Torn between two cultures: UA grad Miss Arab USA finalist
On Sept. 11, Yusra Tekbali remembers sitting in history class in a Tucson high school watching the news. For her, and many Arab Americans, it forever changed how she interacted with her Arab heritage in the U.S., her birthplace.
A journalism and Near Eastern studies UA graduate, Tekbali is now running for the first-ever Miss Arab USA contest. Out of 100 contestants, she is among 20 finalists competing for the title on Nov. 6 in Phoenix.
""Everyone who knows me is like, you're not the pageant type. (But) it's not a typical beauty pageant … they really want to focus on your character and what you've done to serve the community,"" she said.
Tekbali's parents moved to the U.S. in the 1980s after her father, a doctor in geology, got a scholarship. Five of their seven kids were born here. While the family constantly visited Libya and Tekbali was raised keenly aware of their heritage, she was inclined to learn more about it only after the 2001 terror attacks.
Sept. 11 and the rising prejudice against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. made her connect with her roots. ""It was a wake-up call. I needed to learn more about what it means to be a Muslim … and an Arab,"" Tekbali said.
From that point, she became involved with the Muslim Students Association, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the overall community.
The choice of her majors also related to it. Tekbali wanted to tell stories and report accurately on the Middle East. ""I wanted to have a firm grasp on that region and get away from what I've been taught from the inside, growing up Arab-American,"" she said.
But dealing with two cultures, in some ways very different, was at times conflicting. She struggled to find balance between the two, she said. Having a dual identity, however, ""gives me the opportunity to see the world in two different perspectives and to see events in two different perspectives.""
The long-strained U.S.-Libya relationship leaves her torn. ""I remember as soon as (9/11) broke they blamed it on Libya. They thought it was a terrorist from Libya,"" she said. But recent improvements already make notable change. Up until last year, it was rare to see Americans in Libya. This past summer, she met many, something ""surreal.""
During college, Tekbali wrote for the Daily Wildcat and interned at the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen. After graduation, she worked at the D.C. office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The latter gave her an insight of how politics can affect change.
In February, Tekbali will take the State Department of Foreign Service exam to pursue politics.
Becoming Miss Arab USA would also impact her community, she said.
""The more relations are improving, the less cast aside you feel as a person. And the more people know about Libya, the more they'll embrace you as Libyan-American,"" she said.
Before applying for the pageant, Tekbali went on a trip through Libya sponsored by the Libyan government to reconnect people to their homeland. That was very critical in her decision to run in the contest, she said. As the only Libyan contestant, ""I don't think I would have felt comfortable enough to represent Miss Arab USA before this summer,"" she added.
For the pageant itself, she's glad bikinis aren't required. ""It's really not what I'm about,"" she said. Instead, contestants will wear an outfit traditional to their countries.
Currently in Tucson, she's going to Phoenix for a week of preparation before the event Saturday. She doesn't reject the idea of one day living in Libya, and has plans to spread knowledge of the Arab culture in some way.
""The more the world, not just America, see people of Arab descendent talking about their heritage, the less fear there is,"" she said.