Omnia Hegazy: Finding My Belonging On Stage

Omnia Hegazy is a musician and song-writer. She grew up in New York City. A citizen of the world, with a passion for music and storytelling, Omnia shares her unique narrative incorporating music, mixed heritage, belonging, and identity.

I am an American of many identities.

My father is an Egyptian Muslim and my mother is Brooklynese, of Italian and German ancestry. I was born in San Diego, California and grew up in Staten Island, New York.

First and foremost, I am a musician. I have been singing since I could speak, and I tend to sing and speak the same way: honestly.

When I was about ten years old I approached the imam in our mosque and asked him why the women’s section in our mosque was cut in half to build a library. The men’s section was much larger to begin with, and it irked me that our already cramped space was being downsized. I don’t remember his answer, but I do remember my father’s combination of amusement and horror as I confronted a religious figure and asked him to explain himself.

I also remember debating a family friend about why men and women had to be separated in the mosque at all. He insisted that men and women were separated so that both sexes would not get distracted during prayer. I asked him why I should have to pray in a different room from my father because some boys felt the need to look at my behind. My mother was not Muslim, so this separation often mean that my sister and I had to brave the mosque alone. Despite never converting, Mom did accompany us when we were small, only to find that the wisps of blonde hair peeking out from her scarf and blue eyes led her to be treated coldly by the Egyptian women, who rarely offered their salams.

I grew up wishing that my father taught me Arabic and that he would take us to visit our family in Cairo. His parents came to visit us a few times in the States, but passed away before I could ever witness them in their own home.

I also grew up with big Italian Christmases, surrounded by wine and cured meats that I could never touch. I talk with my hands, the way my grandmother does, and didn’t realize that tomato sauce came in a jar until I entered high school. This was very disturbing to me.

Being a mixed child can be an isolating experience. My Arabic was limited to prayer, and I often felt at odds with my father’s culture, resenting it for the way my mother was treated at the mosque and at Egyptian social gatherings. The absence of an Italian last name made it difficult to fit in with my majority Italian-American classmates, who felt justified in calling me “Bin Laden’s daughter” and “terrorist” after September 11th. Perhaps this lack of acceptance emboldened me to speak my mind, because fitting in was never an option.

I wrote my first song with my sister at the age of eleven, recycling romantic pop clichés while she played the piano. A year later I started playing the guitar, and found that if I sang enough jibberish, lyrics and melodies would started to take shape. Songwriting became my way of venting out my teenage frustrations and aspirations, and I began performing in school concerts and plays, this time choosing to stand out. The stage was where I belonged.

For the longest time, my strong opinions did not infiltrate my music. But after finally visiting my family in Egypt in 2010, something changed. I returned to the States with not only a greater understanding of my father’s culture, but a notebook full of song lyrics. When Hosni Mubarak was overthrown via peaceful revolution in 2011, the songs began to write themselves. Music had fueled that revolution, and I realized that it could fuel my own. I began to write songs fueled by the social justice and feminism and I had always believed in. When I had expressed these views verbally in the Muslim community I grew up in, they were often dismissed or met with distaste. But I found that singing them often had a different effect.

I had been performing professionally at music venues for several years at that point, but as my music became more socially conscious, I found myself appearing at events within the Arab community in the New York area and eventually at universities around the country.  The reception to my songs was overwhelmingly positive, though some of my fellow Arabs and/or Muslims did not appreciate my blunt lyrics. I was accused by some of feeding into that Islamophobia, by simply observing the issues that were pervasive in our communities and writing about them. Fear of feeding into the far right’s hateful agenda often keeps Muslims from speaking openly about our problems, silencing us and preventing us from doing better. I am no stranger to Islamophobia, having come of age as a Muslim-American in New York post 9/11, and these days I often walk a thin line between honestly critiquing my community and defending it against racist hate mongers who seek to portray all Muslims as evil.

I am not a Muslim singer. Musicians are rarely labeled by their religion unless they write faith-based music. I do not write Islamic music, though I do reference my faith in my lyrics on occasion. Like anyone else, my faith has its strong days and weak days. My Islam is personal and deeper than people on the outside looking in can understand. I am not a representative of Islam or being Muslim in America. I am just another citizen of the world, with many identities. I am a singer-songwriter, who happens to be a New Yorker, an Egyptian, Italian, American, a feminist, and yes, a Muslim.