& The Ottawa Citizen
September 23, 2001 Sunday Final EDITION
SECTION: THE CITIZEN'S WEEKLY, Pg. C6
LENGTH: 2598 words
HEADLINE: Guilt by association: Arab-Americans face the
slings and arrows of avenging racists
BYLINE: Russ Baker
SOURCE: Citizen Special
DATELINE: NEW YORK
NEW YORK - The fellows on the stoop want to help, but they aren't sure
anyone would let them. They worry that people would ask their names, and
they would have to give away their ethnicity.
They look and sound like typical young New Yorkers, with their buzz cuts,
gold chains, cool sunglasses, and their blue-collar, outer-borough
intonation and conversational cadence. And this looks like a typical early
Saturday evening in New York. Except this Saturday is four days after the
catastrophic attack on the World Trade Center by Muslim extremists, and
the young men are Arab-Americans.
On a nearby light pole, a flyer proclaims: "Muslims are not the enemy. War
is not the answer. RESIST HATE." An Anglo woman walking past stops for a
moment, and, as if this were any other weekend and a perfect time for a
leisurely excursion into ethnic New York, asks with a smile where she and
her friend might find "Arabic ice cream." The men look at each other. "Uh,
ma'am," replies one, "I don't think there is such a thing, not like
Italian ices or something."
They are hanging out on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, a busy, prosperous
commercial strip on the border of affluent Brooklyn Heights, full of
successful businesses owned by people of Middle Eastern origin. Down the
block, on the door at Fakir International Travel, a couple of decals
advertise for Yemeni, Saudi, Jordanian and Gulf States airlines. Other
peeling stickers read: "Ta-wal-kal-lu alal-la-ah -- I have put my trust in
Allah" and "Al-la-hu Akbar -- Allah (God) is the Greatest." The phonetic
spelling and the translation suggest a desire to preach beyond the circle
of the converted.
Another posting proclaims the store is open from 10-5 Saturday, but
it isn't open on this Saturday afternoon. Next door, a shop selling
traditional Arabic clothing is open, but locked. The owner looks at me
warily through the glass door, and buzzes me in. The man, who has two tiny
American flags in his window, has been doing business here for 25 years.
His English is shaky, but good enough to tell me he prefers not to talk
about the tragedy at the World Trade Center.
Over on the stoop, the young men have no such reservations. They are the
children of Palestinians and Yemenis, but were born in the United States,
and have an American's appreciation for sound-bite opportunities. One has
already been interviewed on television and is confidently expecting to
appear on ABC's highly regarded Nightline broadcast.
They are upset about the attack -- and they also worry that some people
feel Muslims -- all Muslims -- share responsibility for it. Pointing to a
supermarket across the street, a 26-year-old Yemeni-American says, "My Mom
went shopping here and people were giving her dirty looks, cursing her.
This is the first time in my life I don't feel comfortable here."
On Sept. 11, the day of the attack, many of the businesses closed for
security reasons, and police were quickly posted to watch over them. There
were no significant incidents, but the men have heard of problems in Bay
Ridge and Bensonhurst, other Brooklyn neighbourhoods inhabited by many
poorer, newer arrivals from the Mideast. One man says people broke the
glass in a friend's store and beat him up.
"My younger brother is petrified," says Jawad Saleh, a 21-year-old
Palestinian-American. "He says ... we won't be able to go out. We don't
know how people are going to act." Acquaintances at school, he says, have
been trying to avoid the backlash by claiming that they aren't "Arabic" at
all -- a technical distinction since Arabic is a language, not an ethnic
It's worse for the women, whose recognizable headdresses make them easy
targets. In general, Islamic women haven't been venturing out at all since
the attacks. Saleh says one of his sister's friends was stabbed on the
night after the suicide bombings, but is recovering.
Acts of violence have been relatively rare, however. More common are
indignities, as one of the men discovered when he took his aunt to the
airport. She was at the back of the check-in line and her scheduled
departure time was rapidly approaching, so he informed a customer service
representative, who moved her to the front of the line -- but sent her
back after finding out she spoke Arabic.
"When I saw (the World Trade Center) collapse, I knew our lives would
never again be the same," says Saleh.
Variations on that phrase have nearly become a cliche in recent days, but
for Arab-Americans, it has special resonance. Many of these fellows date
non-Muslim women, go to clubs where lots of different ethnic groups mix.
They are often mistaken for Latinos, putting them in the awkward position
of overhearing hostile remarks directed at Muslims. "You hear people all
day long saying crazy things; they're sitting next to you and they don't
know you're Arab, and they're talking about you," Saleh says.
