On the morning of September 11, 2001, from the shoreline of the Jersey City neighborhood where I lived, I watched the World Trade Center buildings collapse and engulf the streets below in billowing clouds of debris.

“My student Mohammed noticed, while the two men approached him, that others in the observatory were staring. Soon the two men moved closer. They told him to get up and come with them. When he refused, they flashed badges.”

I was scheduled to teach my first class that day as a full-time faculty member at a college in Queens. I’d been living in New York City for seven years, and I had only visited the World Trade Center once, and only the ground floor, to buy discounted tickets to a Broadway show. I never made it to the observatory deck of what was once the world’s tallest man-made structure. A few weeks after the start of the semester I admitted this to my students, most of whom were lifelong New Yorkers. To my astonishment, I discovered that barely any of them had been to the now-gone skyscraper either. Or to the Statue of Liberty, or Ellis Island. Only a handful had taken the subway to the Bronx to watch a Yankees game. Even fewer had spent any time in Grand Central Station, except to transfer between trains. I asked if they’d been to the Met, or MoMA, or the Guggenheim, or the American Museum of Natural History. What about the New York Public Library on 42nd Street? Almost every student answered no.

“Okay,” I said. “Visit a landmark.”

I was teaching an introduction to creative writing. In addition to visiting a site, I required they write something related to their visit — a poem, a story, or a scene. One of my students, Mohammed, who was shy and quiet, asked me to suggest a place to go.

“Have you gone up to the Empire State Building?”

He shook his head.

“Go there.”

The destruction of the World Trade Center returned to the Empire State Building its status as the city’s tallest skyscraper. Mohammed went there, paid the admission fee, and rode the elevator to the 86th floor observatory, which offers visitors a three-hundred-sixty-degree panoramic view of Manhattan and the surrounding landscape. On a clear day, a visitor can see for up to eighty miles. After a short while, Mohammed sat down and began collecting his thoughts in a notebook. Within minutes, two men approached him. One talked while the other stood watch.

“What are you doing?”

Mohammed looked up but didn’t answer.

“What are you doing?”

“Excuse me?”

The man repeated himself, this time deliberately stopping between each word. “What … are … you … doing?”

“I’m writing.”

“What are you writing?”

“Notes.”

“Notes?”

The two men looked at each other, and then back at Mohammed.

“What are your notes for?”

*

Across the country after 9/11, numerous acts of violence were committed against Arabs and Muslims, or against people who “looked” Arab or Muslim. The number of attacks on business owners and employees alone was astounding. I took note of these attacks because my father used to run a grocery store in Detroit.

On September 11, a man in Palos Heights, Illinois attacked a Moroccan gas station attendant with the blunt end of a machete.

The next day, in Gary, Indiana, a man wearing a ski mask fired a high-powered assault rifle at Hassan Awdah, who survived because he worked behind bulletproof glass.

On the same day, in Long Island, New York, a man with a pellet gun made threats to a gas station attendant who he believed was of Middle Eastern descent.

Nearby in Brooklyn, less than twenty-four hours later, an Arab grocer was threatened with violence by one of his grocery suppliers.

That same day in Salt Lake City, a man tried to set fire to a Pakistani family’s business.

Four days later on September 15, in San Gabriel, California, Adel Karas, 48 years old, of Egyptian descent, was shot and killed. The FBI investigated his murder as a hate crime.

In Mesa, Arizona, Frank Silva Roque gunned down a gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, because Roque mistook Sodhi for an Arab. After killing him, Roque shot at another man who was Lebanese, and then he fired at the home of an Afghan family.

Also on this day, in Dallas, Waqar Hasan was found shot to death in his grocery store.

Nearly a week after the attacks, on September 17, an Afghan restaurant in Encino, California, was set on fire at 1:40 a.m.

South of San Francisco, in Fremont, an Afghan restaurant was attacked with bottles and rocks.

Further south, on a Los Angeles freeway, someone displayed a sign that read Kill All Arabs.

