I will never forget the day my dad told me I couldn’t play soccer with him anymore. I was getting older and there were no other girls on the field. As an 8-year old, I didn’t understand why my brothers could join in and I couldn’t, even though I knew being a girl had a different set of rules.
I grew up in Kuwait. My dad is Kuwaiti, with a large religious family still arranging marriages and insisting on the Hajab at puberty. My family members do not cover their faces, but to the rest of the world they may seem semi National Geographic-ish. Every Friday we mingled at our weekly family lunch, and every Friday I was reminded of my inability to belong to my bloodline.
Here’s why: I am half Colombian. My mother is Colombian and grew up in Miami. She only has one brother, but many close cousins. She went to Catholic school and came from a family where the men were breadwinners and women were traditional
homemakers with very strong opinions.
My father met my mother while attending the University of Miami. They dated, had two weddings (a Kuwaiti one and an American one), moved back to Kuwait and had 4 children (we’re all three years apart, boy-girl-boy-girl and the first and last have the same birthday).
My father grew up with rigid gender distinctions. Women were also homemakers, but expected to be timid, submissive and obedient. Men were the providers and disciplinarians, dominating and not to be questioned. Past a certain age cousins were not allowed to play co-ed games. It was an unwritten rule, which had to be obeyed.
My parents came from very religious, strict households on complete opposite sides of the same monotheistic coin – Muslim and Catholic. They disagreed on how to raise us. My mom would let me have male friends but my dad didn’t. While in Kuwait, I had to dress more conservatively and tone down my rowdy personality. It was not proper for a Kuwaiti woman to draw so much attention to herself.
Microwaved version: In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. We escaped to Miami. Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. We moved back to Kuwait.
Returning to Kuwait after the invasion and seeing my dad come home black from working out in the oil fields scared me. There were dead sheep and camels on the sides of the road that were used to find landmines praying for more lives to take. The stench of death lingered long after the occupation ended and brought a new fear that engulfed my young being.
Growing up as a Halfie in Kuwait was difficult, especially before Internet memes offered acceptance to people who were “different.” I was constantly questioned about how I pray, because the Shiite and the Sunnis have a different physical stance during prayer. My family is Shiite. Sunnis are the dominant group in Kuwait and kids can be mean when they have any sort of leverage. I was terrified of them finding out I didn’t even pray. In my house we didn’t practice any of our religions except during the Muslim and Christian holidays.
During Ramada’an I would have to lie about fasting, but they always knew because they asked to see my tongue. If it was white that meant I was fasting, but it was never white. I always wanted to be a part of the Kuwaiti kids, but our lives were so different. They had maids and drivers, with barely any parental contact. My parents wanted to raise us, which bothered me because I didn’t understand the impact it would later have on my life. I would get made fun of for not speaking fluent Arabic, since we spoke English in my home. I was constantly asked when I was going to cover up with the Hajab, even though my parents made an agreement it would never be forced on us.
The hardest part was experiencing the war and having Kuwaiti blood in my veins, but never being welcomed into my own family or country. There was always conflict in my young life and I never managed to find my place. No matter how close I seemed to get I was always on the outside yearning to be in. As an adult, these experiences colored my vocal cords, leaving me with a passionate voice for human rights. I understand what it feels like to not be accepted on many levels and it drives me to speak up for a variety of issues.
I am proud to be Kuwaiti, but if I speak of Kuwaiti women’s rights, or lack thereof, westerners scoff with disbelief. A lot of westerners I cross paths with automatically assume we have no rights and are being beaten by men all the time. The ignorance can be toxic. When I speak of the power Kuwaiti women have, peers doubt my honesty. If I speak of their freedom, their voices aren’t fully represented. If I defend my culture or father’s religion, I feel like a liar who is shunning the little girl who still wanted to play soccer with her dad past growing boobs. When I speak of the war I was present for, an ache takes over my heart as I look on the empty faces of those who don’t even know it took place. I fight for the voiceless on both sides of the spectrum and it drains my spirit to feel like such a hypocrite. I can never find my place on the scale of love and hate for Kuwait.
September 11, 2001, changed the world. Life in Kuwait got very intense. In 2003, Iraq was going through another political tantrum and ‘Merica decided to get in on it. My parents made the decision to come to Miami until things cooled down. Before we left there were moments that forever altered my Kuwaiti side.