They are troubled by the implication that they don't share in the anguish
wrought by the attacks. They know people from the neighbourhood who were
killed in the disaster; several worked at the penthouse-level restaurant,
Windows on the World. Others are mourning girlfriends who worked in the
buildings. Anse Ali, 24, a Yemeni-American welder who goes to technical
college, says his roommate lost an uncle in the World Trade Center.
Saleh says he isn't angry at people who make hostile remarks. "Most people
are ignorant," he says. "People think Islam is a country, not a religion."
Saleh, whose parents are from Jerusalem and who used to visit there every
summer when he was younger, was upset when television reports showed
Palestinians apparently celebrating the attack. "Half the people they're
showing are uneducated; besides, all those kids have seen is war."
Saleh has relatives who were wounded, even left paralysed, by Israeli
gunfire. "But I can't hate people, because all it does is perpetuate war."
He and his friends are suspicious of the kind of religious fundamentalism
that apparently motivated the hijackers. He explains that some extremists
misinterpret the concept of martyrdom, of what qualifies one to go to
heaven under Islamic law. "We have heroes ... but these guys are not
heroes." Saleh believes many people who become religious extremists are
either very poor and without hope or people who are looking for a way to
dramatically renounce their own dissolute lifestyle.
Saleh, who works at Brooklyn's Lutheran Medical Center while pursuing a
doctorate in pharmacy, tried, unsuccessfully, to volunteer at Bellevue
Hospital, a key intake centre for the comparatively small number of people
who were injured but not killed in the disaster. They didn't need people
in his field. "This makes me want to go to medical school," he says. "I
Saleh and a friend discuss going to one of the general volunteer intake
centres. "I just hope I don't get harassed," he says. He looks up, sadly.
"Imagine all that pain (from the attack) plus the world's against you.
This shows the terrorists have won."
Red, White and Blue
At 92nd and fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge, an ethnically mixed, working-class
neighbourhood with neat brick duplexes, the Tea Room has a sign in the
window: "We Will Not Let Them Destroy Our Spirit! America Will Overcome
and Rebuild." Next door, a convenience store displays the same sign. In
fact, the sign, although heartfelt, is not a personal expression of
resolve. It was mass-produced, and businesses owned by Muslims -- and
anyone afraid they will be mistaken for one -- have been snapping them up.
Indeed, many different ethnic minorities around here have gone to great
lengths to show their patriotism. The mostly black cabs driven by Arabs
that supplement the New York City yellow cabs in the boroughs all seem to
have small American flags flying from their antennas.
The Tea Room window also displays a large paper American flag, and there
is another, real flag waving outside, a yellow ribbon tied to it. Inside
the Tea Room, a handful of men are drinking tea and smoking hookahs (water
pipes). On a wide-screen television, the men are watching a Saudi news
program. The owner, an Egyptian, stands in the doorway, looking glum.
"Everybody stays home; it is dangerous," he says, with a prominent
stammer. "Everything is OK, but I have no business." In any case, he has
advised his few customers not to talk about politics.
At 68th Street and Fifth Avenue, one finds the Islamic Book Service, the
Jerusalem Hair Stylist, and other such businesses, all prominently
displaying American flags. In front of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge
there is a police cruiser with two officers inside; two more officers
Across the street, in front of the Habibah Cafe, there is a van with a
huge, woven American flag over the hood. Inside, three Moroccans are
drinking soft drinks and tea. One of them, Karim Mecherfi, 34, has been
into Manhattan to donate blood. Mecherfi, who works for the Brazilian
airline, Varig, says that if he hadn't been on vacation the week of the
attack, he would likely have been a prime suspect because he works near
aircraft at JFK airport. His friend, Rashid Ouldam, an unemployed
31-year-old, points out that Islam forbids taking innocent lives. All
three men were horrified by the week's events.
On a television in the cafe, the news from a Qatar-based Arabic satellite
channel begins with a report on the rescue effort. Afterward, there is a
story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- images of people covered
in blood, of victims in a hospital. "Look! Children!" one of the men at a
nearby table says to me. Then we see teenagers holding up what looks like
a piece of a rocket they have recovered. Then images of Palestinians at a
memorial service. The man explains with satisfaction that these people are
standing for a one-minute silent tribute to the victims at the World Trade
One block down Fifth Avenue, Katerin Playanakos, a housewife and immigrant
from Greece, passes a natural food store. She pauses, taking in the
scented candles on the ground, the plastic flowers stuck onto the security
gate. She begins to read a huge neon pink placard that proclaims "Marlyn,"
and on which passersby have written: "RIP to Marlyn Love Marcon. PS Be
Safe" and, "May God Bless Your Soul Forever Marlyn !! Love Always -- Jio."
