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‘No Soy De Aquí, Ni Soy De Allá,’ the Duality of Growing Up in Venezuela While Being Syrian

One of my earliest school memories was the blue Tupperware lunch box mom would pack for me to go to preschool. Sitting on a yellow circle in the middle of the classroom, I remember my frustration at discovering that the liquid inside the cup was dripping all over my delicious yogurt and olive sandwich.

As I looked to the side, I realized I was not the only one facing tragedy. My classmates were suffering the same catastrophe, but while their lunchbox was flooded with blackberry juice, mine was a pool of black tea.

It was the first time I realized that, in my house, we did not eat the same food as my classmates did in theirs.

And the fact is that, while the typical breakfast of a Venezuelan child in the 90s was an arepa stuffed with cheese and butter, mine was an Arab bread with yogurt. After all, I was not “criolla,” as they used to say.

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When identity crosses oceans

Being born in the late 1980s in Venezuela could be a blessing in disguise. The country enjoyed economic stability that we would envy thirty years later. You could still feel the sting of “la Venezuela mayamera,” as it was called back when children played with toys brought directly from their vacations in Miami.

In my case, although certain references to the outside world were maintained at home, the upbringing and perspectives of life were different; they were those brought by my grandparents on a ship that docked in the port of Maracaibo in the 1950s.

Like my two paternal grandparents, my maternal grandfather left impoverished Syria in search of the economic miracle of South America. Not knowing the language, not knowing how to live in a region without winter or autumn, my grandparents embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.

However, my maternal grandfather fell in love with a Venezuelan woman who opened the door for him when he was selling brushes door to door.

Marrying a Christian would, in fact, be his greatest adventure.

My grandfather would abandon the Muslim faith, convert to Christianity, and build a house with more bathrooms than people where I enjoyed my childhood years.

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At my grandfather’s huge wooden dining table, food was blessed in Arabic and Spanish; we ate arepas, baked lamb, and desserts made of rice and puff pastries with pistachios.

My grandmother smoked Belmont cigarettes, and my grandfather lit his pipe to enjoy his coffee with cardamom. A made-up God was prayed to at home because, at the end of the day, “God is one,” as he used to say.

We listened to Fairuz and Oscar De Leon in my house, and television was restricted to occasional events. This syncretism and rigidity were repeated in my mother’s house.

Unlike my father’s family, who forced their children to remain in closed circles of the Arab community, at home, mom and dad tried to make us know the outside world, the Latino world, despite not understanding half of the social codes.

While my classmates shaved their legs at a very young age, I had to wait until my period came to go through the Cleopatra-like ritual of waxing with hot wax and bathing my skin with milk and honey creams.

While my classmates learned to drink with their parents and play dominoes, I never saw mom drink more than a glass of champagne at Christmas, and at home, the lights went out at 8 pm. 

And although it took me many years to understand that the feeling of not belonging was shared by millions of other Latino Syrians, the truth is that today I still eat Arab bread with yogurt and olives, I am a decent salsa dancer, and I still believe that “God is one.”

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