There were alarms through out the country set to notify us if we were being invaded. One day I had gotten home from school, when all of a sudden they went off. My heart sank, my body went numb, and I lost all ability to make sense of life. I grabbed the phone, fumbling it in hysterics trying to call my mother. When she answered, I shook with a fear that suffocated me and muted my soul. I kept saying I love you, and tell everyone I love them. Thankfully, on this particular day it was a practice drill.
A few weeks later, my school, an American school, received bomb threats from Muslim radicals and all our teachers were shipped out. Within that period of uncertainty we were given a countrywide curfew and warned by fundamentalists to stay away from American franchises at risk of an attack. We are Kuwaitis, but had to hide from our own kind. When I hear people put Arabs and terrorists in the same box a Hulk arises in me. I invite them to read or speak to people who actually have been in those countries. I know there are terrorists, but I also know the KKK is still active in the land of the free, and we don’t automatically relate it to white people. Hate is hate no matter which color, creed, religion or gender it is coming from. Watching people react to Muslim women who are covered, but not commenting on covered Orthodox Jewish women blows my mind. As my life passport is stamped with trauma, I have less and less space for people’s casually unfiltered ignorance. We should not discriminate in our judgment.
In my mind I imagined life in America to be like Saved by the Bell, with music indicating important life lessons. Culture shock is a pretty concept compared to how I felt. I had never seen guys making out or girls my age pregnant. My rebellion thus far was cursing and smoking cigarettes at 13. Miami kids set new levels on the badass scale. I met Colombians, and being morbidly obese, let’s just say, I didn’t fit the profile of “my people.” They were tan, petite, perfectly proportioned and little super model creatures. They were gorgeous. I knew I was definitely NEVER going to be a part of the Colombian clique.
As diverse as Miami is, no one related to the life of an overweight, lost Arab (even half) teen post-911. The bullying was unreal. There were days I didn’t think I could make it. I had food thrown at me as I walked home and was constantly humiliated. One time this girl was talking about a 9/11 memorial she had in her year book, she looked at me and said, “I hope I’m not offending you, I know those are your people.” Another time in class, the news reported that Iraq had sent bombs into Kuwait; all I could do was cry by myself. It burned to show emotion in front of these tyrant peers of mine. There were always moments of defeat I couldn’t escape. I would receive emails from my friends in Kuwait saying if they died over there to know that they loved me. As a very young, misguided, misplaced and lonely teen, I didn’t have the capacity to deal with what was happening. I regret leaving my country, my friends and my family. I felt like a coward. I was now the fat terrorist kid with no backbone, style or friends who wanted to find my rebirth by being a chonga – a super bad combo.
I was self-destructive for many years. I needed something and I didn’t know what it was, but my life was spiraling out of control and something had to give. A few years ago I came to a crossroad in my spiritual identity. I was faced with releasing the God of my cultures, of my parents and of my past. I could never understand why my parents had different Gods. Why were we confirmed in church in secret? Why did we only pray in Arabic in front of certain people? If God was all-loving and all-powerful, who created this divide ruling my life and keeping my parents on different pages? It was like I had a garage full of stuff: old, new, mine, yours, his and hers. I cleaned it all out and built a new foundation using the divine teachings passed down to me at birth. It was through this journey of spiritual growth that I began to see both of my sides as rich and powerful.
In the summer, my grandparents would take us to Spanish mass, of course my father did not know. It was not Jesus or the services that made me feel safe, but the energy and love present in the songs and people. THAT was the God I believed in. I would hide the safety I found in Spanish prayer from my Kuwaiti side, while knowing it did not mean as much to me as it did to my Colombian family. I always wanted to run; it seemed easier than having to favor one culture over the other. In my young mind it meant choosing sides between my two parents. I couldn’t make that decision or understand why my brain mapped it out as a choice.
I was never proud of being Kuwaiti until I got to the US. It wasn’t until I moved to Miami that I dabbled into my Colombian side of morals sprinkled with sass. My curse has become a blessing. I wish I could tell my younger self not to run, but rather embrace the wonder of my worldly disastrous life. Today I get to teach people the beauty of both cultures and share insight on the monsters that lay beneath their rich surfaces.
I am a global clusterfuck with a history of a thousand men and women running through my veins and fighting to be heard. I am part of the light guiding the ignorant of my kind, whether it’s as a Kuwaiti, Colombian or Halfie.
Hana is majoring in Public Relations at the University of Miami. She has lived in Miami for 11 years, but still goes to Kuwait as often as possible. She lives to travel. She is a lover of life, healing, teaching, learning and helping.