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Frankfurter Allgemeine

& The Ottawa Citizen
September 23, 2001 Sunday Final EDITION


LENGTH: 2598 words

HEADLINE: Guilt by association: Arab-Americans face the slings and arrows of avenging racists

BYLINE: Russ Baker

SOURCE: Citizen Special



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.

Avoid Backlash

"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 group.

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 felt powerless."

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 stand nearby.

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 Center.

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 resumed.

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 brotherhood."

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 world."

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.



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