American and Arab
Can I be at war with myself? Watching the World Trade Center collapse, then living through the aftermath, begs that absurd question. I’m American, with a Muslim name but nondescript appearance. No one takes me for Middle Eastern—I was born in West Virginia, and I’m only a quarter Arab. But thanks to the peculiarities of history, and naming, I have an Arab-American identity.
The attack on the World Trade Center puts me in an awful place. On the one hand, I’ve been deeply fortunate. Neither my loved ones nor I were injured. Like everyone else, I am horrified and angered. I could have been there, munching a bagel on the observation deck. I can’t imagine how someone could have planned such an attack, and my shock is turning into anger and mourning. At the same time, I feel excluded from the national unity that happens after such a tragedy. Why? As an Arab-American, I’m subject to reprisals. I’m nervous, wondering if I will somehow share the blame. Slurs, threats and even violence have already been leveled against anyone associated with Islam, and I wonder what will happen to me. I’m looking for work—will I be denied a job? What if a wider war breaks out? Will I lose my liberty?
Some friends have said I should go to Egypt for safety. They meant well, but their comments betrayed a misunderstanding that verges on racism. Hard as it is for the safely white to comprehend, there is only one place for me and other hyphenated Americans: the United States. America produced me. My grandparents hail from four different countries. Where else could they have created a family? If I’m out of place here, thanks to my name, I’m certainly out of place in the Middle East, where I stick out as an American. What is left for me? Do we have to pick sides in the end? And what can I do if neither side will have me, if both treat me as the enemy?
I’m at a loss to answer these questions, at least under the current logic. Some of my fellow citizens are striking out at American Muslims. Some are even calling for a firestorm to be rained upon Islamic nations. Don’t they see that the terrorists had the same inspiration? The Afghanis were caught between the Soviet Union and the United States for decades. Their country has been reduced to rubble. They have no hope. Violence occurs in cycles, and, if we respond senselessly, striking innocent people in our search for criminals, then we’ll create more radicals, more suicide bombers who embody the despair of poverty and war. The monopoly on violence is broken, and I shudder to think what comes next.
I’m living in fear, and my identity leaves me no shield. I often fly from Newark to San Francisco. Was the attack a one-time event or the first of many? Will our cities ever feel safe? Then, again, what will I face in my day-to-day existence? Will I get mocked and beat up? Are my tears for the dead less potent? Will my name become a Yellow Star that excludes me from society? Will I share in the collective healing that must come?
My situation brings a special clarity, one that opposes the clarity of choosing sides. What do I see from my hyphenated perspective? The absurdity of labels, indeed, of the whole idea that race, religion or flags divide humanity. I have a Muslim name, but my grandfather was Serbian. How would that fly in the Balkans? Is the world becoming a vast Balkan state?
I’ve wondered if I will ever have to choose a side. If so, here is my choice: pacifism and dialog. I choose love, I choose humanity. I may symbolize Islam to some, and America to others, but I transcend these distinctions. I am proof that love conquers hate. My grandparents conquered tradition to found my family, and I stand tall as an American born from a unique and tolerant soil. What race produced me? The human race. Let me plead for understanding and compassion. Chase the criminals if you must, but let us then begin to fight. Let us fight not for oil, money or revenge, but for a world where hatred and weapons belong to a distant, barbaric past.