Arab-American life post 9/11
By Nana Sabra
Never forget they say. As a Lebanese-Puerto Rican-American who was raised with two faiths; Islam and Catholicism, I can assure you, I will never forget. As a New Yorker who stood on the pier at 69th street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, watching the towers come crumbling down just across the river while the whole city suddenly turned into a huge dust and smoke cloud, I will never forget. Showing up late to school on the day of the attack, only to be greeted by FBI agents surrounding our high school, and being denied entrance, I will never forget. One thing I still can’t understand is why they chose my school. It’s probably because it was located in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is home to a huge Arab, most who are Muslim, population. Being abruptly awoken from my sleep at 4am by the sonic boom of F16 fighter jets flying above my home, thinking we were once again under attack, while having my heart all but fall out of my chest, I will never forget. Being born to an Arab Muslim father, ME? Forget? How could I ever forget?!
While many Americans suddenly adopted a new sense of patriotism after the September 11th attacks, I must admit, my sense of Arabism which was always there, suddenly grew stronger. This was not because I condoned the terrorist attacks which occurred that day; yes, we also consider the people who carried out these crimes to be terrorists. It was more because suddenly I was made to feel that I was not “American” enough. We all know how the saying goes, “Get in where you fit in”. So basically, that’s what I did.
It’s a shame when you are born and raised in a country and know no other home for the first 18 years of your life, that an event such as those of September 11th, 2001 occurs, and suddenly you no longer feel at home. You no longer feel welcome. You are on the train, sitting across from a woman wearing a hijab. You notice everyone staring at her with looks of hate and disgust, looking like they are ready to assault her. Although they are not doing the same to me, I feel her pain. I look at her and give her a friendly smile. I’m pretty sure she understood that I was just like her minus the religious head scarf. Then there was the time when myself and 3 friends, one Caucasian American and two Palestinian Americans, were sitting in a restaurant waiting for our order. The waitress was kind and friendly to all of us. That is until she heard me say something in Arabic. Suddenly her attitude towards me took a whole new direction. When serving us our food, she pretty much threw my food down at me. I was not very keen on eating it, since I could only think, well who knows what she could have done to it before bringing it out to me.
I sit back and think off all the times I had to explain to people that while yes my father is Muslim, we are not “those kinds of Muslims”, in an attempt to put as much distance as possible between myself and extremists. I realize, now, that I still have to make this ridiculous speech even in the present day. It’s gotten pretty annoying. It’s also annoying when people ask you what your views on September 11th are, as if I’m somehow going to come out protesting my love and adoration of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. In all honesty, I think Arabs and Muslims in general loathe these monsters more than anyone in the whole world. While I personally did not lose anyone that tragic day, I must say, it’s as if our identity was stolen and hijacked by these brainwashed radicals and we are now forced to wear theirs, even though it’s the last thing we want. We weren’t given an option.
Until recently, I always kept my Pro-Palestinian views off of social media. Sure I would throw in the random “Free Palestine” status, Palestinian flag, or YouTube video showing what it’s like to live under constant siege and occupation. It was never a secret that I supported the Palestinian cause. I kept it to a minimum though. It’s tedious work trying to explain to ignorant people why you support Palestine when all they see them as is terrorist Muslims who want to wipe Israel off of the map for good.
After the most recent wave of war crimes carried out against the Palestinians by the Israeli Occupation Forces, I felt enough was enough. I no longer cared if you misunderstood me. I no longer cared who was offended and who was not. I was offended that this was still happening to my people and not a soul in the world cared. Notice I didn’t refer to the Israeli armed forces by their actual name, IDF, which stands for Israeli Defense Forces. They are not defending anything. Stealing land to colonize it with settlers from anywhere in the world, as long as they pray the right way, then saying you are there to protect the settlers, that is absurd. They are only there to occupy the land and terrorize each and every Palestinian life in the hopes that they will just get sick of the harassment and leave. Anyway, that is neither here nor there. The point is that just a few weeks ago, while at a protest in Times Square, NYC, where we were calling for an end to the massacre in Gaza, a group of Israeli Zionists came right to where I was standing. All they could do was boo us, curse out an Orthodox Jewish man who was standing there in solidarity with the Palestinians, then suddenly one screams out, “You are 9/11. These are the people who did 9/11”, in broken English. She kept repeating it to everyone walking by. While I know this is not true, it did bother me, because I know that the average Joe walking by would probably believe it.
There are so many instances I can think of. I will throw out just a few more because believe me, I could sit here and write a 10 page story telling you all about my experiences post 9/11. Have you ever wanted to donate to a charity but had to think twice, maybe three or four times about what the result might be if you did? I have. If you donate to a charity in the Middle East, let’s say a charity to benefit those injured in Gaza, you are risking having the FBI come knock at your door to ask you if you are funding terrorism. I personally know at least a handful of people who have had this experience after simply sending some money back home to help out their relatives.
To be greeted in the morning by your boss and coworkers with the following sentence; “The terrorist is here. Good. Now I know today is not the day they blow up Grand Central. If it was, she wouldn’t be here. She has the inside connection so I’m sure she wouldn’t come to work that day”. Or how about this one, “So hey listen, the day that you and your Palestinian cousin over there both call out sick, I am definitely not coming in. If you’re both not here, that definitely means there is something up”. Or just straight to the point out of left field, “I don’t respect you, because you are Muslim”. I can promise you that this really happened. While many people advised me to record it and sue, I didn’t have the energy for that. I just picked up my pride and quit. I never looked back. Best decision of my life. It was very liberating. My pride was not going to be sold for a nice paycheck.
I will never apologize for being who I am. I embrace it. I am proud to be me; unique, unlike anyone you have ever met. It gives me great pleasure knowing that I can communicate with people in both Spanish and Arabic. One day you will catch me rolling grape leaves, the next day I might be cooking rice and beans, overdoing it with the adobo. If you’re at one of our celebrations, I might grab your hand and lead you to the dabke line one minute, and if the next song happens to be a Spanish one, we’re dancing salsa. I will no longer explain myself to anyone. I am not the one with the identity crisis. I know exactly who and what I am. I will never again try to sugarcoat the term Muslim or Arab. I am proud to be my father’s daughter.
So next time you hear someone refer to 9/11/2001 and then say never forget, please always remember that we also can never forget. While for many of you, it’s on your mind for a few days before and after the anniversary, please remember that it haunts us all the time. It’s an unfortunate burden we will always have to carry around with us. Every time we meet someone new and introduce ourselves, the whole “What’s your name? What kind of name is that? Well what’s your nickname/American name”, situation comes up. “Oh, so you’re Arab? Definitely not Muslim, right? I mean Muslims don’t let their women work or drive, etc…”. We can never forget because we also lived through it and continue to feel the negative effects it had on us as a people. Maybe one day, the “real Americans” will let us forget; just a little.