Perspectives & Change: The Continuous Story of an Arab-American Muslim

A family is a very complex group of people. In the traditional sense, a family is usually defined as a group of people related to each other by consanguinity. As time has passed, the family has become more complex, with people marrying into a family, or with people choosing who they want to be their family (i.e. family of choice). Growing up as an Arab American Muslim in New York City has impacted me in many ways. I cannot deny nor can I exclude the fact that I was privileged enough to not have the constraints that other Arabs or Muslims did. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York to parents who did not really put much emphasis on our ethnic background. I knew I was an Arab who was from Yemen, but I did not have much knowledge of it. I was also proud to be an Arab, but at the same time, if anyone were to ask me about what I was proud of, I would say that I was as proud to be an Arab as I was proud to be an American.


Growing up, I was somewhat sheltered from both Western politics and Middle Eastern politics. When I was in high school, my grandfather decided that he wanted his grandchildren to learn about Islam, our ethnic language, Arabic, and to meet more Muslim children. Prior to this, I did not really know many Middle Eastern children aside from my own family. Going to a private Muslim high school really changed my life, because had I not gone there I would have been a confused person for the rest of my life. It strengthened and weakened the way I viewed myself and gave me the first steps of asking questions about who I am and where I belong.


One flaw that I viewed about myself was constantly feeling like I do not have enough knowledge about my faith and ethnicity. I always feel like even though I am from Yemen, one small country in the Middle East, I have to speak for all of the Middle East. I now know that this discourse (a system of words, actions, rules, and beliefs that share common values) has been embedded within me by society about who Muslims and Arabs are. At the time, and even now, the reason why I feel this way is because of the political issues going on in the Middle East and all around the world. I may have been sheltered growing up, but going on to college, walking the streets of New York City, and just being an overall outgoing person; I have become thrust into the middle of conversations time and time again. All of which are questions about Islam, Arabs, Muslims, terrorism, and questions that I have become very anxious to answer. The reason for this is because I am afraid that people take my answers to encompass the Middle East as a whole. My answers are based on my perspective and ideas individually, and sometimes collectively, but I do not want it to be mistaken for a fact when it is a majority opinion.


Another reason why I feel very anxious when answering questions is that I feel like a fraud when I speak. I have never been to my own country of origin, and am an Arab in America. I feel like being an Arab in America is very different than being an Arab in the Middle East. So my answers do not feel as valid to me, because I do not really know the lived experiences of Arabs in the Middle East. But how can I change my view of who I am in life? It’s hard, even as a therapist I admit to my own faults and shortcomings. A few techniques that I usually try with myself are: deconstructing, reconstructing, and re-authoring. Whenever I feel bad about myself, or think that I am not good enough; instead of trying to figure out why or how…I begin to detangle the web of things that I viewed as "problems". By reviewing my internal thoughts about myself, I am able to bring it out onto the table and recreate it. In the process of recreating myself, I am able to take ownership of who I am and rewrite (re-author) the story of how I view myself.


As a Marriage and Family Therapist-In training, I am constantly trying to use my weaknesses and strengths to benefit the Middle Eastern and Muslim community in America. I would like to take my weakness, which is the fear that I do not know enough about my religion, culture, language, and lifestyles of Arabs and Muslims and morph it into a positive discourse. I want to bridge the gap between therapy, counselling, and community between Arabs, Muslims, and the psychological field. I believe that strengthening the bond between my own family and their ideas of life are, and how they view it in their family will help in making this possible. In doing this, it will strengthen my own bond of who I am as a person and where I want to be in life. This will help me strengthen my identity on what I view myself to be, and where I stand and belong in this world. As of right now, I would like to formally introduce myself: my name is Somer Saleh, and I am an up and coming Arab-American Muslim Marriage and Family Therapist.

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