent – they’d hear my mom and me talking and the inevitable question would come: You are Russian?
Well, to be fair, there was a reason. For the longest time, the only ‘fair’ people who lived in Dubai were either the Arab expats or the British. There weren’t many North Americans and even fewer Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans – and they all spoke English – a familiar language. Arabic was no mystery either. Now people started mistaking us for Russians in the days when I still went to high school. Those were the days following the break-up of the USSR. Suddenly, there was a huge influx of Russians and other former USSR nationals come to grab themselves some valuable electronics and sell their wares: caviar, bootleg vodka and cognac – and sex.
When we went out as a family, we naturally spoke Armenian. An outsider at that point in time would take in our appearance, listen to our unknown language and conclude that, since it was neither Arabic nor English, it must be Russian. I make no joke when I say that in my teenage years, my father would be approached while walking with me and my mother in one of the shopping centers and asked, how much? My father was tanner than my mother and I because his work entailed him to be mostly outdoors and he was over a decade older than my mother. Hence, people would jump to the conclusion that he was our pimp. It didn’t matter that we were in a shopping mall and decently dressed. People had formed a prejudice. We were fair, we spoke an unfamiliar language, we weren’t veiled, and therefore, we were offering our services.
I remember the first time it happened. My parents and I were just wiling away the Friday afternoon hours in what was then called Al Ghurair Center, a much smaller and humble version of the current Al Ghurair Retail City. It seemed that the Emirati appeared out of nowhere and was suddenly at my father’s side, whispering something to him that was inaudible to me and my mother; we were just a couple of feet behind him. Registering the look of confusion on my father’s face, we heard him mumble a quick apology and walk away as swiftly as he had appeared. My father had stopped walking and looked bewildered; it seemed he just couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. When my mom asked, what was all that about? My father said, I think he asked, how much? My mother’s jaw dropped as she realized the implication and we all froze for a while, looking at one another. I remember how, when my father had gotten over the shock, he insisted on finding the man and giving him a piece of his mind, but my mother, a peace-loving person, managed to dissuade him.
That wasn’t the last time – incidents such as this one abound throughout the early nineties. Some of them had ended in threats to call the police and near fights, involving both my father and brother beating some stranger up; Armenians are as hot-tempered as Middle Easterners. It was when it had happened one too many times that we decided that we were no longer going to speak Armenian when we went out; we would speak either English or Arabic.
By the time I had graduated from university in the late nineties, this prejudice had died down in Dubai. My mother and I were not mistaken for Russians anymore. That was largely due to the fact that Dubai had finally started getting the world’s attention and people from all corners of the world were pouring into the city. Suddenly there were new English accents: the distinct South African, the Aussie drawl and the loud American. There were many more Arab expats and more nationals from African, Central and East Asian countries.
I didn’t have to explain the whole Armenian thing in my first couple years of employment because I taught in the same school I had graduated from. It was after that, when I dabbled in PR and press office for a year. The reaction I got from the Arab expats I met that year at our various product launches was no less than hilarious; it’s amazing how I kept my cool professionalism when I was faced with sheer disbelief at my first utterance of an Arabic word, when, personally, all I wanted to do was to guffaw. They would freeze, their faces a sculpture of astonishment; you speak Arabic? would soon be followed by, you’re Arab? To which, my answers would be, Yes, I speak Arabic, but, no, I’m not Arab and then delve into the geographic and historical details of my national identity. Of course, I had to do the same with other expats as well – only I didn’t have any bewilderment on their part to deal with. Instead, they would say, Oh, so you speak Arabic too, that must be very useful here. To which, I would say, Yeah, I guess.
I wasn’t so sure if it were ‘useful’ in the terms they meant: securing employment and getting government work done more easily. For after a year’s stint in Public Relations, I renounced the world of commercialism and embraced my former status of teacher with a renewed fervor. I certainly didn’t need Arabic in my field of employment, for I taught in English.
As for knowing Arabic making my life easier when it came to government work … well, I’m not too quick to agree. I blame it mostly on my appearance. I had started highlighting my hair in my first year at university, experimented with red and jet black, but always returned to the blonde highlights, which got lighter and lighter as I grew older.
Why am I bringing up something as trivial as hair color into an issue of identity? Well, I believe it adds to the whole befuddlement factor.
So, did knowing Arabic make it easier for me to get government jobs done? Not really, and in one case – it made it harder, a downright nightmare! Generally, government employees everywhere, whether at the post office, Etisalat, the RTA, the ministry or the municipality don’t respond to me when I speak to them in Arabic. I get the impression that they think that they must have misheard. If I weren’t so used to it by now, I’d be insulted because it certainly feels like they’re ignoring me. As they continue to ask me questions in English and as I answer in Arabic, I feel their growing discomfort. The majority of them just continue in that manner till the work is done. I have a feeling it’s a question of: What does she think, a ‘Western’ person speaking to us in Arabic? Does she think we can’t speak English? Well, we’ll show her! But, hey, I may be wrong and may be reading too much into it.
