An Arab-American’s Take on Peace, Freedom, and Sweet Tea
“Where ‘you from?” The lady in line at the coffee shop asked with a kind smile.
“Homewood,” I said with a mischievous smile.
I always wondered how obvious my foreignness was. I do reside in a state home mostly to Roll-Tide and War-Eagles patriots. Others are viewed as extra terrestrials at best. Arab-Americans can be found in Dearborn, New York, or Los Angeles; Birmingham? Come ‘gain?
Alabama may not rank high in the number of people who consider football just another word for soccer, but I absolutely love it.
In this space, I will take you on a journey across this incredible state, home to the brightest and the sweetest of people. We will look at things from street level, as well as 30,000 feet. I will discuss politics, social issues, education, economics, and what I had for breakfast. (The first time I had grits, I refused to believe that corn could taste that good). I will bring you a fresh point of view from someone who grew up somewhere’s else, where “Ame-ri-ca” was the most glamorous word you can utter. To end up “there” was the dream of many, and still is. But most importantly, we will become a community that is open-minded, one that smiles while articulates, and one that might experience goose bumps occasionally. (If you know what causes those, email me).
I came to this big-ole-melting-pot from Damascus – Syria on January 18th, 1984 at the age of 18. Once the snow and ice melted. I noticed two things. Girls in this country don’t wear the same things they do in Syria. Also, people here trust each other more.
I finished High School in Damascus and was ready to seek education in a country where human beings are valued. Where grading is based on your knowledge and not on who you know, and where the honor system compels the teacher to pass out the test and walk out of the room. I wanted to live in a country where the reward is based on the effort, and where they put sugar in your tea, call is asstea, and serve it cold. (I asked for hot tea once at a country diner. The waitress rolled her eyes, then loud enough for the next town to hear yelled towards the kitchen: “Thelma, can we make a hot tea?”)
I was accepted at Ohio State, University of Michigan, UCLA, and the University of Tennessee. The Cultural Liaison at the American Embassy in Damascus suggested Tennessee. I wanted to go to California. That was where Magnum P.I lived, and so did The A-Team, MacGyver, the gang from Cheers, and my dream woman, Christie Brinkley.
I wanted a car like Magnum’s. I wanted adventures like the A-Team had. And I wanted friends like Norm and Cliff:
Woody: “Can I pour you a beer, Mr. Peterson?”
Norm: “A little early isn’t it, Woody?”
Woody: “For a beer?”
Norm: “No, for stupid questions.”
Cliff: If memory serves, the umbilical chord is 90% potassium.
The real reason I immigrated to America wasn’t education, democracy, or freedom. It was Christie Brinkley. (Have you seen her in that red car in Christmas Vacation with hair flowing and lips smiling and, oh dear . . . Where was I?)
Oh, The woman at the embassy, who was from Georgia. When I asked about the reason for selecting Tennessee, she winked and said with a Southern drawl, “Well honey, girls are the prettiest in the South.”
I pondered for a long time. Ten seconds later, I was signing the admission letter to the University of Tennessee.
After Knoxville, I moved to Birmingham in 1989. Now that I have been here for over 30 years and have traveled all over this vast country full of beauty, I must admit, the South may have a higher concentration. But you know what? It’s not just external beauty. There is a plethora of beauty on the inside in the land where they say “bless your heart,” and “Pahloh” – for parlor, and “fixin’ to”.
I used to say the last one. I was always fixin’ to do this or that. Then my roommate broke it to me, “You are confusing people man.” Well, I ain’t from around these parts, and I am as happy as a dead pig in sunshine, so le’me be.
Speaking of language, I love what has been dubbed, ‘Karimisms’ by my children and close friends. Those are my misunderstandings of this catawampus language.
Example: During the first few days at UT, friendly Americans would welcome me to this country then ask, “How do you like it so far?”
“Yeah, it is pretty far . . . ”
Alabama is home y’all, and this foreigner loves it.