Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Hostages, the Hardware Store, and Identity Politics: Barack and Me

Barack Obama's election means a lot to a lot of people. It is not insignificant that he is the first African-American president in U.S. history. Or that he is a cerebral and (seemingly) humble figure who will think things through and consider every option, unlike the last four presidents we've had (yeah even Bill). But his election means something to me for entirely selfish reasons: He reminds me of myself.

There's the way he believes in every word he's saying despite not exactly feeling entirely comfortable speaking to groups; this manifested itself in last night's brief and brilliant acceptance speech. Yeah he's a somewhat stuffy professorial type - nothing wrong with that.

More importantly, there is his background. Some detail for those who aren't familiar with me or my background: I'm half Swedish and half Egyptian. I spent most of the first 2 1/2 years of my life Alexandria, Egypt with my Swedish mother and Egyptian father, the exception being my first few weeks of life in Sweden (my mother gave birth to me there, ostensibly because she "didn't trust Egyptian hospitals" after giving birth to my sister; is that the real reason? who knows?) At 28 months, I got on that America-bound plane and landed at JFK. During the plane ride I distinctly remember being disgusted by the taste of tomatoes.

We settled near the banks of the Hackensack River in New Jersey. It was there that I saw two of my childhood idols crossing a Teaneck street: Gordon and Susan from Sesame Street. The family - me, my sister, and my parents - bounced between the suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia, settling in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, home to historical novelists and the world's greatest rock and roll band. This is the closest I've been to a "home" in my life, spending seven years in a rust-colored house in the then-brand new Pheasant Ridge housing development.

So what's the Obama connection? Well, at the risk of causing eyes to roll in Hyde Park or faces to smirk in Long Beach, I'll say that Obama and I share the same outsider-ness. We grew up as Americans but also as the sons of Muslim fathers from Africa. Absent from these fathers, we exist as essentially non-religious adults. We grew up in matriarchies in lands that were as foreign to our parents as they were to us (Hawaii, Doylestown). We resettled in different and bigger American cities as adults (Minneapolis, Los Angeles... Chicago and.... D.C.). Home has never been nor will ever be one place. Home is elusive until we figure it out is everywhere.
Home - is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
-This Must Be the Place - Talking Heads
But even if I'm already here or he's already there, it really doesn't feel like home, at least not in the mostly Western sense of historic entitlement. Yeah I live here but I could have lived there. Yeah I grew up on Southview Lane but I could have been in South Philly. I would have turned out the same, except I would have had a thicker accent and worn more sleeveless shirts back in 1985. I ended up in Minnesota by accident and stayed there half my life since. I ended up in California not exactly by accident but I've come so close to leaving this place that I have to give Los Angeles credit for persistently, stubbornly keeping me here and not letting me go. Obama was shuttled to Kansas and Hawaii, to Kenya for a month and Los Angeles for a few semesters, to Columbia and Harvard and Chicago. But he's steadfastly remained himself and location didn't seem to matter (except when it's all that matters, which happens from time to time and then you forget).

Do I really feel like an outsider? Do I really feel like an observer of a life (even my own) and a culture and a world? Yes. On The Office, when they have those (too) frequently used shots through a half-open blind into an office, of an uncomfortable conversation between two romanced co-workers, do the scenes have special resonance to me because of the "outsider status" of the camera eye? Yes.

(Speaking of The Office, I DO NOT look like him. Please stop telling me that I do.)

But outsiderness has its benefits. Has Barack Obama benefited from an adoring press because he's just so different (and outside of) from the political establishment? Sure he has. But do you know how hard it is to succeed in politics as an outsider? He deserves what he's worked for. Besides, over the next four to eight years he'll be the most closely followed and, thus, persistently critiqued (per capita) human being since Jesus.

I've always shunned groups and clubs. At meetings at my present job and previous ones, there is often discussion of those that are not part of the the "family" or of individuals who do not contribute to the "culture." This makes me cringe but it also makes me happy because I truly feel outside of it all and thus superior. Does this lead to me feeling alone and bored? Sometimes above it all and infrequently bitter? Yes, yes. It is no accident that my favorite TV and literary characters of all time are Adrian Monk and Don Gately.

And then there's the outside-of-America-ness issue. Despite being born and raised in the U.S., Barack Obama has had his loyalty questioned, his family history poked around, and his name mocked. This is partially because of where his father is from (Kenya), partially because of where he grew up (Hawaii - a United State but that's not good enough for some), and partially because of the color of his skin. But more than these three factors there is his name. I consider it a small miracle that a country with so many citizens who mock and hate the unfamiliar would (in majority) vote in a man as president with three seemingly "dangerous" names. It actually makes me joyously happy.

But not happy enough to erase the bad memories and bitterness of so much name-inflected mistreatment. I've written about the kid in school growing up who blamed me (me!) for the Iran hostage crisis. It's funny in a way - we got off the school bus and he started punching me hard in the shoulder, screaming "This is for the hostages! This is for the hostages!" Okay, it's hilarious but not when you're a kid completely aware of the difference between Iran and Egypt, of Doylestown and Teheran. So Chris McGuire, if you're reading this - I know you were just a kid too but what the fuck?

(I did fight back. But this is the same Chris McGuire who a few years later was the biggest kid on the high school football team. He was huge!)

(I clearly remembered this incident when, years later after 9/11, Iranian-Americans went on a PR campaign to distance themselves from "Arabs." Like that family in the movie Crash. Whatever.)

And then there was the man in the Minneapolis hardware store in the late nineties. I was paying for something with my credit card. He looked at the name on the card. He looked at me. He looked back at the card. And then back at me. Not waiting for him to say something stupid, I said "yes that's really me." And of course he said "how do you get a name like that?" So the very short version of my family history was told and I hoped (prayed) that that would be it. But no. He decided to make a parallel. "You know - I know this family who adopted a little black boy and called him Bjorn. I thought it was so strange. A black boy named Bjorn. That's kind of like you being named Ali" I responded to him with silence as I waited for the credit card receipt to print. Bjorn, if you're reading this - respect.

I'm sure a guy named Barack Hussein Obama has had to endure the same ridiculous comments about names and essentialist questions about backgrounds. I've been asked countless times about my experiences in Egypt (barely remember the childhood years; sort of remember the trip there in '83). I've been asked a handful of times about my experiences in Sweden (no memory of my birth; vague recollection of candy kiosks and the IKEA factory during a visit in '74). No one has ever asked me about living in Doylestown or North Hollywood or Eden Prairie. Or Feasterville or Brea or New Milford. During the election, Obama's childhood in Kansas and Hawaii seemed almost fictional (it wasn't) and his ties to mysterious nefarious individuals seemed meaningful (they weren't).

I fear my analogy is slipping so I'll just say I'm happy that the man I voted for won, that the outsider is on the inside, that a man with a strange name was elected in a country that has, in the past, shied away from the difficult and risky best decision. All I ask of Barack Obama is that his administration gets rid of the ridiculous archaic rule requiring presidential candidates to have been born in the U.S. To put it simply: it's discriminatory and wrong, especially in a nation built largely on by immigrants, both voluntary and involuntary. I'm not saying I want to run in 2016 if the rule gets changed. But I don't want that option denied me just because I was born in Eskilstuna.

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