The phone invaded my sleep like a nasty alarm clock expediting the end of my dream. Mom told me planes were crashing in huge explosions that had devastated the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. My great aunt believed it the beginning of an all-out war.
I rushed into the family room and turned on the TV to the repetitive horror of a commercial airplane bursting into one of the almighty Twin Towers. America was under attack.
I rang Mom back. Word was out that the assailant was probably Arabic, a reaction we knew to be grounded more in hysteria than fact. She confided, “I hate being Middle Eastern today,” six words that made me realize how serious the backlash was to come.
Flipping the TV back on, I saw kids waving Palestinian flags wildly while cheering with their parents. Interviewed experts said Arabic terrorist groups were the only known organizations to use suicide bombers. Small headlines ran on the bottom of a screen about a Palestinian Liberation Democracy group claiming responsibility. Photos of Osama bin Laden, the Islamic fundamentalist held accountable for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, flashed before us. The face, religion and ethnicity of the enemy was unveiled.
My roommate returned home from a shortened workday and asked what I thought of the celebrations in the Middle East. I told him they made me disgusted and unnerved, while coming to the realization that they were no different from anyone else. Explaining similarities between them and us threw him off balance. I had to defend my comment by noting the jovial attitude of too many Americans after we had taken innocent lives in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Wrinkles expanded on his forehead. To avoid further conflict, I explained how their psyche was different than ours, how when a powerful country which continually oppresses another finally takes a blow, cheers are for the symbol of the loss of invincibility, not the toll of the dead.
With all becoming heated, I left to meet my partner, an African American, to play tennis for a breather. After five minutes of mutual venting in the car, she told me I had better watch myself, scolding that I had better sympathize with the victims. I told her I did, but since I couldn’t do anything to bring back their lives, my efforts were more focused on innocent Arab-Americans whose safety was now at risk.
She glared in disbelief. Ugly words filled her mouth, and retaliatory words mine, hurling back and forth until four in the morning when sleep overcame us.
I awoke the next day, fearing the worst. A calm reverberated on TV for most of America. There weren’t more attacks, the country was coming back to normalcy, extra precautions were taken to ensure national security. For Arab-Americans, it was only the beginning.
Phone calls, chat lines, and racial slurs called for the boycott of Arabic owned businesses, the burning of mosques and death to all Arabs. Someone who looked Arabic was refused a bathroom key by a guest-services manager. The windows were shot out of a Texas mosque, and in Dearborn, Mich., two men were arrested for reportedly assaulting an Arab-American man. Police protection was beefed up in New York and Detroit to protect large Arabic neighborhoods. And the fear of concentration camps, in memory of Pearl Harbor, became embedded in us all.
It was time to move on. I couldn’t wallow in uncertainty. Knowing I had to pretend all was well, I biked to my office eyeing subdued faces in cars, wondering if my appearance fit their vision of the enemy. Was my beard long enough for my Arabic roots to shine through or was my skin still white enough to escape their gaze? And what of the dark-skinned Arab-Americans being sneered at in restaurants; what of the innocent Arabs in countries now threatened to be bombed?
On Sept. 11, 2001, International Peace Day, a nightmare occurred that no one will ever forget. But the daymares that Arab-Americans are living, and the aftershocks to come, will only be resolved and overcome by the efforts of us all.
Corey Wade lives in Oakland.