West of Los Angeles, in Oxnard, which is home to two large US Navy bases, four men threw a Sikh grocer to the ground and beat him.

On the 29th, a Yemeni grocer was killed at his convenience store in Reedley, California, after having received a death threat. The grocer’s name was Abdo Ali Ahmed.

My student Mohammed noticed, while the two men approached him, that others in the observatory were staring. Soon the two men moved closer. They told him to get up and come with them. When he refused, they flashed badges. They were FBI agents. They found his note-taking suspicious, and they did not immediately believe his college assignment explanation. They interrogated him for a few hours. At our next class meeting, Mohammed told me what had happened. “They might call you,” he said, after which he dropped the course and I never saw him again.

*

A month later the FBI contacted my father, who lived in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. Two agents went to his house. The inquiry took place early in the morning. Normally a loud and irate man, my father was nice to them. He welcomed them into his house and asked them if they wanted something to drink. They didn’t. They wanted to ask him questions — about me.

“Where does he live?”

“New York.”

“Did he contact you on September 11?”

“He called.”

“What did he say?”

“He was okay.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was okay — nothing happened to him.”

“Did he say anything about the attacks?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did he say anything about the attacks?”

“No.”

“Are you positive?”

“Yes.”

The FBI’s visit and questions unnerved my father. He was troubled most by what might happen next — to me. I hadn’t done anything wrong. He knew that, but he also believed that the FBI could do whatever it wanted. So he gave me advice on how to deal with the agents when they showed up. “Be polite. Offer them coffee. If they stay long, ask them to sit. Don’t give them any reason to screw you.”

I told him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be good,” but I was indignant at the FBI for suspecting that, because of my ethnicity, I might know more about what took place on 9/11 than the next guy. To let off steam and to let people know what had happened, I shot off an e-mail to friends, family, and colleagues; I explained that being Arab made others believe I had an intimate relationship to treachery and violence. I also sent a letter to the New York Times and several other newspapers, and I talked about the incident with my students , my colleagues, and with my fellow poets and writers. The FBI’s presumption made me feel negated. No longer a man, or a teacher, or a writer, I had been turned into a suspect, a profile, something less than human.

Eventually, I received a phone call from the Department of Justice. They wanted to know if I would speak with them. I said yes, but only under the following conditions: the agents would have to come to the college where I taught; this way, I could have my colleagues with me as I recorded the conversation. The college president had in fact suggested this. Faculty I hadn’t even met volunteered to be at my side.

I never again heard back from the FBI.

*

A few months later, for the first time since 9/11, I boarded a plane. I was with Rachel, my wife. We were heading to the Midwest to attend two weddings over the same weekend. The itinerary was to fly from New York to Chicago for the first marriage and the next day take a short flight to Detroit for the second. We planned on spending another day in Detroit before heading back to New York.

We purchased our airline tickets at the same time. We requested side-by-side seats. At the airport, we arrived together, and we checked a single piece of luggage. My carry-on was a suit. Rachel brought along knitting materials to keep herself occupied during the flight. Her knitting bag contained a set of sharp metal needles, each more than a foot in length. At the time, security regulations prohibited the carrying-on of such items as nail clippers and small scissors. When she first took up knitting, I used to make wisecracks about using the needles as weapons. “I heard Jesse James once killed a man with knitting needles … just for snoring.” Given the circumstances, I laid off the jokes. After all, the 9/11 hijackers had overtaken four airplanes using only box cutters.

Somehow, at JFK, at O’Hare, and at DTW, Rachel managed to get the needles, and herself, through security without a hitch. I did not have the same experience. I was pulled aside for a search — “randomly selected” — at every single airport.

*

Day after day, he told himself, “I am an American.
I speak American English. I read American poetry.
I was born in Detroit, a city as American as it gets.
I vote. I work. I pay taxes, too many taxes.
I own a car. I make mortgage payments. I am not hungry.
I worry less than the rest of the world. I could stand
to lose five pounds. I eat several types of cuisine
on a regular basis. I flush toilets. I let the faucet drip.
I have central air conditioning. I will never starve
to death or experience famine. I will never die of malaria.
I can say whatever the fuck I please.”

