I Took an Ancestry Test and It Changed Everything I Thought I Knew About My Heritage

Olivia Bahou
Photo: Courtesy Olivia Bahou

Ever since I could fill out multiple-choice bubbles, I’ve identified as Middle Eastern. Technically, I’m half and half—50 percent Arab and 50 percent European, or so I always thought.

My dad was an immigrant, coming to the U.S. from Israel as a teen. My mom’s father was from Germany, while her mom was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Since my connection to Israel was more immediate in my family’s past, I identified more closely with my Middle Eastern heritage.

I learned how to make ful medames and roll spinach pies, attributed my love of hummus to my dad’s heritage, and basked in the sun every summer to get a golden glow that sometimes rivaled my father’s, proudly telling inquirers that my ability to tan came from my Middle Eastern blood.

Olivia Bahou - 23andMe - Dad - Embed
Courtesy Olivia Bahou

Except it’s not true. My tan skin could just as readily come from my “black Irish” grandmother, or the 4.7 percent of my DNA that’s apparently Italian. Because when I used 23andMe’s ancestry testing, I found out that I’m not as Middle Eastern as I always thought.

No, it’s not like my dad lied about his background, and I wasn’t secretly adopted. But even my own father, who made his first-ever trip out of Israel in his late teens, was shocked by the results. According to 23andMe, I’m only 38.8 percent Middle Eastern—and out of that chunk, 11 percent North African.

Now I haven’t taken math since high school, but by my calculation, there’s no way my dad, whose Israeli family goes back hundreds of years, is 100 percent Middle Eastern. In fact, he’s not even close.

I took the info home to my parents, and my albeit-skeptical dad did offer up one possible explanation. His family has long believed that, like many Christians living in Israel, they descended from the Catholic crusaders of the 12th century. The group came from France, Germany, Italy, and more areas throughout Europe, so there’s no telling exactly where my ancestors came from—plus they may have intermarried, so there could be a few different European countries represented in my dad’s DNA.

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Unfortunately, 23andMe wasn’t too helpful in figuring it out, since my DNA also has my mom’s European side represented as well. According to the company, I am 18.6 percent British and Irish (makes sense—my maternal great-grandma came from Ireland), 6.9 percent French and German (would have thought I’d be more German, since my maternal grandpa immigrated from there) and 15.6 percent broadly Northwestern European, which means that they couldn’t nail down exactly which country the DNA came from.

Olivia Bahou - 23andMe - Mom -Embed
Courtesy Olivia Bahou

I’m also 4.7 percent Italian, 1.3 percent Balkan, and 9.7 percent broadly Southern European. Since my mom’s side doesn’t have any Southern European roots, my best guess is that my dad’s crusader ancestors could have been Italian. Maybe that would explain my love of pasta and cheese.

Olivia Bahou
Courtesy of Olivia Bahou

To test out my theory, I ordered my dad an ancestry kit so we can see which European countries are represented in his DNA. While we wait for his test to come in the mail, I’ll be eating pizza and brushing up on my Italiano.

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