Published in LoYACY magazine in May of 2012, edited by Rania Saeb.
I hold my flawless essay on Fahrenheit 451 in my young, 15-year-old hands, my head held up in pride at its sheer beauty. It didn’t have a single grammatical or spelling error, it not only met but exceeded the creative language expectations of my then-10th-grade English class, and displayed impressive analysis skills. I was sure that once we began peer-editing in class, none of my peers would be able to find a thing that I should change – and I would take great pleasure in turning their clean papers into a hot mess covered with red ink corrections.
But that was not to be.
“Okay, so when you’re having any English-written work edited, one of the most important parts is to make sure you have a native English speaker editing your work, because they’re the only ones you can trust to truly know the language and be able to point out any mistakes that you may have made.”
“So you can just ask any of your American or Canadian classmates to look over your essays.”
You want me to ask the Canadian kid who only five minutes ago had said, “I’m done my work” and butchered the grammar of that statement? You can’t eliminate the word “with” simply because you feel like it. I wasn’t letting that kid anywhere near my work, not when I had put such careful thought and precision into creating it.
I admit to have been the odd type of 15-year-old that didn’t let these things slide. I made a mental note to pay attention to any other possibly Arab-discriminatory remarks that she would throw at the direction of myself and my other 15-year-old classmates who just might believe her. I decided that the best way of retaliating would be to pick up on all the ‘non-Western’ characteristics that she had, and to throw them in her face whenever she told us how uncivil we were, how desperately in need of Western guidance us lost Arab creatures were.
I had my golden moment of victory when she was discussing the difference between the Western code of ethics and Middle Eastern definitions of morality. Of course, the Western definition was ‘civil’ and ‘enlightened’ and ‘peaceful’ – the War on ‘Terror’ was meant to protect people and spread democracy, after all. Likewise, the Middle Eastern definition was savage, beast-like, primitive, and monstrous. At some point I zoned out. Eventually one learns to block out the voices that only want to listen to themselves. But I snapped back to reality with an amused sparkle in my eyes when she picked up a black marker and wrote “conscious” on the white board, her voice thundering:
“You need to develop a conscience!”
I couldn’t control myself. I laughed at the irony of it all. I laughed at how serious her tone was, how she looked like she was desperately trying to get through to a bunch of serial killers with hollow, empty souls and attempting to convince them to be good people. I laughed even harder at the look on her face when I burst out laughing the moment she was telling me to “develop a conscience”. I laughed a lot more when I imagined what must’ve been going through her head: “Oh this Arab girl is long gone, hopeless case. She can’t even show some manners to respect the seriousness of what I am discussing.”
“I’m sorry, is there something you would like to add?”
“You want us to develop a conscious.”
“No sweety, that’s another word with a different meaning. I want you to develop a conscience.”
“You wrote the other word with the different meaning.”
She turned her back to the board and cocked her head of smooth, ‘tamed’ brown hair to the side.
“How do you spell conscience?”
“Yes…” I hesitate, “Con-science.”
Breaking down ‘conscience’ in that manner was probably the single most idiotic thing – grammatically speaking, anyway – that had left my mouth, but it was a small price to pay for the sake of proving to my racist teacher that her 15-year-old Arab student was a better speller than her own Western teacher in all her glory.
It’s safe to say that Arabs make up the majority of private, Western-education schools in Kuwait. I think it might also be safe to say that this one incident could be one of many that take place on a daily basis within school premises – the teacher, a figure of authority, demeaning his or her student, someone who will absorb the information given to him by this trustworthy figure in his life, simply for the sake of maintaining the global hierarchy of race.
When the Western teacher treats Arab students as the inferior group and glorifies his or her Western students regardless of their level of intellect, it creates a dangerous cycle of orientalism, where the West objectifies the East and depicts them to be savage, primitive, ignorant, illiterate, ever-dependent on the West’s guidance. One of two things can occur as a result of this objectification, both with equally possible chances. The first, frightening possibility is that the Arab student may believe the Western teacher and accept his or her words as truth, reality, unquestionable fact – keeping in mind that most students are at a stage of mental development where they consider teachers to be credible, reliable sources of information. The teacher is a role model, a figure of authority, a river of knowledge and ‘enlightenment’ – so picture the tragic irony of the situation when the teacher does the exact opposite, and instead leads the student into darkness.
The second possibility is for the teacher’s actions to backlash – the student considers the teacher’s air of superiority an incentive to push himself and surpass the Western standard not just for Arabs, but for universal intellect. A negative action does not necessarily equal a negative reaction; in such cases, it can be an opportunity to prove the other end wrong. This can apply to a variety of different situations and not just ones that involve ethnicity, such as the older generation’s negative perception of the younger generation, or even stereotypes based on social standing.
For stereotypes to be broken, laying the blame strictly on the person making assumptions would be too simplistic. One must defy stereotypes, not only by not living up to its perceptions, but surpassing them and becoming the polar opposite. It is a battle that is not as simple as ‘us’ against ‘them’, but also involves an inner struggle where we must fight our own innate demons.
To break free from the negatives of your Arab side does not make you Westernized, nor does it strip you of your Arab identity. The key to surpassing the stereotypical image of an Arab is not by imitating the Westerner and denying your own ethnicity, but by becoming a better human being. Carry qualities that will dazzle the world so brightly that what background you come from won’t make a difference.