Hiba Agha immigrated to Canada from Egypt to attend university. She fell in love, got married, and she and her husband moved to California after her husband received a job offer. She grew up in Egypt but found new opportunities for personal and professional growth in the United States. Once settled in California, she began to work her way up by becoming a small-business owner and living out her dreams as an herbalist. I wanted to interview Hiba because she is a family friend whom I have gotten to know personally over the years and thought her story would be inspiring to others.
Hiba grew up in quite a large family, including her three brothers and two sisters. Her mother began working at a young age, a common thing in Egypt, and was a dedicated homemaker and dedicated mother. Hiba’s father died around five years ago, but she is reminded of the love that surrounds her as her extended family were always around to help in her upbringing.
I asked Hiba to tell me a little about her culture and some of the misconceptions she’s heard about her heritage.
“There are many misconceptions and one is that we are violent people, that we are anti-American. You know, there is the whole idea that all terrorists are Arabs and that we are religious zealots. There’s a lot of things that I feel are very wrong and as well as aspects of our culture that are not fully appreciated.Hiba Agha
Upon hearing these misconceptions, I wasn’t at all surprised that Hiba, an Arab-American, was on the receiving end of this prejudice. This reminds me of Lila Abu-Lughod’s article, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?,” which touches on the idea that we must appreciate the differences among women in the world. It is extremely upsetting that our first impressions of people of Arab heritage are that they are dangerous and violent, and even go as far to say that they are terrorists. Abu-Lughod speaks about this ignorance in her article and encourages that we stop immediately discriminating solely based on physical appearance. This kind of behavior is what keeps us divided as human beings and has proved nothing but the fact that America is systemically racist.
Hiba continues to talk about the challenges she faced when first moving to California and her experience transitioning to Western culture. Coming from a very family-oriented environment she was surprised by the fast paced life that living in California entails.
“[…] There is so much liveliness and where I grew up in Egypt, things are a little bit different. Life was very quiet and people just have a different character as far as social interaction [goes.]”Hiba Agha
She recalls some of these cultural differences and mentions how she misses aspects of her culture like the amazing food she would share with her family. She has always loved cooking and in Egypt that is a very large aspect of its culture, especially when it comes to celebrations and tradition. She continues to speak about human connection that comes with eating and dancing.
“I value human connection deeply, I value cultural heritage, I value wisdom. We come from people that were the earliest astrologers and mathematicians and philosophers, and there’s such richness of wisdom and honoring of the dead and honoring of life, and so I feel like I do carry those seeds within me and have a deep appreciation for life and for the art of being human.”Hiba Agha
The American Dream
When asked about her immigration process and dreams of moving to America, I was taken aback with Hiba’s response.
“[…] There are aspects of American culture that were, or modern Western culture, that were very appealing as far as, you know, walking as a free woman and being able to not necessarily wear a bra and not offend people and, you know, worrying about those things that are very common, at least in my culture which tends to be more conservative.”Hiba Agha
Egypt, compared to America’s modern western culture, is far more conservative in regards to religion and culture. Hiba noted that she never really dreamt of moving to America; she wanted to explore the world and go to Europe. She dreams of going to Berlin, to Amsterdam, among many other places. She mentioned how she was never really enticed by American culture, but moved with her husband nevertheless.
When Hiba moved to California she found work and began managing a yoga studio before she created her own business. She never really worked in Egypt because she was mainly focused on her self-improvement and her education. After working at the yoga studio she decided to partner up with a friend and start a business revolved around herbalism. She had always been fascinated by plants and their healing powers, so she made her dreams into reality.
I wanted to know if Hiba had ever faced discrimination in the workplace, to which she replied with:
“I believe I-I did, there were times where I was completely overlooked and I’ve been asked, you know, to do cleaning or make food without necessarily expecting to get paid–things that I think are sort of stereotypical for jobs of brown people, and so people have just sort of expected that from me and, um, yeah I definitely felt [like I was] treated differently and included in different things than other white employees. The prejudice that I’ve experienced has not been as, I guess aggressive or explicit as in other groups, other, other people of color, I definitely have felt a difference in treatment.”Hiba Agha
As stated in an article published by the National Museum of African American History & Culture, “Talking About Race,” race is simply a term invented by human to put people into categories to further divide us. It is unfortunate that the color of a person’s skin can either give or deny privileges, proving that race is merely a social construct. People of color experience discrimination in the workplace and Hiba has definitely received her fair share of discrimination as a person of color, especially as a woman of color. The culture shock was apparent, as she comes from an upper class Egyptian family and in America was seen as a minority who threatened Western values and was not worthy of equality and respect.
This project has truly allowed me to understand some of the many hardships that women of color are being faced with. An article published by Stanford University covers what culture cycles are and how we “do race through the culture cycle.” The cycle basically breaks down in what ways race operates according to different levels of society: individually, interactionally, institutionally, and ideologically. The very first step in “dealing” with racism is acknowledging that it exists; the crisis that we are living in now precipitates a much needed change. Anti-racism is a global movement and it appears that our collective intention is to live in peace and heal the ignorance of the past; this generation desires (hopefully) to live in a world where human beings are treated with respect.
I am beyond thankful to Hiba for allowing me her time and to ask such personal questions about her life. I am excited for more people to listen and read her words as they have truly impacted me. While I have known her for a great part of my life, I was excited to sit down with Hiba and have a thorough conversation to understand her a bit better. I had an amazing experience with this project and feel that I have gotten to know Hiba on a deeper level through learning her oral history.