Malaka Gharib is More Than Her Heritage

Matthew Wagner, Sentry Reporter

On December 1, 2021, our school welcomed Malaka Gharib, journalist at NPR and author of I Was Their American Dream, a graphic memoir detailing her acclamation to numerous cultures. Gharib is an Egyptian-Filipino American and, this year, she assumed the honor of being featured in Arlington Public School’s (APS) author talk. The author talk is an opportunity for writers to come speak to the three APS high schools about their work.

In Gharib’s newest book, she discusses the struggles of balancing two vehemently opposed cultures in her Filipino and Egyptian heritage. She also details what it was like to feel pressured to live the American Dream her parents wanted for her. 

Gharib’s mother grew up in a wealthy Filipino family and strongly opposed moving to the United States. Eventually, she was forced to leave her homeland because martial law was instituted in order to quell protests during the 1970s. When Gharib’s mother left, she arrived in Los Angeles, California. 

In stark contrast to this, Gharib’s father had been planning a move to the United States since he was in high school. Over time, Gharib’s father worked to acquire a visa and moved to the states where he attended graduate school. After graduating with a Masters degree in Business Administration, he got a job and ended up meeting Gharib’s mother. 

Gharib’s parents craved a normal, all-American upbringing for her, but this would be harder to achieve than they thought. A classic American childhood typically entails a united household with happily married parents. Unfortunately for Gharib, her parents divorced when she was younger. They would later tell her that “being married to each other was the closest they got to the American Dream.” 

Because of her heritage, she had a very unique childhood. She was not allowed to have sleepovers or hang out with people after school. Her mother also wanted her to be a citizen of the world, so they took extravagant vacations. This all helped her develop into a global citizen. 

After her dad relocated to Egypt for a job, she spent her summers with him. She skateboarded around the neighborhood as Egyptian people stared because she was wearing American clothes. In Egyptian culture it was “shameful” and she was seen as a loose woman for simply being herself. 

Her struggle to define herself would be a persisting theme throughout the book and her life as a whole. In school, she sought out friends who were similar to her but quickly learned she was in the minority of the minorities who attended her high school. 

Due to the fact that she faced many microaggressions and back-handedly racist comments, Gharib was envious of the White children who in her eyes were “true Americans.” For Gharib, it took a grueling process of self-decolonization to recognize these offensive comments and that her image of a White America was utterly untrue. 

“I only went on my own personal journey to find myself and free myself from the past to decolonize myself…. I went through my life thinking ‘Gosh, I have never experienced a single racist thing, what a great way to be alive!’…  because I had internalized those [microaggressions],” Gharib said. 

Because she frequently moved around the country after completing college, Gharib struggled with this process of decolonization in order to figure out who she really was as a person. Gharib wrote her graphic memoir to commemorate the journey she endured to find her true self. 

As such, the unique structure of each of the nine chapters helps explain a different part of her life. 

“If you look at the book, every chapter stands alone as its own story,” Gharib said. 

This format of breaking up her story into smaller sections proved less daunting while she was writing the book. This is because Gharib was an avid short story writer before attempting her biggest project, I Was Their American Dream.  

The color palette choices were also inconsistent. They had to change, originally from millennial pink to red because their choice of pink was going out of style. It was a happy accident because the colors of the book ended up paralleling the colors of our nation’s flag. 

Malaka Gharib is a storied writer with an immensely rare history and a tumultuous life. As a result of the innumerable culture adjustments she has endured, she was forced to discover who she really was, which is no easy feat. But for all of the inconsistencies that have persisted in Gharib’s life, she knows one thing is always true. 

“Everybody has their own American Dream story,” Gharib said.