Design a site like this with
Get started

On Growing Up Middle Eastern After 9/11

A nazar pendant

Don’t forget to wear your nazar!”

Growing up with Turkish and Syrian relatives, this sentiment was something I heard often as a child: warnings to remember to wear my nazar to protect myself from the evil eye.

In casual conversation in the US, giving someone the evil eye often means giving someone a dirty look or looking at someone in an unpleasant way. The meaning of the “evil eye” for other cultures, however, is often much more serious. In places such as Turkey and Syria, the evil eye is a type of superstitious curse cast by the angry glance of a malicious or envious person, and it often has the potential to wreak great havoc on the health and safety of those afflicted by it. Belief in (and fear of) the evil eye is an extremely old, deep-rooted, and respected tradition in these parts of the world. (It’s worth noting that belief in some concept of the evil eye is by no means limited to Turkey and the Middle East — check out this article for more history about the evil eye and its geographical spread.)

In order to protect themselves from the evil eye, known in Arabic as al-ayn (“the eye”), believers often wear or display a talismanic symbol called the nazar, which is believed to ward off the evil eye. The nazar is typically a glass amulet shaped and painted to look like a blue eye, but it can also take the form of blue beads painted to look like eyes or, sometimes, even just a string of plain blue beads by themselves. Children are believed to be particularly susceptible to the evil eye, and relatives often give jewelry or make handmade items for children with the nazar on it in order to protect them. Giving someone a nazar is a sign of love and care, carrying with it the message of “I want you to be well and safe”. Wearing a nazar, especially one given as a gift, often serves as a symbolic reminder of your loved one’s desire for you to be safe, healthy, and happy in addition to offering protection against the evil eye itself.

I greatly value and appreciate the cultural traditions surrounding the nazar. In fact, I still have many of the nazars I was given as a child. For me, the nazar is more than just something used for warding off envy or evil. For me, it represents the love and comfort of relatives who wish me well, as well as offering a way of feeling connected to my heritage. For years, though, I did not wear the nazar, even though it was something of emotional and cultural importance. I didn’t wear it because I was ashamed of my heritage, and I avoided the nazar precisely because of what it represented to me—I didn’t want someone to see it and ask questions about what it was, and, consequently, who I was.

A little background about me: I am 50% Turkish-Syrian, and for that side of my family, I am a first-generation American. I was born and raised in the US, but I also spent a substantial amount of my childhood living in and traveling around Turkey. Although I am not ashamed of my heritage now, there was a time in my life where I felt very differently about it.

As a child growing up in the immediate wake of 9/11, disclosing my heritage was something I learned not to do if I wanted social interactions to go smoothly. Disclosing this part of my background usually resulted in polite suspicion at best and outright prejudice at worst and was usually accompanied by prying questions that attempted to suss out how “American” I was—and, consequently, attempt determine how much respect I deserved as a person. Harder, though, was also the fact that I remembered what life was like before 9/11: I remembered what it was like to have my heritage met with curiosity, or just plain ambivalence rather than kneejerk judgment, fear, and suspicion.

Even when very young, I was made extremely aware of my status as “other” and, subsequently, my status as “unwelcome” in this country. On the playground, other children would grimace contemptuously at me and jeer “You weren’t born here!” when they would hear my relatives speaking Arabic or Turkish in the background. If it wasn’t an angry jeer, it would be presented as the interrogative question “Were you born here?” instead, but, regardless, the root suspicion and judgment were always the same. My answer to their question—“Yes, I was born here”—was not what really mattered to them, not that it ever should have mattered in the first place. What mattered to them was the fact I was different, in a bad way, and they did not want to play or interact with me once they knew I was the “other”.

It was not just the children who took issue with my and my family’s “otherness”. After all, children are like sponges, quick to absorb the opinions and values of those around them. The suspicion and judgment also came from neighbors, random strangers, professionals. The “othering” ranged in severity, but it was always constant, and it often served the purpose of reminding me that I was not welcome here. On the extreme end, some people stopped interacting with me when they learned I had Muslim family members. One person told me they believed Middle Easterners should be “bombed out of existence” before they had the chance to take down the Western world.

More common, though, were invasive questions about citizenship status, identity, and “loyalty”, i.e. whether I was “pro-Middle East” or a “true American”. (What even is a “true” American? And why should it matter?) And then, of course, was the abysmal treatment we received in airports from immigration officials. The change in attitude—and human decency—was always palpable as soon as our heritage was recognized. I remember watching other people streaming through immigration with smiles and ease. That was never the case for us. We were always met with suspicion, furrowed brows, rude questions, full-body pat-downs, random security screenings. The thing is, it’s not random if it happens every time. And it happened every time.  