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?

*

According to the 2000 census, 70,000 Arabs live in New York City. That’s more than double the number recorded as living in Dearborn during the same period. Yet, for me, Dearborn feels significantly more “Arab.” A reason for this must be the concentration of so many of them in a relatively small area. I think of my family’s house: to the right lives an older Arab woman, and to the left, an Arab family. Across the street and over the back fence, there are more Arab households. In fact, I would have to walk past several blocks of houses before arriving at one in which an Arab does not live. In New York City, I could go days without seeing an Arab. In Texas, where I live now, if not for a handful of friends and a few students at the university where I teach, I could go weeks, even months, without running into an Arab.

When I fly into Detroit, I take I-94 home. I head east. The twelve-ton, eighty-foot tall Uniroyal tire on the side of the highway still brings a smile to my face. When I pass Telegraph Road, I think of the summers I worked at Jack Dunworth Memorial Pool, where Dearborn’s families — Arab and otherwise — dropped off their kids for hours at a stretch. I continue down the Ford Freeway and pass the exit to the Southfield Freeway, which I took countless times to Fairlane Town Center, where I got into my fair share of trouble as a kid. Across from the shopping center, on Evergreen Road, is Henry Ford Community College, where I taught for a semester and where, for the first time as a teacher, I had Arab students. My family’s house, where my sister still lives, is on Dearborn’s eastside not far from Hemlock Park, which for a while went by the nickname “Yemlock” because of the Yemeni boys and girls who played there. I go past the house and park and I take Miller Road and keep driving until I reach Warren Avenue. I pull into the parking lot of Al-Ameer Restaurant.

Al-Ameer may not be the best Middle Eastern restaurant in town, but it is still my favorite. I used to eat there two to three times a week. Usually, I sat in a window booth. I liked to see people coming and going, and I was constantly running into friends or acquaintances. The waiters and waitresses knew me — if not by name, then by face or by what I ate. For years, I ordered the same three items off the menu: a shawarma sandwich, a plate of hummus, and a cup of coffee. On one of my visits not long after I’d moved out of Detroit, a former student from HFCC who’d been working at Al-Ameer for some time waited on me. I recognized her immediately, and vice versa.

“Professor,” she said, “You want a coffee, right?”

“Yes.”

“And a shawarma and hummus.”

I smiled and nodded. She turned to walk away, and I stopped her. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.” She told me, and I greeted her again. “One other thing I don’t remember … ” I hesitated a moment but finally asked, “Did I give you a good grade?”

She thought about it a moment and then returned the smile I had given and walked away.

A short while later, I invited her to sit with me. I had shown up just before the lunch rush, but the restaurant was mostly empty, and I was the only customer seated in her section, so she agreed. We chatted for a while. She was still a student but had transferred to Wayne State University. She was also applying for admission to pharmacy school. She had a daughter, a little girl, about to enter grade school. She was a single mom. I learned more about her in those five minutes than I had in an entire semester.

“What about you,” she said. “Where are you now?”

I began telling her about New York but before I got very far a customer showed up and was seated in her section; soon enough the restaurant started filling up. We talked a bit more but only when she came by to refill my coffee — nothing more than chitchat.

In 2004, my father moved back to Lebanon after living in the States for nearly forty years. With him gone, I went to Detroit less and less. Suddenly, I had been away for sixteen years. I still go to Al-Ameer first thing when I visit, and the last time I went, I showed up at dinnertime. The place was packed. I waited close to fifteen minutes before being seated. I asked about my former student — she’d quit a while back, and no one at the restaurant knew what had become of her. I imagined her in a hospital or a pharmacy wearing a lab coat. As for the wait staff, they were entirely new to me. A few of the cooks looked familiar, but I couldn’t say for sure if I knew them or if they knew me.

