To be Arab

Ayah Altalhouni - January 24 - 3 min read

I am Arab, and I am proud to be an Arab. To be precise, I am Jordanian, and to be even more precise I am from the South of Jordan. Why does that matter? Because being part of a collective Arab nation, Arabs can differ from country to country, and region to region. But what unites us is our language, and for the most part, our religion. I will divide this blog into various sections: Arabic, Food, Customs, and Religion.


We are not Arabic people, but are Arabs. Arabic is the language we speak. Arabic is a semitic language. Countries that majorly speak Arabic are located in the Middle East starting from Iraq and all the way to Morocco at the edge of North Africa. Within Arabic there are different dialects that can vary heavily from place to place. The North African dialect is majorly different from those spoken in the Levantine region, to the point it’s incomprehensible. Now from my North African Arab friends from Morocco, and also watching celebrity interviews from that region with my mom, they say they can understand Levantine Arabic, and even can switch easily to our dialect. This doesn’t go both ways, as there is no way I can understand or switch dialect to that region. But I’m not the best example in terms of “understanding”, as growing up in Canada, you aren’t exposed to the language unless in the private sphere of your home. My mother tells me she can understand when her Morrocan friends are going at it in their dialect, when I am standing there dumbfounded. Something interesting about the North African dialect is that there are a lot of french mixed into conversational Arabic, and this is due to a colonial legacy in the region. In Jordan where I am from, you will hear English mixed in as well, for mostly the same reason as the far west of the Middle East. Now I talked about “North African” Arabic, but one thing to point out is Egypt isn’t a part of this Arabic. Egypt is in North Africa, but it has its own dialect that is easily understandable by a native speaker in the Levant region. Now when I say the Levant I mean Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq. Each of these 4 countries have a slight variation in dialect from country to country, but overall in terms of the Arabic dialects, these countries are considered a group. The next “group” is the Gulf region. The Gulf region includes Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait,Bahrain and Yemen. Now I am speaking about the various regions as being a group, through a linguistic lens. Politically, they are grouped differently. in terms of Arabic there is a standard Arabic called “Fusha”, that is used academically and formally. If you grew up attending Arabic schools, understanding “Fusha” shouldn’t be a problem. Lastly, Arabic differs from English in writing, not just because of the different characters, but it’s written from right to left.


Just like the dialects, “Arab” food differs from region to region. Typically we don’t call our cuisine a collective “Arab” cuisine. But I will list out various foods I love from different countries where we would regularly refer to them as (country’s) dishes. Now from my own country, Jordan, the national dish is Mansaf, which is goat meat cooked in yogurt and Jameed which is hardened dried yogurt made from goat milk, with rice and shrak bread, which is a really thin large “tortilla-like” bread made from whole wheat flour. I like this dish, and it tastes better than it sounds, but to call it my favourite is an understatement. I have a lot of favourite dishes, and I will just list random dishes from different countries. To start with Palestine, I love a dish called Musakhan, which is chicken cooked in olive oil and sumac spice, and topped with caramelized onions and fried pine nuts, and then placed on flatbread. It’s really good, and the sumac adds the necessary sourness. From Lebanon I love stuffed vegetarian-version grape leaves, and how we cook it at home is to drown them in olive oil, lemon juice, and pomegranate molasses, and let it cook on low heat for hours and hours. Lebanon also has lots of good salads like Fattoush, and Tabouleh. Fattoush is tomato, cucumber, lettuce, onion, topped with fried pita bread. The dressing consists of dried mint leaves, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, salt and lemon juice. (That’s how my family always made it). Tabouleh, is a salad of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley, and onions, and mixed burghul in it. The dressing consists of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. The more lemon juice the better. Moving to Syria, there is Kibbeh, which is a stuffed burghul-paste like dough, stuffed with ground meat, pine nuts, and spices, and deep-fried. I honestly don’t know what the outside is made of exactly, but I know it is mostly burghul. Now there is this dish, called Fatayer, and I don’t know exactly where it originated from, but it is made and eaten across the Levant and Egypt, but it’s basically baked dough with various “stuffing” like za'atar, goat-cheese, or ground meat, spinach with onions and sumac. It can be stuffed with anything you technically want, but the three I listed are more of the traditional things you would stuff it. Finally, going to Morocco, I love a dish called Bastilla, and from my Moroccan friends, it’s considered a luxury dish typically served during weddings and celebrations. We don’t make it at home, so I can’t tell you exactly how it’s made, but I have eaten at their houses at gatherings. It’s a sort of pie, made with crispy phyllo dough and I like the seafood version, but from what I found on google, it can be made with chicken too. So the seafood, like fish, shrimp, calamari, as it was made in the past, is spiced with things like cinnamon and other spices and things I don’t remember. It was just so unique from the typical dishes eaten in the Levant.


