Yara El-Soueidi: 'How does it feel to be a problem?'

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A couple of months ago, someone suggested I read a book by Moustafa Bayoumi, an American writer and journalist. I ordered it and left it in my never-ending but ever-growing pile of unread books. It stayed there until last month. While cleaning my home, I picked it up — and the title hit me like a thousand bricks: How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America.

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Last month, I decided not to write my column for the Gazette. I took a stand because of impartial coverage I see in Western media on the situation in Gaza. I couldn’t and still cannot bear seeing my people — my fellow Arabs, no matter their religion — being treated as less than human. We are human beings too.  

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This month, I wanted to give up my column again, but after discussing it with a dear friend, he reminded me why I write in the first place: “You are an important voice in your community, and it’s important you have a platform,” he texted me as I shared my concerns. He’s right.

I’ve been leveraging my voice to give space to my community and others who need a voice. I enjoy doing this. I feel I can be an example to other young Arab Montrealers who dream of working in the news media. I want to give them hope. Yes, you can do this. You can actually work your way toward writing professionally. No, the door isn’t closed to you. Take the space you deserve.

But it feels like this has been less the case lately. Western society has echoed the title of Bayoumi’s book at me for a month now. How does it feel to be a problem, Yara? How does it feel to look like you are Arab while being in Canada right now? How does it feel to be witness to the rising death toll of children and to the silence of too many political leaders?

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It doesn’t feel safe or comfortable. It feels like a burden. Like anything I might say will be put on trial. Like every word I utter will be proof of the hatred that inhabits me because of my Arabic DNA. Like every gesture I might make will be seen as an insult to peace.

I’m holding my breath while making sure I’m still holding space for my community and my people. It feels like I’m being held accountable for every violent action committed by individuals who share the same background as me — actions I find repulsive and that go against everything I stand for.

On a recent morning I told a friend I wished I was “white-passing.” I wanted my hair to be straight, my skin light, and my eyes green or blue. I wanted my nose to be smaller and my voice less coarse. I wished my name was Hannah, Emily or Catherine. I didn’t want anyone to know where I was from. I wished I was like the majority. I wished I was white.

I felt ashamed for wishing these things. Wishing for my differences to disappear is forgetting about what brought my family to Montreal — the hope for something better.

And so, in the names of the Youmna, Yasmina, Ali, Ahmad, Mohamed, Youssef, Nour, Hamda, Abdallah, Moustafa, Sarah, Mariam, Alia, Omar, Amir, Hasan, Khalil, Jamal, Aadil, Farah, Jamila, Amina, Iman, Leila and all of the people of Arabic descent in Montreal you’ve been sharing your days with, let me ask you, dear reader:

How does it feel to enjoy our food? How does it feel to enjoy our culture? How does it feel to date us? How does it feel to see us hurting? How does it feel to ask us if we condemn?

How does it feel to make us a problem?

Yara El-Soueidi is a writer and culture columnist based in Montreal.

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