I ordered the usual, and while waiting for my food to come I took a good look around. At nearly every table in the restaurant was a man or a group of men who could have passed for the ones I saw on TV or read about in the papers, those accused of masterminding terrorist plots right under our noses. The thought ran through my mind again: They just might be terrorists. Something felt different this time — not for a second did I believe that thought. I realized, too, that any one of these men I was looking at could have stopped what he was doing and looked up and had exactly the same thought about me — He just might be a terrorist — and of course, he would be wrong. For all I knew — for all I know — any of us, any day, could be accused of something sinister. More than ever before, the monumental differences between people and my perceptions of those people were becoming clear to me. Just as meaningful, I also realized, was being in a community as opposed to looking at one from the outside. I’d known this my whole life — I relied on it to make my way through the world. I was ashamed for having forgotten. There, in Al-Ameer, I vowed to go back home as often as possible, if only not to forget.

*

I was living in Detroit during the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center. On that day, February 26, 1993, I was scheduled for the lunch shift at the Soup Kitchen Saloon, a blues bar now long gone. I showed up to work just as news of the attack was being broadcast on TVs and radios across the country. I walked into the Soup Kitchen and one of the bartenders, a burly, middle-aged man who liked to joke about everything, stopped me and looked me dead in the eyes. Shaking his head in disgust, he said only, “You people.”

I am pretty sure he meant Arabs, but he could have also meant Muslims. It was also possible he assumed these to be one and the same.

If you people referred only to Arabs, the facts did not entirely accommodate the reference. Not all the men involved in the 1993 bombing were Arab. Ramzi Yousef and Khaled Shaikh Mohammed, two of the central figures, were of Pakistani descent. If by you people the bartender meant to associate me with Muslims, he either knew close to nothing about Islam or he mistook me for the worst kind of Muslim. After all, I worked at a bar, I was dating one of the barmaids, and at the end of my shifts, around 3 a.m., I would pull up a seat at the counter, where he would mix me a drink or pour me a beer. Now and then — sometimes before the start of a shift but more often than not at the end of one — he would offer me a hit from a joint, and several times I took up his offer. I never brought a prayer rug to the saloon. I did not fast during Ramadan, and not once in the time I’d known him had I ever invoked the name of God — not as a Muslim, or as any other kind of believer. Regardless of what he knew about me, on this day he saw me as an Arab and as a Muslim, and in his eyes, put together these were a singular threat. It was also clear that he had arrived at this notion (Arab = Islam = terrorism) long before we had ever met, for he expressed it immediately, less than a minute after hearing about the attack, which was before anyone had claimed responsibility and long before the suspects involved were identified.

He wasn’t the only one presuming a link between terrorism and Arabs and Islam, nor was he alone in blurring the distinctions between them. Even supposedly educated persons routinely, and wrongly, used the terms and what they represent interchangeably. This became painfully clear two years later, following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, not by Arabs or Muslims but at the hands of “homegrown” terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Nearly every journalist and terrorism expert in America took it for granted that behind the worst act of domestic terrorism yet visited upon American soil were men from the Middle East who prayed to Allah. The fact that no Arabs or Muslims were involved did not deter many of these same people from continuing to make sweeping generalizations about the Middle East and Islam. Even after McVeigh and Nichols were arrested, Steven Emerson, a “leading authority” on terrorism whose documentary film Jihad in America aired on public television following the bombing, repeatedly made references to Oklahoma City as a “hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.”

A little over six years later, the sheer scale of the 9/11 attacks seemed to prefigure the extent to which Arabs and Muslims would pay for them. Within months, the United States announced it was going to war in Afghanistan. Soon after, it began making the case for going to war in Iraq. Even the most conservative estimates of the combined death tolls of these two conflicts are staggering. The destruction to the infrastructures of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the land and environment of each country, and to their futures and the future of their people, is equally devastating. Difficult to measure, but deeply felt, is the way the war on terror — of which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a part — affects the lives of Arabs and Muslims in America. One thing is clear: what happens in the war on terror dramatically shapes the way Arabs and Muslims are perceived and treated. As a result of US foreign policy in the Middle East and in the Islamic world, Arabs and Muslims in the United States (many of whom are, of course, Americans) often find themselves having to apologize for crimes they did not commit or having to repeatedly prove loyalties (as Americans) that are never questioned of other Americans.

