To be an American Arab

Reflections on Arab-American adolescence

[Some of the names used in this article were changed at the request of interviewees.]

“My parents are from Lebanon, but I am Puerto Rican,” Mohammad Hasni tells me. He is bright carrying about himself a mind for math. Like most young American Arabs, he hopes to one day make “piles of cash” – he doesn’t know how but preferably by becoming an engineer or accountant. It is well known among his peers that he hails from an American commonwealth off of Florida. Between his teachers and himself there is a tacit understanding that he would rather they not say his full – Muslim Arab — name out loud. “Call me Mike,” Hasni commands. “I don’t like being called Mohammad.”

I first met Mike two summers ago. His father had purchased from a relative of mine a used car. Mike played baseball with his very American schoolmates and ate hot-dogs and bacon with no remorse. His family was not exceptionally religious, yet not wonderfully impious. They were as Muslim as most other people here in southern Connecticut are Christian. They were of a different variety from my own Arab creed, speaking a nasal accent peppered with Turkish and French utterances here and there.

His father, though, fit the typical American Arab stereotype: a chemist with an advanced degree who had not real prospects where he had been reared up who had made his way to the Land of Opportunity, America. His mother followed her true love to Boston, and then later to the New Haven area. Mike was but a babe then, and though he spoke with a slight accent, he was remarkably “Americanized”.

His elder brothers were too, though their formative years were spent in Lebanon. The difference between the sons and the father was mostly ostentatious. Upon nestling into the leather seats of their new buggy, the Elder took out a small air freshener adorned with a Lebanese flag as his sons let out exacerbated sighs in their baggy jeans with Puerto Rican flags stitched to their sides.

In relation to many American Arabs, Mike is not unique. There has always been a trend among immigrants to try to assimilate into their host culture, to graft themselves onto their new ethos. Generations of Italians, Germans, Arabs, and Russians – to name but a few – have surmounted onto American coasts and moved swiftly into the American melting pot. Some changed their names – the Suleimans became Slimans or Solomons; the Yakhoobs became Thomases, and so on. Others stressed their hatred for the Others, the blacks, the Jews, the Hispanics, to show that they too could be just as “American” as their Anglo-Saxon neighbors.

Then there were those who came in the era of terror. They came in droves fleeing bloody civil wars, oppression and economic impotence. The Arabs who came in the wake of intifadas, sectarian shuffles, and ethnic battles came when America, and the world, was all too aware of their existence. The fabled Araby of nineteenth century New England missionaries was no longer the mythical land of oriental spice and wonder. No, now it was the land of suicide bombers, splenetic sheiks, and terrorism. These Arabs came as Americans began to ask themselves, What went wrong?

On television, these mostly Muslim Arabs –their kinsmen of times antecedent were overwhelmingly Christian – were identified with the growing threat of international terror, the beginnings of a kind of fifth column, ready to welcome America’s enemies at the gates. It was alleged that they sought to add America to a rising caliphate, to supplant American civilization with that of that devious man Mohammad, or at the very least to take American jobs and use their income to fund brotherhoods of men who went about killing Americans and Israelis by the dozens. These Arabs, these Muslims, were no friends of tradition.

At the same time, Arabs were able to take advantage of a post-Civil Rights era boom in tolerance and social liberalization that embraced multiculturalism, that vague defense of minorities in the advanced nations. It was after all, the immigration reforms of 1965 that had allowed so many Arabs to come to America.

Against this backdrop, and in particular that of the ominous and opprobrious attack of September 11, American Arabs began to examine their position in the United States. There were those who yearned to stick to the old ways of assimilation with deference given to their roots. Then there were those who demanded that they fight for their rights, rapidly being eaten away at as most other Americans turned a blind eye. Still others remained indifferent, or silent on the matter in fear of retaliation against their selfhood.

