It’s almost ironic how I wasn’t even in the United States on that dreadful day in September, and yet I, along with many people, consistently get blamed for it. To top it all off, I find myself being ostracized for causing a war in a country I have never even been to. I’m certainly not alone in this: there are people across the world who bear the brunt of something that does not relate to them. But being Arab and Muslim in a post-9/11 society is challenging, and what makes it worse is that this is the case no matter where you are in the world.
As a child in Jordan, my mother would watch a show that resembled “Full House.” It followed an Arabic family and their daily lives, and it never particularly interested me since it was just a regular sitcom, depicting regular people. However, after moving to America in 2004, I began to notice that few Arabs playing “regular people” could be found on television. I distinctly remember watching an episode of NCIS with my father when I was about seven, and in this episode, all the antagonists looked the same—they were all Arab Muslims. It became apparent to me that they were Muslim after a cutscene showed them praying together. What confused me the most was their purpose for including such a scene, which had no relevance to the plot. Why did it matter that they were Muslim? In hindsight this was a major problem, especially for younger kids. Somebody watching this on TV would surely begin to associate Muslims with terrorism.
And kids did, and they still do. To the boy in middle school one year above me, calling me a “terrorist” appeared to be the most creative thing that he could think of. Immediately after saying that, with a cruel grin on his face, he high-fived his friends and went on with whatever he had to do. Personally I was not amused, nor was I surprised; I did not expect him to say anything else.
That was just the tip of the iceberg. Since Stuyvesant is in Manhattan, a contrast to my largely Arab community in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, there are more people who were affected by 9/11 and thus more likely to view my culture and appearance negatively. I vividly remember during my sophomore year, while I was walking to the train station, a woman followed behind me, shouting insults and slurs. I tried ignoring her for what seemed like an hour, but she would not leave me alone. I was taken aback that someone would berate me, a 15-year-old boy, for something I never did.
She followed me all the way to the bottom of the stairs of the City Hall R Train Station, the stench of hatred following right behind her. What really infuriated me was when she said, “You’ve killed our troops, and now you’re here to kill us too. I won’t stop until I cut your head off, you [expletive] terrorist.”
All of this just because I had a beard—not even a real beard—and my skin was darker. My entire commute home, I could not get her voice out of my head. The thought that my little brother, who will be a freshman at Stuyvesant this fall, might also be threatened with this ignorance made me sick to my stomach. The thought of my fellow Arabs and Muslims dealing with this made me nauseous. I did not think it could get worse than that.
But it did.
During the summer before my junior year, I was on my way home from a summer program, waiting for the D train to arrive. While waiting I saw a man, whom I could tell was Arab, approaching various people and asking for directions. And the first thought that came to my mind was “Wow, I hope he doesn’t blow up the subway or something.”
I stopped. Had I just said what I thought I’d said? I could not believe that those thoughts had formulated in my mind, the same mind that was disgusted by those very same remarks. I did not know where they came from, and I did not want to know where they came from.
I went up to the man, shook his hand as warmly as I could, and made sure he, my brother, knew exactly where he needed to go. But I still felt dirty, the type of dirty that could not be washed off.
This is what hateful rhetoric does: it conditions people. It teaches people to say and think things that they otherwise would not believe. The media can make people hate themselves, and it can just as easily incite violence. When you watch enough TV shows and movies with a Muslim as the villain and are told by enough people that you’re a terrorist, you begin to believe it.
My father was in Tribeca at the time of 9/11 and tried to help others get to safety. He did what anyone would do that day, regardless of race or religion, and what he got was a lifetime’s worth of hate. That day in 2001 is a day everyone remembers as a tragedy, and they should. However, my word of advice, mostly to politicians and the media, is to emphasize solidarity and peace, not hatred of a group of people. Maybe it’s a little too late to stop some people from hating unjustly, but the least we can do as humans is preach peace, lest we have a generation growing up remembering 9/11 as the event that brought hatred as opposed to an event where innocent people lost their lives to extremists.