What My 6-Year-Old Taught Me About Her Identity

by Julie Flynn Badal

A couple of weeks ago, my 6-year-old daughter and I had a chance to spend some much-needed alone time. My daughter had shared me with her little sister all summer, and she was excited to have mom to herself for an afternoon. I told her we could do anything she wanted. Then I tossed out a few ideas. We could catch a matinee and eat a big tub of popcorn, I said. Or paint teacups at the pottery studio. Or hunt for fun rhinestone clip-on earrings at the thrift shop.

"You said we could do what I wanted to do, not what you wanted to do," she complained.

"Well, what do you want to do?" I asked.

"I want to visit the Middle Eastern shop to try on dresses," she stated plainly.

I knew which store she was referring to. It was the one on Atlantic Avenue by Sahadi’s market. The dresses in the window always caught her eye. Every time we passed it on our way to buy spinach pies at Damascus Bakery, she asked to go inside. But we were usually late for gymnastics, or friends were waiting at the playground, or we had to rush home to relieve the sitter.

Truth be told, I just wasn't sure we were supposed to go into that store. There seemed to be some unspoken rule about it.

My daughter is half Middle Eastern, but I grew up in the Midwest and was raised Irish Catholic. I was wearing a tank top and shorts. My shoulders are covered with nothing but freckles. Would my outfit seem immodest? Would me being in the store at all seem disrespectful?

"How about we go to Haagen-Dazs instead?" I asked.

My daughter didn't bother to respond.

I looked into her dark eyes and felt just how innocent and honest and vulnerable she was. It had been a tremendously violent summer in the Middle East. So when I saw those dresses in the shop window, I could think of nothing but the war in Syria, of Sharia Law, bombings and beheadings, and children trapped beneath fallen concrete. I wanted to avoid anything that reminded me of the painful news.

But my daughter didn't know about any of that. That shop window was a connection to something all her own, entirely distinct from me. The shop kept calling out to her and inviting her in. Who was I to stand in the way?

"OK," I said. "We can go in."

What the heck, it was bound to be more interesting than shopping at the American Girl Place.

As the man swiped my credit card, I worried about when and where my daughter would choose to wear the dress. The garment, despite its beauty and elegance, might signal oppression for some.

My husband's family lineage can be traced back to ancient Assyria. The Assyrians inhabited parts of Northern Iraq and Syria long before the birth of Muhammad. They built a thriving civilization that lasted for centuries. Sometimes I get the feeling there are aspects of my daughter that have floated down the genetic stream all the way from ancient Mesopotamia. It was the birthplace of brilliant astrologers, architects, and mathematicians. Could this explain my daughter's fascination with the phases of the moon and the location of specific stars? Does it account for the intricate architectures and geometries of her drawings? Or am I romanticizing a cultural heritage that isn't my own?

The shop was empty and dark and over-perfumed with rose incense. An elderly man with a severe beard came out from the back of the store. He wasn't friendly. But he wasn't unfriendly either.

He didn't ask if we needed help, because it was clear my daughter knew what she wanted. She sifted through the children's-sized dresses on the racks until she settled on the perfect one. The dress was unfussy, traditional. The color, a deep turquoise with gold brocade. She was glowing as she held it up to herself. She asked if she could try it on. I shrugged. The shopkeeper led us to a small dressing room in the back.

I was glad to be wearing a tank top, because it was about 110 degrees inside the tiny dressing room. I fanned my face with my hand as my daughter threw the dress over her head. She looked in the mirror and smoothed the fabric. Stone-faced, she straightened her posture. The dress was undeniably gorgeous on her, like it was meant for her. When I checked the price tag at the collar, she suppressed a smile.

As the man swiped my credit card, I worried about when and where my daughter would choose to wear the dress. I feared women from the Middle East might assume my daughter viewed the gown as a kind of costume that appropriated their culture. But for my child, I think the dress just symbolized selfhood.

I had often reminded her she is Middle Eastern as I drizzled tahini on her steamed broccoli. But what did Middle Eastern mean to a 6-year-old aside from babaganoush? Maybe the dress shop was a way for her to relate to her culture on her own fanciful terms.

When I read the news of what has happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Syria, I wonder how we will explain this part of history to my daughters. The Assyrians in Iraq were persecuted along with the Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, and are currently among those under siege by ISIS. How will my daughters begin to navigate this part of their cultural identity that suffers from so much misunderstanding and prejudice in the West?

We squinted in the sunlight as we exited the dress shop. "Can I hold the bag?" my daughter asked. She was beaming when I handed it to her. "This is part of my culture," she said, smiling.

About a week later, my daughter began begging to return to the dress shop. We were finishing lunch in a nearby restaurant.

"Can we give it a rest already?" I asked, as I waved down our waiter for the check. "We just went there."

"But Phoebe needs a Middle Eastern dress," she said. "It wouldn't be fair if I had one, and she didn't."

She had a point.

The idea had never occurred to my youngest daughter before. But with her big sister as an advocate, she was now all for it. She raised her eyebrows and nodded with excitement.

The bearded shopkeeper behind the register smiled a little when we walked through the door again. The store was still empty, but it didn't look as dark as I'd remembered it. And the rose incense no longer seemed to overpower the place. The shop already felt so familiar, so comfortable.

A younger man came out from the back. "Can I help you?" he asked.

"We bought a dress here last week," I said.

"Oh, right," he said, brightly. "My dad told me about you." He tilted his head back toward the register.

"He told you about us?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, plainly.

"We're looking for another dress just like the one we bought," I said. "Only smaller." He smiled warmly at my girls.

"How many more kids do you have?" he asked.

"Just these two," I said.

"I have three daughters at home," he said. He closed his eyes and touched his heart with an open hand. "I am so lucky to have them," he said. I could tell he meant it. And I knew exactly how he felt.

We left the store with two more dresses.