Hate was never new to America, and certainly not its tightly knit Arab communities. They had experienced it in Brooklyn and Boston’s South End, in the early part of the last century, when the Italians and Irish gangs overturned their shops and homes in search of plunder. They had known that ethnicity could bite like a serpent whenever it pleased as their forebears watched the Ottoman Turks mow down the Armenians in the old country time after time, occasionally taking in the victims. And there had been the times from the 1980’s onwards, when mobs of whites would go out into the streets of New Jersey in search of “Ay-rabs” and “[1] dot-heads” to bash in – swarthy easterners had killed Americans here or there, and it was time for revenge. Americans Arabs who cared about Palestine occasionally made the effort to send funds to politicians, to win influence over their foreign policy – only to have it returned to them. James Abourezk, the lone Arab in the Senate, from South Dakota no less, had had Ted Kennedy personally return a check for no more than two hundred dollars to his desk. He could not be associated with “this terrorism stuff”. It took three presidential elections for Democrats to take American Arab money after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983.

After 9/11, Americans looked more closely at the happenings in America’s Arab and Muslim communities. Neighbors and friends became suspicious, potential “martyrs” and subversives. Violence against Arabs and Muslims generally (most Arabs in America are not Muslim, and most Muslims are not Arab) increased rapidly, hitting Arabs like never before, but non-Arabs – the Sikhs, Indians, Pakistanis, and Afghans. Going to war to liberate the Afghans from the clutches of Islamist puritans made enemies of turban wearing South Asians. The difference between these, and the non-Muslim Sikhs, Arab Christians, and Hindus of New Jersey and elsewhere was of little consequence.

Arabs had attacked America on 9/11, provoking the “War on Terror”, and the invasion of an Arab state, that of Iraq, help matters little. As the campaign to make the case for war, essentially making a paper lion of Saddam Hussien, the vanguard of radical Arabism – but not radical Islam – led to more suspicion, more questions of divided loyalties and more violence. [2] Violence seemed to seize upon communities like a falcon.

President Bush condemned these attacks, but it did little to temper their occurrence. And so those who could — those with just the right hair or skin color, the names of questionable background – could hide within the fray. The response was that of chameleons, Ali became Antonio; Mohammad was now Mike; Salim was Sal. Quickly my “homies” disappeared. It was not long before this phenomena reached my own vicinity. First came the violence, and my classmates of a similar genus either kept a low profile or adapted to the circumstances. They were now “Italians”, “Greeks”, and “Spanish”. A fellow who had told me on the first day of classes that he was “200% Arabi” now ate canoli for lunch and telling his buddies about his grandmother who was “so Italian”. Having missed the boat to the north of the mare nostrum, I was left vulnerable, and mostly alone to stave off the aggressive ranks of those whom my buddies had joined.

There were days when cardiovascular exercise could be found in running from the fists of angry Italians and blacks with rocks, bricks, sticks, clenched fists, and steel toe boots. When exhaustion took over, rest was put on hold by the all too predictable racial epithets for every order of Near Easterner and fits of violence: first came the phalanx, knocking me to the concrete; then, there was the stoning, pelting me from long and short range; my stomach usually felt the brunt of the assault, with muddy winder boots meeting my abdomen. The slush from snow fallen not too long before occasionally found its way into my “dirty” mouth. When the sandnigger was thought to be broken, the Romans and Vandals would make off, and I would gather my things – those which were not soiled with spit, snow, water or dirt – and crawl back to my cave.

My 200% Italian peer would stand agape at my black eyes and swollen lips and ask, “Why don’t you just tell them you’re Italian or something, man?” Jive talk it surely was. I was but a Moor, an easy target for legions of Iagos on frozen streets. It was better to “tough it out,” time and again. The phrase “if it happens again, then maybe we can have a mediation session,” was raised to infinite powers when I raised complaints with teachers and administrators. Middle school children learn with whom it is and is not safe to associate. I was not good at that game, and only when the excitement of pounding on the Arab – or pelting him from the bus with pennies and quarters (the irony is astounding, isn’t it?) – subsided that I was able to think past the rat race of getting home without blood on my person towards the end of finding safety in after school activities and classes that would keep me at a distance from my Roman tormentors.

