Pitt alumna Dalel Khalil observes transition from Arab to American culture

By Mollie Durkin

On a typical autumn Saturday in Oakland, Pitt students perform certain rituals.

Dalel Khalil was no different. Khalil, a 1992 Pitt alumna, cheered at football games, drank beer and ate fries from The “O” — just like students do today.

There is one slight difference, however: She’s an outspoken, independent Syrian-American woman who dovetailed Eastern and Western culture to form her own culture — one in which she is free from any control. This unique culture is exemplified in Khalil’s self-published book, “From Veils to Thongs: An Arab Chick’s Survival Guide to Balancing One’s Ethnic Identity in America.”

“I have one foot in the traditional world and one in the liberal, modern American world,” she said.

Khalil, who now lives in Schenley Farms, said that when she went home to her house on Atwood Street after a night out, she entered a different world — one laden with rituals from Arabic tradition, like serving coffee to her uncles.

Khalil’s book is a discussion between a typical Arab woman and herself about sensitive issues, she said.

“We can’t directly talk about these issues,” she said. “We are preparing to be ready.”

Her book is based on her life, but she said it is generalized to be applicable to girls around the world — not just Arab-Americans.

“It’s not a memoir, but it says a little about my life,” she said. “It would be applicable to a girl in France or a girl half a world away in Australia.”

Halfway through this interview at an Oakland coffee shop, Khalil asked what my heritage was. When I replied that I was Irish, she stuck out her hand for a fist-pound.

She said that we were a lot alike, and that she loves the Irish tradition. The book even compares Irish and Arab culture.

“[The Irish] pretty much have the same values: hospitality, generosity, family, honor. And they too have a very funny sense of humor,” the book says. “Even our musical instruments are almost identical. They use big drums; we use the tabal. They use bagpipes; we play the mijwez.”

Khalil’s tongue-in-cheek writing style is apparent in her book’s title.

Rasha Al-Hashimi, an Arabic instructor at Pitt’s Less-Commonly-Taught Languages Center, said the Arab community might have mixed first impressions of the book.

“I think the title might throw off the people,” she said. “But from what I hear, it actually puts the Arabic culture in a positive light.”

She also said there is a definite struggle that Arab-Americans endure regarding which culture to follow.

“I see it raising my kids,” she said. “They just need to find a happy medium between their Arab culture and American culture.”

Loubna Elabbadi, another Arabic instructor at the center, explained the phenomenon of switching between cultures.

“Negotiation happens all the time for people who live a certain heritage at home and in their community, and have to live with other cultural gears when outside of their communities,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I call that situation, if we can use a car/machine metaphor, the ‘gear-switching’ situation.”

Khalil said she wasn’t constricted by Arabic or American culture, but certain key differences still bombarded her. She still had to switch gears.

Her family is Christian, but the Arabic match-making tradition still exists.

“You know ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding?’” she said. “It’s like that on crack.”

She said when an Arab woman is of age, successful suitors visit the home and meet the family.

“It’s kind of like a group date,” she said.

Eligible girls don’t meet men at clubs or bars like they do in the United States.

Romantic interests are formed through interaction at churches and activities, but women don’t flirt, she said. The wedding is a huge celebration, and the village community comes together in celebration as soon as the bride leaves home.

The wedding centers on the bride, she said. Village women gather to celebrate the bride, who is showered with gold and blessed by an elder woman.

Some women might feel the need to rebel under this procedure, but not Khalil.

“I knew rebellion was counterproductive, because then that would mean I was controlled by the Western side,” she said.

She compounded her musical influences too, listening to artists on MTV, as well as Arabic pop stars.

Also, contrary to stereotypical beliefs, Arabs love to party, she said.

A sahara, or informal family gathering, would incorporate musicians, Arabic drums — Khalil plays them herself — and sometimes the oud, an ancient string instrument.

Khalil said her family would sit around and tell stories, sing, dance and clap until three in them morning.

She said music was a big part of her life, and she would leave American parties to attend hafli, or formal Arabic celebrations of music and dance. She would spend hours dressing up, and getting her nails and hair done — as well as finding out if any cute doctors were attending the event. Hafli typically boast a full band and Arabic music.

She said that at the base of her Arabic culture are social rules, as well as a code of honor.

It is unlike American hospitality, she said. Her family would entertain, feed and be by a guest’s side until he or she left.

Despite her cultural influences, she said Pittsburgh has always been her home.

“I never didn’t belong here,” she said. “I am Pitt.”

She said she grew up in a multicultural and ethnic community in the middle of Oakland, laden with cultural and intellectual stimulation.

The community around her was diverse, and she was surrounded by many Italian families — it was much different back then, she said.

She said Oakland hasn’t lost its multicultural roots, though — and being adjacent to campus is a gateway to a world rich with diversity.

Living by Pitt also enriched her understanding of different cultures, she said.

Her family owned a Middle-Eastern restaurant, Khalil’s, on Semple Street, and graduate students from all over would eat there, she said.

Khalil’s has since moved to Baum Boulevard.

“The University of Pittsburgh is world-renowned,” she said. “We always met and socialized with people from all over the world.”

She said her parents would also rent out the third floor of her family’s house — Russians, Nigerians and Poles were all tenets.

“It’s like I grew up in the Cathedral of Learning,” she said.

She’s happy to be here.

“There’s energy here; there’s life here,” she said.

She’s been traveling the United States herself, stopping in Washington, Michigan and Chicago. Ill., to promote her book before returning to Pittsburgh to get the word out and breathe the crisp air of the city.

“I have a big mouth, I’ll sell it myself,” she said. “I think I’ve been my own reference.”

Aside from her “big mouth,” Khalil also has an optimistic view of the world.

She said the message she wants to convey is that we need to come together.

“Lines aren’t so clear as they used to be,” she said. “It’s critical to understand each other in this day and age.”

She cited a U.S. Census Bureau projection that states that by the year 2050, minorities will be the majority in America.

She also said more and more minorities are coming to the United States, and we must first understand one another to take a step toward peace.

That’s the goal of her book, and using humor to help is good too, she said.

“We’re all part of the human race,” she said. “Let’s have a party.”