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Looking Over Our Shoulders

By Susan Muaddi Darraj | Posted 9/12/2001

History will shape Sept. 11 into a day like the one on which John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Where, people will ask for decades to come, were you when you heard the news? I was at work, reading my e-mail, when a colleague suddenly turned to me and said, "Someone bombed the World Trade Center." Many of us in the office ran to the nearest radio and tuned into the news: Yes, one tower of the World Trade Center had been attacked . . . and then the other. My colleague, still on the phone, suddenly announced, "And they just got the Pentagon too."

In the first few minutes after the initial shock, when the facts became clearer and the details more horrifying, I thought, and uttered aloud, "My God, I hope they've gotten these people out safely. My God, please don't let there be innocent lives lost." My second thought, which I kept private: My God, please don't it be Arabs who have done this.

Perhaps it was because I remembered my days in high school, during the Gulf War, when furious classmates told me that I, an Arab-American, was the reason their brothers in the military were fighting in Iraq. Why did "my people" always start trouble? Why didn't I just go home to "my country"? I survived high school, only to face similar targeting during other catastrophes, the worst being the backlash after the bombing in Oklahoma City. The anti-Arab sentiment rose to a fever pitch, with Arabs (or anyone unlucky enough to remotely resemble the stereotypical "Arab" of the American psyche) suffering physical assaults, verbal assaults, and property destruction. I was informed that "Allah was the devil"--even though I'm not Muslim , but a Christian. What did that matter when Americans, for the most part, couldn't even distinguish between Pakistanis, Afghanis, Arabs, or Persians?

That is the issue the Middle Eastern community faces now, and again. Not only we lumped into a large category of "other" people and "foreigners," we are somehow considered responsible for the crimes of others.

Does the fact that we are not matter, in these days after horror erupted in New York and Washington and rippled across the nation? It doesn't seem so. As the death toll rises, so do the number of racist incidents against anyone thought to be Middle Eastern. Furthermore, people participating in this backlash are not limiting their hate-filled spewing to Middle Easterners alone; on this very Web site, someone has written, "Get the F**k out of this country jew, islam, muslim puke. You have no idea what your world is about to become. It's gonna get real ugly. Run while you can." Yet another e-mail blamed the tragedy on America's "aribs, qweers, and kooks." On another Web site: "1000 ARAB AND KOREAN HEADS SEVERED FOR EVERY VICTIM OF WTC NYC 9-11-2K1."

For Middle Easterners in the United States, for all people of "unpopular" ethnic and religious groups, it's somehow not appropriate for us to mourn alongside our fellow Americans. Members of our community were also employees at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center; they were also terrified passengers on hijacked airplanes. But as Middle Easterners line up to donate blood, as we enter mosques and churches to pray for the dead, as we hold candlelight vigils, we are told by uninformed and angry people that we have no right to even be in this country. I wonder if, after Timothy McVeigh was arrested and convicted of his crime, these people thought white Americans should also be "deported."

I hope that all Americans will continue to participate in the national spirit of mourning in this country, even though some of us may be looking over our shoulders at the same time.

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