I must have been a perfect example to my younger cousins of what not to be. The Arab was a nerd among brutes whose safety depended on how well he could play the role of the Neapolitan or Andalusian. Mike told me, on one occasion, of his realization that Puerto Rican was a more “fly” appellation than “Lebanese”; it was at baseball practice. The dugout was full of the smell of pubescent athlete and jokes about “niggers”, “Eye-rakies” and “sluts”. He kept quiet, as he knew no jokes and had little desire to learn them, at least not those of jockstrap quality. But when it came to it, and a teammate remarked on Mike’s father’s resemblance to the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, he struck back with candor “I’m not a fuckin’ Iraqi, I’m Puerto Rican!” Why not Lebanese? Or why not defend his father’s moustache? “They think all of are the same thing, it wouldn’t make a difference if I said Lebanese or something [. . .] it’d be like saying ‘I’m not dumb, I’m stupid.’”

This seemed to affect Arabs more than other Near Eastern minorities, such as Pakistanis and Indians. Arabs were, after all, already considered “white” by the federal government, and many especially the most assimilated of them were happy to leave the dregs of their Arabism and its discontents behind. Pakistanis, to use one example, held on more readily to the old ways, partly because they were Asians, and could not complete the “pass” to whiteness quite like Arabs could. Few Americans would be able to tell the difference between the two, though and not many cared to. If an Arab looked “ethnic”, taking no care to cover his Arabism, he was not different from the “Ayatollahs” and “imams” against whom America was poised. The more Arabs, the more Muslims, that find their way into the citadel of the West, the closer we come to “Eurabia”, to the victory of the dar ul-Islam.

Thus, any measure to temper the growth of the enemy is justified, in the minds of some. Other Westerners indulge self-destructive Arab behavior, going beyond empathy and straight on to outright parroting of the most dangerous of Arab and Muslim stupidities. The former set dismisses American Arab concerns, on perhaps almost any issue, as efforts to weaken America on the home front. “Muslims lie,” has been the message of more than one “educational” resource of “Islam”. To listen to the non-Arabs, there was no discrimination, no violence against Arabs or Muslims. It was all a great show. “[3] Professional Arab-Americans ” had fabricated a “minority” identity, for the sake of fashion and personal enrichment. If Arabs met discrimination or racial profiling, they ought to take it for America. To do otherwise would be unpatriotic, wrong. Where does American Arab loyalty really reside?

Regardless all the politicking, the Americans at street level, roughing it through the daily grit and grime of life, were not benefiting from accusations of disloyalty for reporting hate crimes or for being painted as the victims of systematic government oppression. It was easier for many to accept that President Bush had condemned hate crimes against Americans of Middle Eastern background, and that any accusations of “discrimination” or “prejudice” were negligible. One often heard, and still does hear the cliché that “Most Arabs aren’t terrorists are Arab but most terrorists are Arabs.” This statement, rarely justified with evidence of any sort other than those attacks occurring in the Middle East and against America in recent memory, was used extensively by commentators, and even more so after it was embraced by more “pro-Western” Arab writers seen often on CNN and FOX News. If all terrorists were Arab, it was justified to treat those Arabs regular seen with the sort of hostility one would meet a terrorist with. Disagreement with Arabs who question American policies — I stress policies because hatred for America is different matter entirely – towards Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, or anything else pretty much, is a sign that this “American” Arab has sinister motives, contrary to those of “real” Americans. There, obviously, are those who hold positions that are nonsensical, anti-Semitic, and downright foolish opinions and “theories”, but these are the ones who ruin the discourse for all those within the community that is America. It would seem at times that those American Arabs who take reasoned stances, with just a hint of individuality (often interpreted as “radical” or “Islamist”), are ostracized, shouted down, and treated like those brutes who are the opposite of them.

And I ask myself, everyday, why it is that so many American Arabs “leave” themselves for San Juan, Madrid, Rome or Athens. Why is it that being Arab is so unacceptable, even to the Arabs themselves? The US Census tells us that 80% American born Arabs marry non-Arabs. I would give a similar percentage to the number of Arabs that I know in everyday life who readily lie about their ethnicity through their teeth. This is a figure hailed by the pundits. There is no need to worry: the Arabs do not enjoy their Arabism, and take onto that of others readily. Few other groups when mentioned have their out marriage rates trumpeted as victories for the Department of Homeland Security, as if their vary existence as a community is a threat to their country. Asians marry white in droves, yet this is either kept quiet or remarked on with sobriety by “mainstream” writers. American Indians too have sky high numbers of interracial liaisons, yet this is not touted as triumphantly as it is when it is discovered that Arabs do not marry Arabs, or that the American Muslim out marriage rate is nearly twice that of the general population. And intermarriage is not a problem in itself, but it presents an issue for those whom I regard as the supremacists.

