Like many Americans in their 30’s, I vividly remember September 11, 2001. While the overarching narrative in hindsight has been one of a tragedy and a nation unifying itself to overcome this tragedy, my lens has seen something different. As an Arab American that lived in New York at the time, I have seen the positive side of us as a society with togetherness but have also witnessed firsthand the discrimination and subconscious social isolation towards Arabs in the almost two decades that have passed. 9/11 was the defining moment of my childhood and it has shaped my adult life as an Arab American.
The Tragedy of the Moment
On September 11th I was 14 years old. I remember the events of that day like it just happened. It was a Tuesday morning in New York City. I attended a private Muslim school on Queens Boulevard. My father’s goal by having me enrolled in this school was to get a better understanding of Islam and to become more adept at speaking, reading, and writing Arabic. For the record, a decision that I am grateful for every day as being bilingual and understanding the beliefs of Islam have been tremendous assets in my life.
This Tuesday in question was just like any other and I was in an art class toiling away at a painting when a classmate went to the bathroom. He came back and was sitting next to me and gasping for breath since he had run from the bathroom back into class. He said that the World Trade Center had been attacked. I scoffed at him, thinking there was no possible way for this to be a reality. But he was adamant and told me to go to the second-floor bathroom for myself to see it. This bathroom had a direct view of the Manhattan skyline so it provided a perfect vantage point to see what he was claiming.
I was able to get to the bathroom and stood on a heating unit to be able to see out of the window. To my horror, I saw the first tower and the carnage of the crash. My eyes were glued, transfixed. It felt like something out of an action movie gone wrong where the villain wins. As I continued to stare at the scene in amazement, I saw the second plane crash into the second tower. I was in such shock that I nearly fell off of the heater that I was standing on. How could this be real? How could this happen?
As I made my way back into class, I sat down next to my friend and told him what I saw. As teenagers that had not been exposed to this type of attack in our lives we did not know how to react or to take this news. In what seemed like moments after this, my father came to the school to pick me and my sister up. He had always paid attention to global news so I asked him what was happening. He of course had no answers.
As we got to our apartment in Queens, all of the news channels were covering the tragedy that was the World Trade Center being attacked. At this point in my life, I was starting to become more of a sports fan and tried to go to ESPN for some sort of escape. As I quickly learned, there was no escaping this. This was the defining moment of my life. A moment that would shift everything that I knew and how I was looked at by society for the rest of my life.
In the weeks that followed the attacks, my school was on high alert. As the narrative of Taliban involvement became a reality, the school decided to take measures to ensure the safety of the students. This made sense as there was blame going around everywhere but it was focused on Middle Eastern people, but particularly focused on Afghani people, which made up a decent population of the school body. The measures that were taken were to enlist the NYPD for constant security around the perimeter of the building to ensure that innocent students will not be harassed as they enter and exit the school.
Like all people that have experienced tragedy on both micro and macro levels, Americans wanted retribution. Someone needed to pay for this sorrow and heartbreak. After the initial moments of solidarity with New York City and its citizens, Americans put a face on the enemy. That was of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. And in October of 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime in Afganistan. What would follow is the longest war in the US’s history filled with missteps and victories. A messy conflict to say the least.
In New York, living as an Arab-American became increasingly difficult. Much like Asians and Russians were viewed in the Pearl Harbor and Cold War eras respectively, Arab became something of a dirty word. Where being a part of this culture meant that many Americans looked at you as if you were the enemy, as if you were plotting to kill all those people on September 11th. A blanket assumption that was a precursor to continued harassment that Arab men and women continue to face today.
I finished out the school year and my family decided to move to Jordan, where my father had grown up. This idea made sense for a few reasons. New York and America by extension had become toxic toward us as Arab-Americans, making living and working very difficult. Going back to Jordan allowed my father time to spend with his family while also exposing me and my siblings to our aunts, uncles, and cousins on a more regular basis. And of course, living overseas would give us life experience and the ability to become more proficient in the Arabic language.
The Jordan Experiment
I lived in Jordan for roughly three years, where I finished high school. While it is a progressive country by Middle East standards, it is a far cry from New York City. There was an adjustment period but there was something quite refreshing about being around family that I was only able to see once a year prior.
An escape from the chaos that was the United States gave me a perspective of the way that Arabs living in a country not held responsible for the attacks of 9/11 viewed the American response to the tragedy. And what I found was a shift in tone from a lot of Jordanians and my family members when it came to visiting the US and traveling there.