"Oh my God! That beautiful girl!" Playanakos cries. A leaflet, with
pictures of the young woman, tells the story. "Marlyn Carmen Garcia 21 DOB
3/6/80 worked 1 World Trade Center, 100th floor, Marsh and McLennon, files
clerk position. She's 5'2", 125 lbs, fair complexion, Hispanic, curly or
straightened black shoulder-length hair, and has a birthmark that covers
her right thigh. Please if there's any information about her, contact
Tania or Hector Garcia."
Playanakos begins to sob softly, tears pouring down her cheek. "My
daughter works in the next building. This is a lovely family, such a
beautiful girl. I saw her every time I went inside, so nice."
A plane roared overhead, taking off from JFK airport. Civilian flights had
From a distance, you can see the minarets of the Fe'it El-Maqdis Islamic
Center, located on a nearby industrial strip. On the corner, a police
officer keeps watch; a colleague joins him, bringing pizza. Officer Gerard
Caffrey, 31, says the only problem so far has been with kids who threw
eggs at the building. But he says some teens told him they were planning
to beat up some Arabs, to which he replied, "If (the terrorists) had been
Puerto Ricans, would that be OK?"
Inside the mosque, a small number of worshippers trickles in, walking
across the checkerboard tiles and depositing their shoes in wooden
cubbyholes before entering the pale green sanctuary. A glass case displays
publications and tapes for sale, including videotapes titled Ajjal and the
New World Order, and Muhummud: The Natural Successor to Christ. There's a
stack of booklets, including one called Arabs and Israel: Conflict or
Conciliation? with a photo of a terrified Palestinian mother clutching a
child and an Israeli soldier wearing a helmet with these words on the
side: "Born to Kill."
The imam, dressed casually in an olive-coloured shirt and slacks, stops to
talk briefly before leading the prayers. With a member of the mosque
translating for him, he calls the attacks a tragedy. He said they have
touched everyone. "What kills us is to have those people without feelings
who target innocent civilians. We mourn for those who lost their lives and
for the injured; I hope there is healing soon. We hope and wish always to
have all humankind live peacefully and to build a strong sense of
He, too, is deeply worried about the backlash. "We have twice the
suffering of anyone else," he says, pointing out the Muslims in New York
feel not only the same grief as all Americans, but also the agony of being
associated in people's minds with the perpetrators. He argues that the
question of ethnicity, religion or race does not become central when
outrages are committed by other groups. "Only when it's a Muslim -- then
the blame is placed on all Muslims."
The translator is Essam Masleh, a large, 37-year-old Palestinian who
teaches math in a New York City high school. He has been in the United
States since he was 17. Masleh has heard of several backlash incidents:
Some Muslims have been threatened at gunpoint, women are being harassed in
the streets, patrons have sworn at Muslim grocery store workers.
He says the cycle of hatred won't end unless the U.S. pursues a political
solution to the Mideast problem.
"The U.S. should think the whole situation in the Mideast over and put (in
place) proper policies to find a peaceful solution. We have peace
negotiations that were going on, we almost reached a stage we were looking
for. During the last days of the Clinton administration, he was working
hard to implement the peace accords. Unfortunately, the new president is
the one to blame for the ignorance he's showing toward that part of the
Masleh also blames the media for inflaming Mideast tensions. "We think
it's because it's controlled by Jewish people," he says. "They're taking
advantage of this tragedy to use it for their own benefit in the
Israel-Palestine conflict," pointing to the decision to air the footage of
the young Palestinians apparently celebrating the attack.
However, Masleh has no sympathy for the prime suspect in the attacks,
Osama bin Laden. "This stupid idiot in Afghanistan -- if he's responsible,
he should be hanged by his balls -- and anybody else who's responsible."
In the meantime, Americans must somehow get through the grief, which
Masleh feels as acutely as any of his fellow New Yorkers. "I never felt so
sad," he says. "Yesterday I took the highway to Queens and I cried when I
drove. The tears began falling. Because the view (toward Manhattan) is not
the same. The view, by itself, it hurts."
Grief, disbelief, anger, fear -- older immigrants like Masleh face a
bewildering mix of emotions. But it is perhaps the younger ones, the ones
who grew up in America, like Saleh, who are the most vulnerable to ill
feeling over the long term, and who are perhaps the most confused by it.
"I don't get it," says Saleh. "We're Americans like everybody else. My Dad
pays tons of taxes.
"I keep thinking," he continues, "What would change this? I can't think of
anything. Even if they destroyed every Arab country on Earth, it wouldn't
erase the feelings."
Russ Baker is a New York journalist.