I'm on the phone with Dalel Khalil, a vivacious, thirty-something public speaker and former radio personality from Schenley Farms. She's on the road, promoting her sister's new salad-dressing company. Every so often she breaks our conversation to discuss directions with her sister, or to apologize for AT&T's shoddy service along Ohio highways.
It's an average American scene Khalil doesn't take for granted. Her independence, career and good humor mask an ongoing tug of war between two cultures: the liberal American one she grew up in, and the conservative Syrian heritage she was raised to respect.
"It's like I have a war in my own brain -- the real war on terror," she laughs.
Khalil explores that conflict in her first book. From Veils to Thongs -- self-published earlier this year and available at www.dalelkhalil.com -- is Khalil's guidebook for the Arab-American woman. It's a chatty but thorough deconstruction of her beloved, quirky culture.
As Khalil explains in Veils to Thongs, Syrian women rarely drive. Syrian women also dress conservatively, let their families choose their boyfriends, and prioritize marriage over career. These values didn't jibe with an outgoing teen-ager growing up in Oakland.
"When I was 15 years old, I wanted to be a pilot. I flew a plane before I could drive," Khalil says, recalling her parents' (awkwardly) short leash.
Khalil's Syrian mother, raised in the Hill District, and her Syrian immigrant father own Khalil's restaurant, a Bloomfield institution. Despite her mother's head-start at assimilation, Dalel grew up in a very Syrian household: Arab music, Arab food, spirited Arab parties. And traditional Arab expectations of their daughter.
Coping required a little rebellion (Khalil and her friends would call taboo boys from pay phones) and a lot of commiseration. "I was lucky and blessed that I had about 20 of my female cousins -- a militia, mafia kind of thing -- all going through our own problems," says Khalil. Yet she also credits her mother's counsel: "[She] had a lot of wisdom -- be free, live your life, know yourself, but be conservative when it's called for."
Dalel eventually became an on-air personality on WDVE's morning show, and a news reporter for KDKA and WAMO. (Her radio name was "Taylor Diaz.") Now she's the one giving advice. She's currently a nationally published columnist for Aramica magazine: "It's kind of like the 'Carrie Bradshaw' for Arab-American chicks." She's also a blogger (arabisto.com) and a public speaker on cross-cultural issues.
In Veils to Thongs, Khalil calls it like she sees it, but she's not out to mock. Chapters like "Help! I Think I Just Married My Brother!" and "Restaurants, Real Estate and Retail: The Universal Language of Immigrants" pile on the humor while celebrating the eccentricities of her ethnicity.
"They are stereotypes," she says of some of her characterizations. "But I'm playing around with a message of fun."
The reception crackles. Khalil rattles off some route names. She tells me about the hours she's been at her computer, and, like a true PR rep, invites me to visit the family restaurant.
And she sums up her message: "The woman in her power suit and the woman in her hajib? They're the same underneath," she says, laughing. "Get over it."