Hear Me Out
|by Mubarak Dahir|
|The Longest Ride
Even before Omar passed his yellow Metro card through the turnstile and stepped onto the platform at his local subway station in Queens, waiting for the Manhattan-bound train to take him to work, he knew it was going to be a difficult ride.
In the back of his mind, Omar, like many other New Yorkers, was worried about a possible "copycat" bombing attack like the ones that had torn through three subway cars and one double decker bus the day before in London, leaving 50 dead and hundreds wounded.
But while the remote possibility of such a strike lingered in the back of his thoughts, he was more preoccupied with another kind of threat, equally vague, but more immediate and no less troubling.
More than the fear of a terrorist attack, Omar dreaded the suspicion from fellow-riders that was bound to be as thick as the crush of daily commuters packed into the New York subway cars. He also worried about what he believed was certain to be yet another "inevitable backlash" against Muslims and Arabs in America and Western countries.
Omar, who spoke on condition that his real name not be used, describes himself as "obviously" Middle Eastern. In his early 30s, he has a plume of black hair, a thick but trimmed mustache, olive skin and, as he puts it, "an Arab nose."
His looks, combined with his accent, make his heritage "a dead giveaway," he says.
And in America these days, he knows from experience the downside of what that can mean.
Omar was also in New York when terrorists struck the World Trade Center towers on that fateful day, September 11, 2001.
In the aftermath of the attacks, he remembers the anger and animosity directed at him, "as if I was personally responsible for the terrorists," he says.
Omar says the fear generated then not only led to personal threats of violence against him, but he also believes it cost him a job.
It doesn't matter that Omar, like about 60 percent of Arabs in America, is a Christian, not a Muslim.
It doesn't matter that, as a gay man, Omar came to the United States primarily to seek the kind of freedom he would never have in his home country.
It doesn't matter that Omar's family, and even the government of his native country (which he asked to keep unpublished, fearing it might make him more easily identifiable) have been fighting religious fundamentalism for years, even decades, long before Americans knew or cared about its rise and power in the Middle East.
It doesn't matter that Omar says he loves this country, and "my greatest hope is to one day become an American citizen."
In America and much of the West, an Arab is an Arab is an Arab. Is a Muslim. Is a terrorist.
Omar says he understands such emotions, and in many ways he seems resigned to them.
"Americans are very patriotic people," he says. "I know how much they love their country."
And he admits that if similar terrorist attacks had been carried out by foreigners in his homeland, the response could be much worse: "The government would probably round up all those citizens and deport them," he muses.
But that's exactly why he left his home country to come to America.
And he feels that Arabs and Muslims unfairly bear the burden of stigmatism and stereotypes. He believes that is largely because Westerners remain relatively unaware of and unexposed to many Arabs and Muslims.
He points, for example, to the rash of bombings that used to happen with regular frequency in Great Britain during its struggle with the Irish Republican Army.
"I doubt too many people would have called all Catholics or all Irish people terrorists," he says, the same way the majority of Muslims and Arabs seem to get labeled fanatics and zealots.
He notes that while he is Christian, most of his friends back home are Muslims who are just ordinary people.
"Besides," he says, "when people make threats to me because I am Arab, they don't stop to ask first if I am a Christian or a Muslim."
Omar says he used to believe that in this country he could make his voice heard, and that he could be an example of a law-abiding, terrorist-despising, America-loving Arab, and that in some small way he could help change people's minds and misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims.
But his optimism has worn thin.
As a foreigner here, he is all too aware that he does not have the same kind of rightsincluding freedom of speechthat Americans enjoy.
Since September 11, he has seen immigration rules tightened with what he believes is a clear aim toward minimizing immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries.
And, most importantly, he says he has found it painfully difficult to discuss terrorism and Middle East politics with reason.
"There are no shades of gray here," he says, exasperated. "Everything is black and white, and red, white and blue."
As an Arab, no matter how much he denounces and abhors terrorism, if he criticizes American foreign policy, he becomes the next worst thing: "A sympathizer."
As a gay man and a Christian, Omar points out that he is hardly a candidate for love and warmth from the terrorists.
"I'm sure they want me dead," he says with a chilly matter-of-factness.
None of that, however, stops the fear and suspicion he worries he will likely encounter in the wake of the London bombings.
Therefore, in the coming weeks, he says he'll keep as low a profile as he can manage. He'll take cabs when he can afford it, or long walks in Manhattan, rather than the subway cars.
He'll knock off going out much, including to his favorite gay bar, called "g" in Chelsea, at least for a while.
And he'll pray, to his Christian God and for his Muslim friends, "that somehow all this madness ends."
Mubarak Dahir, editor of The Express, the GLBT newspaper in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, may be reached at MubarakDahir@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 9 July 15, 2005