Over the last few years, a shift seems to have taken place in terms of this byproduct of the war on terror. Americans still worry about Arabs and Muslims, and Arabs and Muslims must still worry about how Americans view them and how their lives will be impacted by those views. But attention has switched over more so to Muslims — Muslims who aren’t necessarily Arab. One reason for this may be that the war in Iraq is being nudged off center stage by the war in Afghanistan. The shift may also have something to do with the fact that since 9/11, two Muslim men, neither of whom was Arab, each attempted to blow up an airliner over U.S. soil. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, a British citizen and convert to Islam, failed to ignite explosives in his shoes on a December 22nd flight in 2001. Eight years later, almost to the day, on December 25, a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried but failed to detonate an explosive on a Detroit-bound flight. Another individual, Jose Padilla, a Latino born in Brooklyn, who most news reports described as having tried to build and detonate a “dirty bomb,” a crime for which he was never charged or convicted, was also Muslim, a convert. The most recent failed attempt to launch a terrorist attack in the United States was made by an American citizen born in Pakistan who tried to blow up an SUV in Times Square.

When I travel now, which is more frequently than in the first few years after the September 11th attacks, I experience the shift that is taking place. Which is to say I am hardly searched anymore, or bothered in any way, except for the usual — waiting in long lines and having to keep up with changing regulations about what can and cannot be carried onto a plane. These, however, are inconveniences most everyone endures. Arabs are still profiled. Just ask them. But attention is moving away from Arabs — not entirely, but significantly — and toward Muslims. The turn parallels the shift in attention of US foreign policy. While the Reagan-era war on terror focused mainly on the Middle East threat, today’s version focuses on Islam. The spotlight is turning from the Arab world — again, not entirely, but significantly — and toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and even Africa.

For many Americans, Muslims are easier to spot than Arabs. Islam “marks” Muslims, at least the more traditional among them. The headscarf worn by women, the hijab, serves as a marker, as does the abaya sometimes worn by both men and women. These and other “signs” — entering a mosque, praying, reading a Qur’an, and so on — are read as “Islam,” which is understood to be the polar opposite of everything American and Western or modern and civilized. “Islam” is a thing to be feared; it is the ultimate threat. Today, we are more likely to hear about a group of Muslims — rather than a group of Arabs — being asked to get off a plane. In most cases, the removal is prompted by the concerns of a passenger who was made to feel, in some way, uncomfortable by the Muslims on board. Features or traits as inherently non-threatening as a headscarf or a beard have caused people to feel unsafe. In one case a Muslim family was removed from a flight after one of them commented, in English, about the safest place to sit on a plane. The Council on American-Islamic Relations noted in a complaint to the US Department of Transportation, “We believe this disturbing incident would never have occurred had the Muslim passengers removed from the plane not been perceived by other travelers and airline personnel as members of the Islamic faith.”

A recent ABC News story about opposition to the building of a mosque brought again to national attention the extent to which “Islam” is deemed threatening. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which has had a center in the small Tennessee town since 1997, planned to build a larger facility. At a county commission meeting where over six hundred residents turned out to express their concerns about the new mosque, Allan Jackson, the pastor of World Outreach Church, said, “We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam.” Of the Muslims living in Murfreesboro, one resident was quoted as saying, “They seem to be against everything I believe in, and so I don’t want them necessarily in my neighborhood.”

I have no doubt that I experience less discrimination now (especially on airplanes) in large part because there is little about my appearance or manner of dress that labels me a Muslim. I look Arab. That’s undeniable. I have the dark hair and dark eyes, and the stereotypical Middle Eastern nose and bushy eyebrows. But more than Arab or Middle Eastern, the markers that the fearful and the reactionary and the ignorant and the bigoted among us are looking for are Islamic. An irony of all this is that for a very long time now, people from all walks of life have worked hard to explain and make clear the distinctions between things Arab and things Islamic; many people are now finally making distinctions, but for all the wrong reasons.

