Follow Vogue Arabia

Exclusive Excerpt: Hala Gorani Talks About Battling With Acceptance and Her Arab Identity in Her New Book

Vogue Arabia contributor, MSNBC journalist, and former CNN news anchor Hala Gorani offers a deeply personal account of her Arab identity in her newly released book

Hala Gorani

Photo: Courtesy Hala Gorani

In this exclusive excerpt from But You Don’t Look Arab: And Other Tales of Unbelonging published with Hachette Books, Hala Gorani offers an intimate look at a childhood filled with feelings of exclusion:

“I’m not sure 1976 was the exact year of my parents’ divorce, but it was definitely the year that my mind registered the fact that we were no longer a family unit. My father had stayed in America, where I was born, and my mother moved with my older brother, Zaf, and me to France, where her older sister Neimat had already settled. I was only six years old but had already lived in three countries and changed residences five times.

I was sent to the Ecole de la Saussaye, in the leafy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. I could barely speak French and felt painfully out of place. I was embarrassed by everything from my name and language skills to my clothes. When, during recess one day, the school principal held up an anorak with a printed flower pattern I’d forgotten on a bench and asked for its owner to claim it, I chose to shiver in a corner of the playground rather than admit it was mine.

The little girls from well-off bourgeois families wore round-toed Mary Janes and pleated skirts. They had fruit-inspired names like Prune and Clementine. The boys wore patterned knit sweaters and leather lace-up shoes. The clothing suggested not just money but old money. These were outfits inspired by what their parents had worn before them and their parents before them. They came in classic shapes, like round-necked navy-blue cardigans and raglan coats, and in natural fabrics like cotton and wool. Though there were certainly children who did not adhere to this dress code, my memory has chosen over the years to mainly retain the images of those I felt most alien to: the kind of kids a clothing company would cast to advertise its back-to-school outfits in a mail-order catalogue.


View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Hala Gorani (@hgorani)

This feeling of otherness sank its claws right through my clothing and deep into me. Underneath what I wore, I resented my body. I didn’t have the genetic skinniness of French girls my age. I didn’t have the straight hair, the swagger, the sense of belonging. I didn’t have grandparents who lived in some other part of the country or ancestors who’d spoken the same language. There were no registries of birth in a village church for a great-uncle I’d never met or relatives with familiar and easy-to- pronounce names. Everything had to be explained—how do you say your name, what is Syria, are you Arab, why are you blond, it must be cold in Siberia. I had been parachuted into another world, a visitor in my own home. The feeling of otherness is one that embeds itself deep into a child’s core and radiates out.

“Ala” was what my classmates called me because the letter H isn’t pronounced in French. “Hala” became “Ala” and, as a joke, became “Allah,” or God in Arabic. “Hala/ Allah est grande (Allah is great, or Allahuakbar)” the joke went or “Au nom d’Allah/Hala (In the name of Allah).” I dreamed of being called anything else. I remember looking at myself in the mirrored door of our bathroom in the small apartment I shared with my mother and brother on rue Perronet in Neuilly-sur- Seine and tried on French names for size.

Stephanie, Caroline, Diane, I would say out loud. Cecile, Marie, Blandine.

They wouldn’t mock me with one of those names, I thought. The fact that my name and cultural background isolated me from other pupils was baggage I carried with me at all times, even as I grew older. Being a minority means that what we call identity—a foreign name, a different skin color, the otherness of one’s ancestors’ culture of origin—is a facet of our personhood that occupies more of our self-awareness than members of the majority tribe realize. For children of first-generation immigrants, who come from one world but are born into another, it is a struggle that shapes their inner beings in ways adults likely can’t comprehend or imagine.”

Originally published in the February 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

View All
Vogue Collection