The Americophile supremacists on the one hand believe that the more minorities marry into the majority, the less trouble it is for the majority to have to understand them, or worry about the minority conquering (or “re-conquering” in the case of the Chicanos) them. It creates security in the mind of those who frown upon “Dearbornistan”, as they call the capital of Arab America.

Then there are those who don’t want Arabs at all. The “Go back to where you came from” camp, holds steadfast to the belief that any semblance of Arab, Islamic, or Middle Eastern culture, religion, or people is a trouble in and of itself. When Arabs or Muslims commit crimes, it is because they are Arabs or Muslims, and because they, as such, are “incompatible” with “Western values”. They dress themselves in pseudo-intellectual garb, taking to those who defame Arabs and Muslims in the West in an almost cult like fashion. Those who “dare” speak against the Muslims and their dirty deeds, especially if they carry simultaneously Arab swagger and sense of victimhood, are given the accolades of expert historians. Even when these new “experts” contradict every authority on the maters they preach, their word is taken in like gospel. But then, Bernard Lewis is just too P.C.

And then there are the normal, every day Americans who, make no pretensions of hostility or supremacy. The vast majority of Americans have no mind for moronic over simplification, though the most vocal certainly do. There are though, those who see in Arabs a representation of just another problem of political correctness or “multiculturalism”. The question “What went wrong” is not just to be asked of the Arabs, or of Western imperialists, but of American interactions with the Arab world; the Americans had mismanaged themselves, leaving their culture vulnerable to foreign infiltration, they had been to “sensitive” to the concerns of their enemies, and they had underestimated the sheer venom of “Islamic” hatred for America. It was not enough to stand by Israel, America should have severed its connections with the Arab states and become totally independent of those who would be “useless” if not for oil. The Americans didn’t need the Arabs, the idea went, the Arabs needed the Americans. And they were right, in part, for for all intents and purposes, those Arab lands that had historically been of consequence had been bridled, isolated or defeated. Americans did Arabs a favor by buying their oil, and maintaining a presence in their hinterlands. The Arabs did Americans little good by infesting North American cities, suburbs, and academies. In Europe, the Arabs were the rapists, the terrorists, the residents of sprawling banlieues teeming with resentment of those who had, regrettably, done the dual favor of taking in and tolerating the beurs.

In the eyes of Arabs, their conduct had not much changed, they as a community had not done anything especially different in the wake of the eruption of the Terror War. Some had become politically aware and socially self-conscious; but most lived as they always had. This was perhaps why the volume of hatred leveled at Arabs in the streets and in the media too them by surprise. The old Arab pessimism about their own affairs could now be easily transferred onto what was once an optimistic and lighthearted view of American society, especially among the young and recently arrived. An Egyptian scientist, educated and reared in Upper Egypt who had immigrated to the United States in 2000 in his old age worked as a janitor at a public high school in Connecticut. He, like many of southern Connecticut’s Egyptians was a Copt, and had followed a stream of Christians from Egypt to a city still called a town just off of Long Island Sound. They had their own church, nestled on a grassy hill, and the younger ones studied to become teachers, accountants and doctors. His degrees were useless in his new country, his English limited, and his savings next to worthless when transferred into the American currency. And so he worked in the cafeteria, picking up trash as the freshmen tossed it to the floor, or commonly in his face. He resembled “Mario”, that infamous plumber of so many American youths, and he won the affection of some, the torment of others. The students, at their most rowdy, took to him as a target during lunchroom food fights. He was still liable to clean this mess up, however. His erudition impressed the teachers who bothered to take notice of him; he journeyed to the library every day, he told me, and read a book a night, longer ones in a week. His English was much better than it had been upon arrival, but the children of the Sound still mocked his awkward out-fittings, his heavy sweaters and baggy pants, covered in a janitor’s duty, his hand-me-down Jordans given to him by an assistant principle’s son, and not least his accent. The Ay-rab was taunted without relent by those who had little regard for those who worked “beneath” them and could not empathize with the ways of those who worked or struggled. In a community of affluent Copts and natives he stood out. During a lunch room fist fight, he was obligated to separate the combatants, and when one whom he had subdued broke out for the “desert rat” to get off of him, he grimaced. His grimace carried off as the crowd dispersed and he went back to his garbage patrol. To me he said “You call this freedom, you call this dignity?” with his aged arms above his head.