In the past, there was a fascination with working and living in the United States amongst my family. Quite a few of my cousins came to the US to work for some summers and then head back to Jordan. Some, like my father and a few of his brothers, built out lives in the US. But 9/11 changed that perception with the younger generation, the generation after me that was born in the mid-90s. As Americans started to view Arabs and Muslims as the enemy, especially leading into the invasion of Iraq in 2003, my family started to lose interest in the United States as a whole.
Where many thought of working in the US before, the new appeal became to travel to Europe or to venture into Dubai. In other words, to venture into a place where they were wanted as opposed to a place that viewed them as an enemy without reason. This time frame also saw the cultural isolation of many Arabs. To dig into their past as opposed to opening their minds to the thoughts and ideas of the west. In the 90s, being influenced by American culture was very common. But in the post-9/11 world, what I witnessed was my family becoming more traditionalist and more in line with the way of thinking of my grandparents as opposed to my father’s generation that traveled abroad.
In the summer of 2005, I graduated from high school and traveled back to the United States to start college and get into the workforce. Though I was not back in New York City. Instead, I was in Detroit, Michigan, where my mom’s family lived. I have lived here for the past 15 years and have grown to appreciate the area but also have witnessed the worst side of inbuilt prejudices that have become very much a part of American societal fabric.
A very interesting fact that I learned early on about southeast Michigan is about the city of Dearborn. Dearborn has often been considered the Arab capital of North America and is the most populated Arab city outside of the Middle East. There is a huge population here of people from countries like Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon all over southeast Michigan. Knowing this made me hopeful that the prejudice and hatred that I had read about on the internet was simply overblown.
In my time here, I have come to realize that this is far from being the case. It is worse than I imagined when I was 18 years old flying from Amman to Detroit. In the years since the Iraq war, there seemed to be a territorialism about Americans, a borderline nationalism that began to seep into xenophobia. It became clear to me early on that my name on a passport or driver’s license was going to quickly elicit a double-take. That growing too much facial hair with an Arab name would be an instant red flag for people to assume the worst.
In the past decade and a half, I have been randomly selected multiple times at airports despite having no history of criminal activity or ties with anyone that this nation deems as a threat. I have been called a terrorist, goat f****r, Osama bin Laden, and anti-American. Yet these brazen call outs are not worse than assumptive prejudice that people make. Comments suggesting that I “don’t look like an Arab” highlight the presumptions of people that I encounter. I am often tasked with defending the civilized nature of Arab people to my American friends and colleagues. And when I explain that the depictions of the extremes of Middle East life are not what they appear to be, they often will not believe me.
Being an Arab man for the last 20 years has not been easy. Being half American complicates the issue even more. Because of my name, I can never fully fit in with my American friends. But because of my American born status, at times I also struggle to connect with Arabs. It is a reality of being stuck in the middle where both sides of the equation don’t fully connect with you.
Being the son of an immigrant, I have an appreciation for what many call the American Dream. My father came to this country without knowing how to speak English, got through college, and crafted a life for himself. Despite being born here in the United States, coming from Jordan back to the US after a 3-year absence in many ways felt like an immigration situation. Having lived overseas, I developed an understanding and a love for what America is supposed to stand for. A country that will take you in to create a better life for yourself. Yet as an Arab American, this hasn’t felt like the case for me as an adult.
I have had people tell me to go back where I came from. People who make assumptions on my entire character because of my name, and because they are still so angry about September 11th. The absolute irony here is that I am angrier about that day than they are. That was the day that everything changed. Where my people here in the United States transformed from neighbors to threat without doing anything to deserve it.
And while we have been marginalized by the greater American consciousness as a whole, our food and culture have seemed to be whitewashed as part of modern Americana. Today, Americans are very familiar with argeelah (or hookah as people call it here), falafel, hummus, shawarma, and henna. All staples of Arab culture that were everywhere when I lived in Amman, are now regular bits of American life and food. It is these same people that will indulge in our food, our culture that will also get on a plane and see an Arab man and get scared. The same people will look at my name badge while I’m working and take a step back because they are afraid of an Arab man.
Through all of this, I believe in the American ideal. I still love a country that refuses to love me back. A country that pointed the finger at me and still will casually use terms like Al-Qaeda and ISIS to belittle me and people like me. I have never been ashamed of being an Arab, and I am proud of the way that life has taken me. But in this climate where there needs to be so much reform in the way that we treat people that don’t look like us I cannot help but think about all the times that I have gotten double-takes. Every time that I was stopped at an airport and every time people assumed that I was violent over a name. Four letters. My name is four letters, and that’s all it takes to assume the worst in me. I am hopeful that one day this will not be the case, and this country will finally accept me and people like me.