Gharib’s graphic memoir It Won’t Always Be Like This (Ten Speed, Sept.) recalls summers she spent in Egypt, culture clash, and coming of age in a blended family.
How did spending summers in the Middle East shape you?
You’re going to go through rites of passage no matter where you live: time is passing. I always thought my first date would be with a guy I met in a mall in Orange County. But it was in a souq in Alexandria.
My dad assumed that because he was Egyptian, I would automatically understand what it meant to be Egyptian. But being Egyptian American is different than living in Egypt; I also had a Filipina mother. I didn’t know the culture, the phrases—like when someone gives you a compliment, you say Mashallah, and ward off the evil eye. My stepmother was 13 years older than me and didn’t speak English, so I had to dig deep to transcend the usual pop culture references and create commonality. We sang together, we watched the entire OJ trial—it was the only thing on the air—we’d play cards or do each other’s hair. I learned you don’t need language to make a relationship.
What was it like to develop yourself as a character?
I was really annoying! I was into bands like X and Social Distortion, always wearing Dickies and a studded belt in Cairo. In a way I wanted to be Egyptian, but I also wanted to mark myself as American. I’d go around trying to explain ska references. There’s this sense of American exceptionalism that my dad instilled in me, though when I lived in the states, I didn’t really consider myself American—in Egypt I leaned into it. But adolescents are malleable; I still wanted to fit in, so I listened to all the coolest Arabic music, too.
How does your journalistic work at NPR influence your comics?
My stepmother said “Go write whatever you want,” but as a journalist, I wanted her to understand the gravity of being a named character in a public, published book, so I hired my brother to translate every chapter into Arabic. She would give me feedback and fix errors. In responsible journalism, a source should never be surprised.
How did you approach the portrayals of your family?
I didn’t want to self-tokenize or perpetuate stereotypes. Many people outside of Arab Muslim family life don’t understand it, and I wanted to pull back that curtain. I didn’t know if readers understood that women can take off the hijab inside the family home, or that you could wear the hijab one day and then not the next.
As you grow older you see your parents as people, and they continue to grow with you. We struggled and fought, but that time was all we got—it was a time capsule.