The above is an excerpt from a poem of mine titled “Usage.” I make no apologies for being an American. I am fully aware of the fact that as an American I am privileged. Because I was born and raised in the United States, I inherited many of the benefits that come with membership in this most prestigious of clubs. But I’m also an Arab man, and as such I am regularly associated with the most negative of traits.

The Arab male is considered by some to be essentially dangerous, uncivilized, barbaric, hostile to Americans and all things American, unreasonable, capable of understanding only through violence and brute force, religiously fundamentalist, possessing little to no regard for human life (especially the lives of innocents), misogynistic, oppressive (to women, to families, to communities, to non-Muslims, and to Muslims), anti-human, anti-Semitic, anti-modern, politically militant, uneducated, backward, militarily weak, illogical, overtly emotional, and intolerant of difference and change (particularly if the “change” is viewed as “progress”). Most commonly, Arab men are associated with the sheik, the terrorist, or the religious radical. To make matters worse, for many years public enemy #1 was an Arab guy named Osama.

When I lived in Detroit, the perception most people had of Arabs was bad. We were repeatedly called sand niggers and camel jockeys, and we were told to go back to where we came from. We saw ourselves on the news, usually as hijackers or hostage-takers, and strangers worried about what we might do to them. Yet no matter how poorly the media portrayed us then, the life of every single Arab I knew flew in the face of those depictions. On a daily basis, and several times each day, I encountered Arabs who were not terrorists.

My father was not a terrorist. My mother was not a terrorist. My aunts and uncles were not terrorists. Nor were my cousins or friends. My next-door neighbor, who was Arab and owned a fruit market, was not a terrorist. The Arab students at Fordson High School were not terrorists. The Arabs attending Henry Ford Community College, the University of Michigan, or Wayne State University weren’t terrorists either. The cooks and waitstaff at Al-Ameer and Cedarland and La Shish did not turn out to be terrorists. There were no terrorists among the Arab factory workers at Ford and Chrysler and GM. The Arabs I saw at weddings and funerals never blew up planes or buses or themselves. The dancers and singers and musicians at the Arab festivals at Hart Plaza were dancers and singers and musicians, not terrorists.

A lot of people tried hard to tell us otherwise — politicians, journalists, “experts” on the Middle East, ordinary citizens — but they were all in competition with a formidable opponent: the everyday reality of living in one of the largest Arab communities outside the Arab world. If I had doubts about what it meant to be Arab or wanted to know how Arabs thought or lived or felt, I turned to actual people, not the representations of them. My view was certainly limited, for Arabs in Detroit — and I certainly didn’t know them all — obviously did not and could not stand for every other Arab in America. They were, however, a far better example than I found in books or on TV or in the movies or in the news.

*

When I read about the trial of suspected terrorists in Detroit, or the breaking up of a suspected terrorist cell in Brooklyn, or the arrest of a group of Arabs anywhere in America for plotting a terrorist act or funding a terrorist organization, you might think my first reaction is one of suspicion or apprehension. You might think that in hearing about Arabs suspected and interrogated and judged guilty even before a trial, I would conjure up the image of my father, or my uncles, or a neighbor, a friend or cousin, or even the face I see everyday in the mirror, and feel indignation. I do, but not always.

When I see the faces of the accused or read their names or hear about them in the news, the first thought I sometimes now have is, “They just might be terrorists.” I am not saying that I don’t believe Arabs can never be terrorists. Of course they can. It’s the immediate rush to judgment that worries me — to assume right away that possibility, of guilt by association. In the past, if the facts took me to that conclusion, then fine. But I never started out assuming the worst.

They seem different, the Arabs I now see on the news. I know I’m wrong in thinking this. I tell myself to step back a moment, and when I do, after a while, I’m eventually able to reserve judgment and condemnation. Of course, none of this alters the fact that I went there to begin with.

*

first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot’s heart failed,
the plane’s engine died.
then, please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now.
please god, after the second plane, don’t let it be anyone
who looks like my brothers.

— Suheir Hammad, from “First Writing Since”

Unfortunately, the hijackers did look like her brothers — they looked like me.

All nineteen hijackers were Arab, the majority from Saudi Arabia, a few from the United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt, and another from Lebanon. They were also young. Except for Muhammed Atta, 33 years old, who crashed the first plane into the north face of the North Tower at a speed of roughly five hundred miles an hour, every other hijacker was only in his twenties.

The image of the Arab terrorist was obviously not invented on this most infamous of days. The swarthy Arab, whether portrayed as a hijacker or a suicide bomber or one of many dark, keffiyeh-wearing, gun-toting, American-flag-burning types in a mob, was so engrained in our minds and had for so long been a part of the American imagination that even most intellectual Arabs — poets, scholars, activists — immediately went to that image when it became clear that the crashing of two airliners into the World Trade Center was not an accident. It’s hard not to go there. The Arab (especially the Arab Muslim) has been cast as a menace by the Western imagination for nearly fourteen centuries. America came late to the game but caught up quickly, and the dissemination of the “menacing Arab” image is so vast and pervasive, I don’t know why I am surprised that even Arabs fall back on the negative stereotypes and presumptions about themselves. If we cannot help but fall into the trap, what chance do men and women who know close to nothing about “real” Arabs have in arriving at something like an uncorrupted image of us?

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