America remains for many Arabs the same as it always was: a place to make money, grow, prosper, and learn. But the these sentiments are shared more by the old than the young. “They can’t make up their minds,” I was told by Daoud Elraab. “They don’t respect us, and they think we are a threat, no matter what we do, both other times they are indifferent towards us. It’s weird.” A 15-year-old Springfield, Mass. resident, Elraab has a network of mostly Christian Arab relatives and family friends to confide in when he faces discrimination or feels alienated. “My grandparents always say, ‘Oh, America is so much better than Syria’,” he rumbled indignantly. “But they never had to go to school with people who think all Arabs are terrorists.” Perhaps he is correct, but there were no terrorists in their time, none that were attacking America anyway. The Elraabs’ time in the United States goes back to the early nineteen hundreds. They settled in Boston’s South End, where many other Syrians came seeking a better life in the face of famine and intolerance in their native land. His grandparents remember how their new country men reacted when learning that they had come from the Holy Land. “People hated immigrants, but they were still delighted to meet real live Syrians, they were all reading Gibran Khalil Gibran,” his grandfather remembers. “I remember getting shoved about for money, not being an Arab.” Daoud is convinced that things are sour for Arabs in America. “They treat us like we’re foreigners; we’ve been here longer than most of the other peoples’ families I know.” The adoptive land had not always been so sad.

Indeed, American Arabs have a rather colorful history in the United States. Taking up the old Semitic tradition of profiting in diaspora, Arabs from Syria and Egypt first came to the United States in the late 1800’s. Some 100,000 of them came by the start of World War I. And so there came the laborers, the hockers, the merchants, the mill workers, the artists, and the intellectuals. The Arab renaissance (nahdah) of the middle 1800’s found itself spanning the globe, and the major cities of the Latin America and the north east could not escape. Buenos Ares, Sao Paulo, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia all had their share of Arab expatriates. In Brazil, the Arabs would grow into a mighty cultural, political, and economic force, taking large swaths of the parliament and earning large shares in major businesses. In Central America, the Palestinian community would produce presidents, diplomats, moguls, and leaders of all stripes. Argentina would take the son of Syrian Muslim immigrants as its In North America, Arabs would keep a low profile, especially after the World Wars. But they were not without distinction. In the early days, the Arabs formed newspapers and literary circles, often divided along sectarian lines, but often in unison. The accomplished luminaries of Khalil Gibran and Amin al-Rihani, both took great pride in their dual identities as Americans and as Arabs. Gibran would become perhaps the best known American Arab. Immigrating to the United States in 1895, Gibran distinguished himself as an artist and writer of great merit. His words would be interpreted variously by generations of Americans, with many ignoring or being oblivious to the strongly nationalistic ideals put forth in them. He extolled his native Lebanon (as well as the rest of Syria), as well as his adopted America (for instance, see his poem “[4] I believe in you“).

[5] Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present. Lacking the typical stereotypes and alarmist conflations of Arab immigration and the end of American civilization, Oren writes of a man with a most unique American manner.

Dark complexioned and dapper, an orator of spellbinding charm, Rihani proclaimed his love of his New World liberties before Arab and American audiences, urging them to help achieve those freedoms for their Middle Eastern homeland. ‘In a land where . . . the freedom of the citizen has not yet been realized, one can better serve one’s country from a safe distance,’ he explained. Yet it was not safety that Rihani sought, for with America’s entry into World War I, he exhorted all Middle Eastern immigrants to volunteer for combat. [. . .] Rihani’s pride sometimes proved effusive, though, and dangerous. While trying to recruit Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in Mexico to join the American army, the writer was arrested and expelled.

