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stop staring at my labels!
i'm over here!
by reem al-omari (@Reemawi)

I have many pet peeves, but none as seriously damaging to my constitution as that of being treated as a novelty when I first meet someone.

I am treated as a novelty often enough that I've started to weed people out of my life by that criteria, because there's a difference between being curious and forgetting that I'm a person who needs to be primed and prepped before you assault me with your questions about why I don't drink alcohol or eat pork, or if Reem is my real name or if it's short for something, or how to say hello in Arabic, or if I have to marry someone my parents picked out for me in an arranged marriage...

This is seriously getting on my nerves, people.

Much like a woman can't get a man to look her in the eyes because he's occupied by her breasts, I struggle to get people of both sexes to realize that I am a person who is a lot more ordinary than the labels I have attached to me make me out to be.

Of course, I think I'm pretty special, but not because I'm an Arab, Iraqi, Muslim woman living in the USA with a name like Reem Al-Omari, but for the same types of reasons Jennifer Smith is special after you get to know her.

Just to give you an idea of how aggravating my struggle can be, I will relate to you a recent situation that is almost comical, but a perfect example of how I am treated like a novelty. And I'll even throw in a happy ending.

I got invited to a barbecue recently, where people were, naturally, drinking. I really have no problem with other people drinking. I never even let on that I don't drink for religious reasons, I just ask for a Coca Cola and enjoy myself and hope that people are too drunk to notice.

So, at this barbecue, I was sitting in a lawn chair, drinking my Coca Cola, basking in the sun, laughing at adults with real jobs and mortgages playing beer pong, when one of them plopped down in the chair next to me.

He was around forty years old, tall and big-boned with a beer belly. He wore white socks pulled halfway up his pale calves. His facial hair was unkempt, he was in dire need of a haircut and a healthier lifestyle. He was a slob.

I gave him a polite smile and said hello, anyway, because although I'd already labeled him a slob, I still considered him a person with layers underneath all the slobbiness.

I knew who he was and had heard that he was a psychiatrist who made it a trademark to analyze people at social gatherings, sort of like a gypsy woman with a crystal ball would do at a carnival. I was also pretty sure that he knew a little bit about me already, mainly because I was coming across friends I never knew I had throughout my stay, so I checked my body language to make sure I didn't scream someone out of her element, i.e., an introvert in a large party-like gathering, and continued to bask in the atmosphere.

The first and only thing that this man said to me in his very distinct European accent and deep voice was: “You know, I tell all my Muslim friends that Allah can't see under the roof,” and he held up his beer bottle in salute, making sure I understood what he meant. “I've converted a lot of Muslims with this,” he continued, looking off into the distance, like he was John Wayne and had just said something profound and arresting.

I wasn't sure what to say back, but in my head I was saying “Who says these things?”

“Someone with no tact,” I answered myself, and somewhere in there I also thought that he shouldn't be anywhere near anyone who needs a psychiatrist.

Nonetheless, I just smiled and managed to conjure up a neutral response to his, at the very least, inconsiderate icebreaker. “I'll make sure to keep that in mind,” I said.

I think it was his turn at the table and he got up and went away, or maybe his occupation allowed him to read my body language, which I'm sure said something a lot less neutral than what I said out loud, but he was gone, and that was good, because things took a turn for the better.

It wasn't long before a pleasant guy plopped down next to me, who was--get this--a horse whisperer. After talking to him, the horse whisperer became a human whisperer in my eyes.

He was a little on the short side, had sun-darkened skin, big and strong forearms, crooked teeth and a slight limp. He gave off positive energy that made me genuinely smile at him.

He introduced himself as Freddy, shook my hand and proceeded to treat me like I was a person. He talked about the different types of horses he's broken, which ones were smart, which ones were stubborn, which ones were his favorites. He was a person with patience and respect for all living things. He didn't make me feel like I was a novelty, a novelty with a shortcoming the way the psychiatrist and many others had made me feel.

I went from being square-jawed with aggravation, to smiling big, all thanks to a horse whisperer. A person whose job it was to be patient and understanding of mute creatures' needs in order to get those creatures to respond to him the way he wanted.

This got me thinking about the irony that was unfolding in front of me.

A psychiatrist's job is to deal with people and their emotions, and yet, instead of making me open up to him, he locked me up pretty tight. A horse whisperer is a person who gets horses to do what he wants them to do, and apparently, that skill also works with humans, because I wanted Freddy to be my BFF.

I'm a person. I want everyone to deal with me as a person with layers to be discovered, emotions and feelings to be taken into consideration. I don't want the labels attached to me to drag me down, and when you treat me like a novelty, that's what you're doing, and it is a very unpleasant feeling to know that it doesn't matter that we like the same things or have experienced the same things.

When you treat me like a novelty, all you see is our differences,
leaving a huge gap between us.

To the psychiatrist I was a Muslim who didn't drink alcohol, that was all he saw and nothing else mattered. To Freddy, I was a new person to meet and a potential new friend with all kinds of layers to her personality, and who happens to have all these labels attached to her.

Make me your friend, then you can ask me anything, and I will answer you, or even laugh at your slightly inappropriate jokes. One of the things you don't see when you treat me as a novelty is that I can be a really good friend.

Just be patient and remember I'm a person, not a caricature.


Reem lives and writes about it. She thinks that's what writers do, anyway. If it's not, then she also has a degree in journalism under her belt, along with the titles of reporter, editor (in chief, even) and, of course, opinion columnist.

more about reem al-omari


it's not the end of the world
and i feel fine
by reem al-omari
topic: humor
published: 5.30.07

you're perfect
now go improve yourself
by reem al-omari
topic: humor
published: 12.18.07


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