*

A few hundred Arab Muslims gather, elbow to elbow. The atmosphere is that of a fair. There are signs in the prevailing languages, rows of newspaper boxes, magazine stands, smells of food in the air, smokers arguing politics around ashtray stands, garbled announcements made over loud speakers, flashing lights and sirens, carousels, and, every few minutes, on center stage, an airplane touching down or taking off.

The flight, which originated in Mecca, finally lands and the crowd erupts with cheers. Several of the Arabs and Muslims, young men, join hands and raise them high above their heads and dance in a circle. Later, as the arrivals they’ve been waiting for begin exiting customs, a chorus of trills fills the terminal.

We’re in the Michael Berry terminal of the Detroit Airport. I’m with my parents. We’re standing next to a young woman with braided blond hair. She is wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and dark blue jeans. If her hair were just a few shades darker, she’d look like Brooke Shields in the famous Calvin Klein ads. My mother turns to her and asks, “Who are you here for?”

“My boyfriend,” she says smiling.

“Ah. Was he on the Hajj?”

“The … ?”

“The Hajj.”

“I don’t think so,” she says with a degree of uncertainty and tugs at her hair. “He’s on American Airlines.”

“Oh, I thought…”

But before my mother has a chance to explain or change the subject, the woman looks away, taken by the scene the Muslims are making, which is boisterous, carefree, and jubilant, as if they are celebrating a marriage, not the arrival of a flight. A minute or two later, she turns back around.

“Can I ask you something?”

My mother nods her head.

“These people coming off the plane,” she says, and once more she gives the crowd a long hard look and takes a deep breath. “Are they all like famous movie stars or something?”

*

In 1982, a young woman mistakes a mass of Muslims and Arabs for celebrities. This is one of the most vivid memories I have of Detroit in the pre-9/11 world — that of airports and air travel, of the way that some people saw Arabs and Muslims. How much has changed? Today, I simply cannot imagine a few hundred Arabs and Muslims descending on a major US airport without incident. When I travel by airplane, I present myself accordingly. Before leaving for the airport, I shave so not to resemble too much the physical profile of a hijacker. At the airport, I never request last-minute changes to my itinerary so as not to send the wrong message. At security, I smile and make pleasant chitchat but I don’t overdo it. I keep my small talk to “Hello” or “Good morning” or “Have a nice day.” I don’t want to give anyone any excuse to single me out. I wear shoes without laces so I can pass quickly through security, and I never wear my favorite T-shirt, which has on its front the stylized McDonald’s M, and just beneath the golden arches, the fast food giant’s name spelled out in Arabic. Years ago, my fellow passengers might have found the graphic amusing. Now, it would probably alarm them, so I leave it at home. My goal is to reach my destination on time. The last thing I want to do is encourage security personnel to have an extended conversation with me about who I am or what I am, or what I am not.

I liked going to the airport once. I met people there — grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins — for the very first time. My family got dressed up to meet airport arrivals. Sometimes, we drove to the airport early to eat dinner there. The airport was fun. When I was a boy, I thought of the terminal as a kind of playground. I played games with other children — races up and down the escalators, hide-and-seek in the visitor waiting areas, and when no one was paying attention we rode the baggage carousels. Even as an adult, for a few short years at least, I liked going to the airport. So much so, now and then I would receive phone calls from friends who were stuck in the terminal during a layover, and I would drive out to meet them for a drink at the airport bar.

Not anymore. That chapter of American life is over. Gone with it, I suspect, is the innocence of the young woman who asked my mother about the men and women returning from the Hajj. She expressed not fear but something like exhilaration, even wonder, at being surrounded by so many Arabs and Muslims. She wasn’t threatened. She didn’t immediately arrive at the worst possible conclusions. She didn’t think terrorists or hijackers or villains. She thought movie stars.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 | Single Page