In terms of customs, we got many. Now, every family might be different, but these are the “customs” my family follows. For our holidays, as a Muslim, there are the two Eids and the holy month of Ramadan. Now, these holidays are celebrated differently around the world, but from what I mostly see in the Arab community, it’s quite consistent, with slight differences. For my family, we wake up with the smell of brewing Saudi coffee and the sound of the Eid Takbeer. My mom is half Saudi, so we do some things she grew up learning from our grandma, like saudi coffee and saudi sambusas during Ramadan, instead of the regular triangle ones (saudi are half-moon shaped). We would then call our relatives back home and catch up. We would then get ready in our new Eid outfits and take pictures and head off to the Edmonton Islamic Academy for Eid prayer. After prayer, if you have family here in Edmonton you would typically go to their houses first and maybe have Eid breakfast together. For Arabs in the Levant and Egypt, breakfast consists of plates of cheese, olives, eggs, jam, za’ater and olive oil, among other things and you would eat it all using bread. You might have ful or falafel as well as special breakfast items. Our family doesn’t have any relatives here, so we would go visiting friends' houses, because during Eid it is customary to open your house to anyone who would like to come and celebrate with you. There would be lots of candy, coffee, tea, and other sweets such as the typical Ma’amoul, which is a semolina dough cookie stuffed with either dates, pistachios, or walnuts. Throughout the day, children will get money from the adults, and the amount would vary depending on the economic capability of the adult. As an adult myself, last eid for the first time, I started giving my younger siblings money too! My parents still gave me money though. Something I haven’t mentioned is that during Eid and special events or maybe you just cleaned the house, we would turn on something called Bukhoor, which is like incense. For us we have a special holder, where we would heat charcoal, and then put the aromatic material on it which will then burn and release the good aroma around the house. From my knowledge, as my mother had christian neighbors in the Middle East, even Christians use Bukhoor. Our Bukhoor is nothing religious, it’s doing the same purpose as lighting scented candles or spraying Febreze in the air, and that is to make the place smell good. Now I don’t know if this is considered a custom, but family is very, very important in Arab culture. Family is sacred, and practically every household you will go to, you will see how family is held to its importance. Parents are never disrespected, and children are obedient. Also, it is considered a shameful act in Arab culture to send your parents to a care home, and so you might also have grandparents living with you as well, if they aren’t capable of living on their own. My mom always tells me how a parent cares for you when you can’t walk or talk, and you should do the same for your parents when they are becoming like a baby again. Also, just something that seems so nonchalant, but is something that also is customary is greeting by kissing each other on the cheek. It’s for females to females, and males to males. Males will never kiss a female and vice versa.


Now something I wanted to mention is being Arab doesn’t equate to being Muslim. Arab is a race, but Islam is a religion. Arabs can be of different faiths. There are Druze Arabs, Christian Arabs, Arab Jews, and Muslims Arabs. There are also quite a number of secular Arabs, and atheists. Now it’s different here than in the Middle East, but whether you are a Christian or a Muslim, religion is held to a very important degree. Also, the media likes to create narratives of hate, but in reality, religions are living as neighbours and get along quite well. As I’ve mentioned my mother is neighbours with a Christian family, and they are very close friends. Both my parents went to Christian schools, even as Muslims. My mom went to a Catholic school, and my dad to a Latin Orthodox school. This was back in the 70s and 80s. They’ve told me the nuns would ensure and teach the students that hate and division is not the way to be. They would sit beside each other, and learn together. The only time they would separate is when it came to religion class, where the Muslims would head off to go to a Muslim teacher and the Christians would stay and be taught by the nuns. In the Middle East, mosques and churches are side by side. Really that’s how it should be, religions living in harmony, without hate. Arabs aren’t evil, but are human too and need to be heard.