His criticisms of the Arab world was so harsh that Howard Bliss rebuked his admonishments as “unfortunate.” He, like other theorists of Arab nationalism, decried Arab sectarianism and backwardness while competing with early Zionist activists for the ears of American policy makers when it came down to the post-war settlements in the Holy Land.

Daoud Elraab knows that Arabs in America do not face the same kinds of discrimination that other minorities have. There have been no laws of segregation, few, if any, Arabs have been banned from the polls, and most discrimination against them is illegal. Indeed, most hate crimes directed at Arabs fall on the shoulders of non-Arabs. But he is convinced that hostility, hatred, and at the very least extreme distaste, exists in American society for Arabs — American or otherwise. “Nobody ever wants to talk about it,” his father says of the “mainstream” civil rights groups. “I remember my daughter got pelted with rocks two years ago. We went to the school, they said there was nothing they could do. The next day, Daoud came home with a black eye. There was nothing we could do, even the police were reluctant to help us.” 1972 hate crimes against Americans of Arab and Muslim origin were reported during 2005. It would seem that the patriotism of American Arabs is forgotten in the face of international tension. Arabs are not always on the other side of the battlefield; the first American jet ace was a son of Marjayoun, Lebanon, with a wonderfully alliterative name: James Jabara. The Association of Patriotic Arab American in Military keeps a long and growing [6] The Arab American News, American Arabs are still willing to serve their country, as much as any other sub-population.

George Noirot, spokesman for the Army’s Great Lakes Recruiting Battalion, which covers the area around Detroit, said, “They (Arab-Americans) were anxious to work with us in the Army because I got the feeling they really wanted to show that they were Americans and love the country here.”

Today, American Arabs are often portrayed as thin skinned, complaining at every given moment, a group deserving of suspicion given the storied nature of its members exploits. Arab complaints of racial profiling, discrimination, and rampant media defamation are often dismissed as overblown or even unpatriotic. While Arab television is at times rife with anti-Semitic blitherment, most Westerners are unsympathetic to Arab — no matter if they are American or not — squawks. While many Americans (including American Arabs) watch the popular FOX program “24″ with enthusiasm, many have been appalled by its inflammatory Arab imagery. A recent [7] piece by Rima Abdelkader on the American Arab blogzine “Arabisto” discussed the matter. After two particularly offensive episodes of the program, an email campaign has been started by American Arab lawyers, protesting “24″’s stock Arabs “intent on nuclear Armageddon”.

Ramsay Short, a British-Arab journalist, says, “I have watched every single series of ‘24’ up to now – that is seasons 1-5 – and loved them for the dramatic pieces of action they are.” However, he says, “ ‘24’ doesn’t give a positive image of Arab-Americans.”

Hypersensitive Arab Americans may be. But according to Ahmed Walid, of Hartford, Connecticut, they need to be. “I don’t like seeing anybody get stereotyped. My son says to me, ‘Dad, just get over it, those guys [on TV] chose to be there’. I don’t like it. It makes me look bad. Even if it is their own doing it isn’t right. Dave Chappelle knew he did something wrong, Arabs should learn from him.” [Chappelle, an African-American Muslim actor, refused to continue making his popular “Chappelle’s Show” after realizing that it had not gotten his points about race across and were “socially irresponsible.”] Walid believes is a short, intense man. I hear his televison blasting over the phone during our interview. “The people who play the Arabs on ‘24′ aren’t even Arab. They’re Greeks and all that sort. There would be an outrage if they had white people wearing face paint and dressing up like black people or Hispanics. But it is OK to have them dress like “terrorists” and shout around in sewers with exaggerated Arabic?” He worries that his children will grow up and be ashamed of their Arabism. He gave his son an American name, Martin, after the great civil rights leader. “I don’t want him to grow up and be angry that their last name is Muslim,” he says. “I want him to be proud to be American and Arab. I don’t see why he can’t do both.”

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