Not everyone was egregiously suspicious or judgmental, certainly, but many people still tried to find reasons to “other” me, reasons that were usually rooted in stereotypes about my heritage and that overlooked my identity and worth as an individual. I would often become someone’s “exotic” friend, “foreign” friend, or “non-American” friend, rather than simply being their friend who also happened to be part Turkish-Syrian. It was especially bad with men, who liked to try to fetishize my “foreignness” by fixating on my “exotic” dark eyes, my “Turkish hair”, or, if I had a good summer tan going on, my “Middle Eastern skin”. Even if I was accepted on the surface, it was still made repeatedly clear to me that my non-Northern/Western European half meant I had to be “othered” in some way, whether it was as dehumanizing as being someone’s exotic fetish dream-girl or as seemingly innocuous as being someone’s “novelty” friend.

Worse than the judgment of others, though, was how I reacted to it. For years, I was so uncomfortable being the “other” that I felt like I had to make it go away at any cost. I tried to completely erase that part of myself in attempt to alleviate the shame I felt for being different and unwelcome in the country that I called home. I denied a large and intimate part of my identity for the sake of not being judged, a choice that I now regret. I denied having Turkish-Syrian heritage, passing over the months and years I had spent living in Turkey, overlooking the stories, lives, and narratives of my relatives. I avoided having people meet them and forbade them from speaking Arabic and Turkish to me in public. I willed myself to forget the Arabic and Turkish that I knew. And of course, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I avoided wearing the nazar, lest someone ask me questions about it.

Although it was perhaps one of the more superficial aspects of my Turkish-Syrian identity, not wearing the nazar was actually one of the most painful for me in retrospect because of what the nazar had symbolized for me. As mentioned before, the nazar carries with it meaning that goes far beyond its purpose as a talisman or fashion statement. It is much more than just something worn for “good luck” or protection. It represents me honoring and accepting part of myself that I felt I had to hide. 

I regret the choices that I made regarding my “otherness” when I was younger. I regret trying to hide, minimize, and deny my heritage because of shame and fear. I regret it most because I should not have felt the need to hide or minimize it in order to be treated with respect. My heritage should have never been cause for such judgment in the first place. My answer to the question “Were you born here?” did not and still does not matter—it should have never mattered, just as my answers to the other scornful, scrutinizing questions should have never mattered. Deciding whether someone is treated with respect or with suspicion should not be determined by their birthplace, their heritage, their identity, or anything else about them. A person, any person, deserves to be treated with respect.

Recent events in this country, especially the rhetoric surrounding them, have served as an ever-present reminder that certain prejudices are very much alive and well in America. In fact, studies show that xenophobia is on the rise throughout the US, targeting not just Middle Easterners and Muslims but many other groups as well. I am disappointed but not at all surprised by this. My experiences have instilled in me a bitter kind of misanthropic cynicism, something that still informs my worldview to this day. What I try to focus on, though, is the fact that there are many in this country who are trying to fight this xenophobia. Wearing my nazar is a small way for me to remind myself of this every day. Slowly, I have begun incorporating my Turkish and Syrian heritage back into my life again. Just as I should not have felt the need to hide my heritage, no one in this country should feel the need to hide their heritage. We should all be welcome here, and we are all deserving of respect.

Links for Further Reading

Get Involved: Ways to Fight Xenophobia in the US

5 Ways to Fight Racism and Xenophobia

How We Can Fight the Trump Administration’s Xenophobia

Refugees, Racism and Xenophobia: What Works to Reduce Discrimination?

Standing With Refugees and Asylum-Seekers

Trump’s xenophobia is an American tradition — but it doesn’t have to be

Xenophobia/Islamophobia/Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in the US

A licence to discriminate: Trump’s Muslim & refugee ban

Americans See Increase in Racism and Xenophobia as Coronavirus Spreads

Between xenophobic rhetoric and human tragedy

Donald Trump: ban all Muslims entering US

‘I think Islam hates us’: A timeline of Trump’s comments about Islam and Muslims

The Long History of Xenophobia in America

Mainstreaming Hate: The Anti-Immigrant Movement in the U.S.

Trump’s History of Racism and the Reckoning It Has Forced 

What most Americans get wrong about Islamophobia

Fetishization of Middle Eastern Women

The Exotic Other: Gender and Sexuality in Africa and the Middle East

Those exotic Arabs, and other Orientalist fetishes

On Being Turkish in America

Identity and Space: The Case of Turkish Americans

Is Turkey a Middle Eastern country?

Community Discussion

Is Turkey part of Europe or Middle East?

The Middle East, an encyclopedic definition

Where Is the Middle East?

No Ban No Wall | Power to the Poster


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: