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Commentary - Living in the Greys - Leyla Doss

LEYLA DOSS, BYLINE: As long as I can remember, people have perceived me as being foreign and out of place. I have been living in the in-between. In the grey spaces. I grew up in Cairo, Egypt. My mom is Italian. My dad is Egyptian. I went to international schools my entire life. English was actually my first language, and I consider myself a native English speaker. Arabic and Italian come second. Growing up, I only watched Nickelodeon. I watched Friends. I listened to P. Diddy or Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys. I studied British kings like Henry the Eighth, or the Second World War, through the perspective of the U.S. My entire school life was preparing me to become a model student in the English speaking West.

For most of my life, even in my home country, my accent has marked me “foreign.” Or ambiguous. Or unknown. And for the most part, I could get by. At least I thought I could. In 2012 I was working as a political reporter and I was standing right in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo - a year after the uprisings that ousted then President Hosni Mubarak. As I interviewed a group of protesters, one man approached me and started asking me many questions like “why are you here?” “who do you report for?” “Are you a foreigner?” I dodged most of them, until, out of nowhere, he shouted out that I was a foreign spy. Suddenly, I felt like the crowd around was closing in. I knew I had to rush out as fast as possible. And deep inside, I knew it was possibly a government instigator. But still, the fact that he could get away with it, meant I didn’t fit in. I made it out unscathed, but it was a wake up call. I had to immediately improve my Arabic. So I read Arabic newspapers every day, watched Egyptian TV shows, and listened to the radio. And I also began to explore more of what I felt were my lost Egyptian roots.

Two years ago I moved to New York, the city of over 800 languages. I thought nobody here would care here that my accent is a fusion of British English, American English, Italian and Arabic. At least that was what I hoped. But as soon as I arrived I began to be asked the dreaded question with the raised eyebrow: “Why is your English so good?” For many here, I don’t fit the mold of what an immigrant “should” sound like. And after asking the question, they start slowing down their words, speaking louder or enunciating every single letter.

For a while I considered paying for voicing lessons. I trained myself to be understood by automated voice machines during customer service calls asking for my date of birth. I code-switched between my professional “standard American accent” and the one where I’m around other Arabs or Italians. I’d hide my strong Egyptian “ts,” or say words like the American “aluminum” instead of saying the British “aluminium” like I normally pronounce it. I would try to be someone I’m not.

And now, I’m embarking on a career in audio journalism, and my accent is in full display. And I’m trying to find the balance between being my true self and adapting to this new world. I’m slowly seeing the strengths of having a quote un quote foreign accent. I have an insight into different worlds, that not everyone does. I remember my Italian grandmother walking me through recipes in Southern Italian dialects. I can speak to my mom in her mother tongue. I can understand my dad’s Egyptian humor that gets lost in translation. I’ve learned to live in the greys and the in-betweens.

And while finding peace from within is still under construction, I’m heading towards accepting who I am. Because I’m me. And nobody can change that.

Leyla Doss, Columbia Radio News.

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