Lama Al Jarallah shares her journey to finding a community in America that “nourished and encouraged” her. In her professional life, she is dedicated to building an environment of inclusive cultural diversity, personal growth, efficiency, and communication.
I was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I grew up until my early teens.
After a few years of moving from continent to continent, I decided to pursue my higher education in the U.S. The first city – or in this case, town – that I lived in here was Isla Vista, California. I was in utter shock at how much I stood out in the community and how little people knew about the rest of the world. Having grown up in an extremely international and diverse community, it was utterly bizarre for me to move into the overwhelmingly white, 4-Km2 beach town.
I began to cover my accent more and dress differently. I tried to assimilate as much as possible, but when someone asked where I was from, a long and winding conversation full of racist, xenophobic, and quite ignorant proclamations about what it means to be from Saudi Arabia would commence. For some reason, people thought pity was an appropriate reaction, as though being a Muslim Saudi woman was the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen to a human being.
I would shut myself off in Ramadan to avoid having to explain anything and slowly I even began to forget to celebrate Eid. There was just no community whatsoever for me to grow and nourish my culture. I was so often mistaken for Mexican that I mostly went along with it to avoid having to explain myself. I don’t know what I expected when moving here, but it wasn’t that. I expected more diversity, openness, and to be quite honest, more [intellectual] substance.
Upon graduation, I moved to Washington, DC, to pursue my professional aspirations in the field of political science. This is where everything changed for me. I found a community where I was no longer afraid to be honest about where I’m from and who I am, to explore what it means to be a Muslim Saudi woman living in America. Once I became surrounded with people who nourished and encouraged me, I was finally able to shed my internalized shame and self-hatred for the fact that Americans can’t pronounce my name or don’t understand the cultural and religious implications of decisions that I have to make on a daily basis.
Now, when I am approached or asked about my country, culture, or religion, it is out of a genuine desire to learn. For better or worse, Saudi is having its moment in the international arena and people want to know more about the ‘elusive’ and ‘exclusive’ Kingdom. While I am not and never will be a spokesperson for all Muslims, Arabs, or Saudis, I’m more than happy to engage and debate the many facets of my Islam with anyone who wants to understand rather than fear. And that is always my first point: what I convey are thoughts, feelings, and beliefs associated with my Islam, and to each his/her own.
I think my experience as a Muslim in America has been full of surprises and contradictions, all of which I’m grateful for. It taught me self-love and perseverance through waves of hatred; it taught me patience in the face of ignorance; and most importantly, it taught me how to build community and trust anywhere and everywhere through a shared respect of our humanity.
Author photo by Aleksandra Zaytseva