Hear Me Out: Struggling to feel like a "Real American"
|by Mubarak Dahir|
From my living room window in Queens, I watch surging black and gray clouds eat up the clear blue sky over Manhattan.
In my mind, I try to match the smoke clouds to the images I see broadcast over and over again on television. Though I know different, it seems as if the two cannot have anything to do with one another. The smoke outside my window is so closejust a few minute's ride on the subway. The scene on the television, in contrast, seems like it must be in some far away land. Like the one I was born in.
On my television screen, pictures of the World Trade Center towers burning like candles are eventually replaced with images of them crumbling like sand castles. I sit watching the TV without really hearing the newscasters. My stomach churns, and my anxiety builds on so many levels.
My first thought: Do I know anyone who works in those towers? I make some phone calls, send out some e-mails, and in short order am assured that my friends and loved ones are safe. I sigh momentary relief and try not to wonder how many people might have been in the buildings when they collapsed into graveyards of concrete and steel.
My second thought: Who did this? And my stomach churns again, for different, more complicated reasons.
Almost immediately, even without any evidence to suggest it, newscasters and talking heads speculate that the horror was the work of "Palestinian terrorists." Later, that turns out to be false, and the talk turns instead to Osama bin Laden. As a Palestinian-American, I try to find what little relief there might be in the fact that a Palestinian group wasn't involved. But a lifetime of living in America doesn't let me rest.
I know that to most Americans, an Arab is an Arab is an Arab. Even worse, I know the inevitable backlash that lies ahead for anyone of Arab origin. For too many people now, all Arabs, all Muslims will be the enemy.
This ugly brand of guilt by association seems especially reserved for Arabs and Muslims. When the fair-skinned Timothy McVeigh and his cohorts bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma Cityspouting their particular twist of Christianitywhite, Midwestern men felt no shame or guilt or connection to the crime. When the Irish Republican Army attacks a British target, American newscasters do not paint all Catholics as religious fanatics.
I know the same will not be true for Arabs and Muslims.
In the days that follow, my fears turn into reality. Frightening reports pour in from across the country. In Texas, at least three mosques are attacked with makeshift bombs.
In Seattle, a man rams a truck into a mosque and opens gunfire. In Illinois, an angry mob of 300 rampage through an Arab neighborhood. In Detroit, an Arab-American newspaper editor is deluged with death threats. In Brooklyn, Muslim women who cover their heads with scarves are chased and beaten.
Now on the TV news I see a woman waving an American flag and screaming, "They don't deserve to live here! They don't deserve to live!" She stares into the camera and calls herself a "real American."
Of my 37 years, I have spent all but six in America. My mother was as American as they come, a poor Southern Baptist farm girl from Georgia. My father, a naturalized citizen, spent nearly 40 years in this country. Though born in Palestine, I have been an American citizen since I took my first breath in this world.
Yet my entire life, I have always been made to feel that I am not a "real American." I have always struggled with my dual identities, part Palestinian, part American, alternately loving and hating each, but always clinging as best I could to both.
And now, when I most need my Americanism, I am pushed furthest from it. If I am completely honest, I will admit that after this latest, horrific attack, I am made to feel less like an American than ever before in my life.
And that makes me angry. After all, New York is my city, too. I live here, work here, play here, love here, like anyone else. As I got the news of planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania, I watched in horror and worried about friends and loved ones and shook in disbelief, too.
Yet I was not allowed to grieve as an American. Instead, I was instantly forced on the defensive as an Arab.
The day of the attack, a hand-scribbled cardboard sign appears in a local store window, just one block from my apartment. "Nuke them all!" the message thunders, and I know its venom is meant for me, too.I walk down the familiar, once comfortable streets of my neighborhood, and it is not international terrorists who pose the most immediate threat to my well-being. I overhear the suspicion and hatred in other people's conversations toward all things Arab, all things Muslim. And I am genuinely frightened. Yes, I am frightened for myself as an Arab, but I am also frightened for my countryas an American.
Mubarak Dahir receives email at MubarakDah@aol.com
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 11, No. 13, September 21, 2001