There are a few of them who stop what they’re doing and share their wonderment with me, sincerely wanting to understand how a person who, to them, looks and sounds like she’s either British or American through and through can speak Arabic like a true Lebanese Arab. It is even more surprising to them, because they don’t associate the way I look to the way a stereotypical Lebanese would; impeccably dressed, even if it were just a pair of jeans, with hair done, full make-up on, and all the requisite designer accessories. I, however, when running tiresome government errands, choose to be in my customary, comfy, khaki Bermudas and a t-shirt with flip-flops.
The contradictory combination of language spoken and appearance causes some kind of mental glitch to which they react to differently: they either ignore and proceed with the task at hand or stop and ask, and once having understood, some express appreciation at my willingness to have learnt the language and sheer amazement at how fluently I speak it. This also applies to some Arab expats I’ve met who fill various positions in both public and private establishments. Little do they know that there was no conscious choice involved no particular effort. It’s as good as, in fact, better than what should be my mother tongue: Armenian.
They are not all appreciating though. I refer to the nightmare I had briefly mentioned earlier. I needed a police clearance certificate and had applied to obtain one. On the morning I was there to collect it, instead of being handed the certificate at the counter, which was what was usually done, I was asked to follow an officer to another office. As soon as I entered, from the musky odor of dust and accumulated breath and the inescapable chaotic feel to the big room, I realized that it was not one that was used for the public – just for the employees. One of the officers gestured to me to come and sit at a chair facing his desk. I had no idea what this was about. The only crime I had ever committed was probably speeding a couple of times, and I had already paid those fines. What was this about?
I soon found out. The officer was Emirati of Iranian origin and because of my being an Iranian passport holder, he’d taken personal offense at the photo I had handed in for the police clearance certificate. He started addressing me in Farsi, and I quickly told him I did not speak the language, but could speak Arabic. That didn’t make matters any better; I was an Iranian and didn’t know how to speak Farsi? – utterly shameful. But I did speak Arabic – which made it all the more easier for him to start his offensive. Needless to say, this was one instant when I should have just spoken English and pretended I didn’t have a clue what he was saying. His voice was trembling with righteous rage. Had I no shame submitting a photo where you can see my shoulders and arms? (I was wearing a tank top in my photo, with my then long, blonde, curly hair reaching my collarbones. There was no cleavage whatsoever on show – not even close!)
My eyes glazed over. I was probably 23 at the time; a single, young, naïve-ish female in a room full of old sleazy wolves, but, there is something to be said about the Armenian spirit to fight. I wouldn’t let him or anyone else talk to my like that! I told him to stop right there. I may be an Iranian passport holder, but that was all it was – a passport. I explained to him that I was Armenian and Christian and that he had no right to single me out and bully me about my photograph, especially when there were no particular requirements whatsoever mentioned in the application regarding the specifics of the photograph. He knew it was true and I was right. He mumbled a few things I didn’t care to respond to as he handed my certificate and I walked out, shooting him a stabbing glare as I left the hateful room behind.
To be fair, though, I’ve had pleasant encounters with Emirati police officers of Iranian origin – mostly on the roads after a minor accident, or while trying to smooth talk my way out of a fine. All of them react with the stock surprise when they see that my nationality on my driver’s license is in direct contradiction to my appearance. They start talking to me in Farsi. I tell them I can’t speak Farsi, but I can speak Arabic and, of course, they all want to understand how – they want to make sense of this confusing issue. Usually, they let me go without giving me a fine.
Sometimes I’m not in the mood to delve into the nuts and bolts of my national identity, so when a cab driver or cashier or waiter asks me where I’m from, I take the easier way out, I say I’m Lebanese. I don’t look the part, but at least I speak the language and it’s a country they know; I don’t have to delve into Armenia’s location on the world map and other details, such as spoken language and climate. Still the comments come, you no look Lebanon. You English very good, like British.
I have even spoken English to Lebanese people in Dubai who wouldn’t have had a clue that I spoke Arabic just like them, if I hadn’t volunteered with the information myself. Even then, the look on their faces is of utter surprise, you’re Lebanese? They’d ask incredulously. Armenian, actually. Of course, this would just be the start; I wouldn’t have expected you to speak Arabic. You really look ‘foreign’, they’d say. What part of Lebanon are you from? They’d want to know. I’m not, I’d explain. (By now, I have this dialogue down by heart.) My mother was born there, but I’ve always only lived here, apart from when I went to university. And my father, he’s Armenian as well, but not from Lebanon, from Iran. At this point, I can see their eyes transfixed, trying to make all the connections. A simple transaction at the lingerie store that should have taken minutes would turn into a full-fledged narration of the details of my national identity that would eat up the better part of a quarter of an hour, to say the least. I’ve had the same reaction from Arab colleagues who work with me at my current place of employment. It took them a while to accept that Arabic is coming out of my mouth.
Sometimes, when a cab driver expresses an interest in the knowledge of my national identity, I tell an outright lie, I say I’m Canadian – to them I sound it and look the part as well. Also, we have applied for immigration, we do hold permanent resident cards, but I’m not Canadian, not yet anyway. I don’t think I would consider myself one anyway, even when I do become a citizen. Just as I now say I am Armenian with an Iranian passport, I would then say, I am Armenian with a Canadian passport. But what does it really mean to be Armenian – Armenian the way I am? I mean, I’ve never even been there…