Walking the tightrope of being Arab in America: Noor Ghazi on the dualities of Arab American identity

Double or nothing: Noor Ghazi and Arab-American identities
5 min read
28 April, 2023

“It was my sweet sixteenth birthday,” Noor said, recounting the day that she and her family escaped Iraq. They crossed the Rubicon, the point of no return, into Syria as Iraq’s civil war raged on. 

Despite the cultural and linguistic ties the two neighbours share, in Syria Noor experienced homesickness and her first culture shock. “When they spoke to me in their dialect I felt excluded from the conversation, and yet Iraq was always brought up.”

"Even after finding solace in the US, Iraq’s legacy still dominated Noor’s thinking. Unable to suppress the anguish of ‘Ghasa’; which in Arabic describes a propulsive pain that lodges itself in the throat, Noor returned to Iraq in 2018"

Unavoidable references to her near-yet-distant homeland in class and during small talk served as a cruel reminder of her dislocation. It was the beginning of what she describes as “the unravelling of me.”

In America yet dreaming of Baghdad

The “real struggle,” she says, began two years later in 2008 when the family relocated to the US. “We knew of America only from TV and maybe they knew of Arabs only from front-page headlines.”

Still, accepting America’s status as her new 'home’ felt like a betrayal. “Baghdad is the only home I’ve known and will return to one day,” is the idea Noor clung to, unable to reconcile the injury America caused Iraq and the safety it promised.

Even the US flag was synonymous with punitive US sanctions and the desolation and poverty they forced on Noor and millions of other Iraqi children. “I was still resentful,” she exclaimed.

Noor and her family are a shining example of Arab-American pride
Having overcome the dread of diaspora, Noor and her family now shine as an example of Arab American pride [photo credit: Noor Ghazi]

Her entry into college in 2010 marked an ideational shift. There she acquired a renewed sense of confidence and overcame the impasse of assimilation.

Perhaps for the first time she recognised that being understood was about more than surrounding herself with fellow countrymen or women.

“I was adding and bringing something to the table,” which Noor said non-Arabs were appreciative of.

Through grass-roots community building and storytelling as a means of healing, being Iraqi and American were no longer antithetical; “I could embrace the two,” without betraying her original cause.


Even after finding solace in the US, Iraq’s legacy still dominated Noor’s thinking. Unable to suppress the anguish of ‘Ghasa’; which in Arabic describes a propulsive pain that lodges itself in the throat, Noor returned to Iraq in 2018.

She arrived in Mosul a month after militia and Iraqi Armed Forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants to film the documentary, Mother of Two Springs. The homecoming was unlike the one she had dreamt of. 

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A city strewn with dead bodies razed neighbourhoods, and devastation as far as the eye could see, was the reality. The 'new Iraq' no longer embodied the ideals she was raised with. “I felt like a stranger in my own home,” she said, “all I could remember thinking was I want to return to the US.

“I fell into a deep depression afterwards. I was no longer the little girl that left in Iraq in 2006,” she remembers. The war against the Islamic State had irrevocably changed the place where she grew up. “As a mother, I knew I didn’t want to pass those conflicting feelings onto my daughter,” but equally, Noor was not prepared to disown Iraq.

Ghassa as a curable condition 

In an attempt to overcome Ghasa and homesickness, Noor would harness her cultural ties and raise Fatima, her daughter, to be bilingual.

As a native speaker and Arabic Lecturer at the University of North Carolina, Noor understood that language acquisition and cultural heritage were inseparable.

The challenge was less about dreaded Nahu (Arabic grammar) and more about creating a positive experience to encourage Fatima to learn Arabic beyond receptive bilingualism — where kids understand but don’t speak the language. 

Noor shares a bundle of images of Fatima visiting the Al-Kadhimiya Shrine in Baghdad, the two learning Arabic numbers together, and a proud Fatima posing with the Iraqi flag dressed in traditional costume. “It was heritage night at her school and she grabbed the Shemagh (headdress), the Iraqi flag, the Iraqi Abayya (dress) and the Sebha (prayer beads). I gotta represent Iraq,” she told her parents excitedly.

“You know you’re not Iraqi,” her father said. To his surprise, Fatima dropped everything and wept.

“I was emotional too,” Noor adds. "He was surprised and didn't mean anything by it," she explains.

"You know you’re born in America,'" he told Fatima. “I'm Iraqi,” she said defiantly. The incident captures the complicated wiring of diaspora children and the urge to connect culturally.

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Those of us raised in Iraqi households outside of the country are likely to relate to Fatima. Children are perceptive creatures, and Fatima’s ties to Iraq are an extension of Noor’s attachment to her native country.

Noor’s story demonstrates that Ghasa is a curable condition. It requires the community to confront the post-traumatic ghosts in their closest to avoid being held captive to Iraq’s tortured past.

Community building is another way forward. Noor felt compelled to contribute something back and was recently appointed visiting lecturer at Mosul University organising twinning events with Western organisations, with a focus on storytelling. 

The 32-year-old impressively straddles two cultural worlds, alternates between two languages and multiple roles as an educator, lecturer, consultant, translator, mother to Fatima, and not least, an unofficial representative of her community; walking the tightrope of being Arab, Iraqi, Muslim and American.

Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq's ancient history and contemporary political scene.

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi