If I counted the times I’ve been called a terrorist in 31 years of living in the United States, I would run out of fingers . . . three times.
Some say it as a joke, perhaps uncomfortable in the presence of a Middle Eastern person. Most say it out of ignorance; out of thinking that all Arabs must be terrorists. The majority of what you read and see about us relates to terrorism and war.
It’s not your fault.
I am not writing this to shame you, to make you feel bed for me, or to even implore you to stop. It will never stop. I am writing this for one reason, actually . . . for one hope: that my children, Zade, Dury, and Demi, will one day live in this gracious country we call home without hearing the insult – associated with their beautiful souls. I do realize chances the insult occurring over the next for years have probably increased, but I remain hopeful.
A few of you maybe horrified, you may even be in disbelief. Please allow me to share a couple of those instances.
A few years ago, I was asked to attend a friend’s wedding in California. At the rehearsal dinner, the bride’s father approached me with a serious face, all seven feet of him. He peered at me and asked if I was a terrorist. In shock, I replied that I . . . was . . . not. Later at the reception, a drunken neighbor pointed at me and yelled, “Seize the terrorist.” I came back to Birmingham a bit shaken, but at the same time, searching as usual for the silver lining.
There was none.
A few years earlier, on that day in September when the world witnessed nineteen terrorists kill three thousand innocent people in the name of religion, I was scheduled to teach a journalism class at a local University. The secretary called to give me the option of cancelling. I refused. While in the break room grabbing a cup of coffee, another professor walked in and uttered a statement I will never forget: “I cannot believe you would show your face here on a day like this,” then he walked out. My coffee cup fell on the floor.
You could have mopped up my crushed self, along with the coffee.
In the late eighties, I covered a KKK rally in Pulaski – Tennessee. This was during the days when journalists could roam free and be up close and personal. The Ku Klux Klan members were full of hate and poison, and protesters of all colors shouted back. One man with a robe and hood approached and cursed me out. The action did not surprise me, but what he said almost did: “*&^% you Jew-nose”. (I was blessed with the distinctive Arabic nose, which also belongs to our brothers).
I took his picture.
I will mention one more, a mere two weeks ago at a gallery in a wealthy and colorless neighborhood. People were dressed for the night, looking at expensive art while sipping on expensive wine, their expensive cars parked outside.
I was chatting with a friend when a man I had never seen before walked up with his date yelling: “You’re that Syrian terrorist, aren’t you?”
Over the years, I have agonized over the proper response to the stupid question. One that would take the high road; at the same time feel like a punch in the stomach.
I sort of smiled and walked away . . . head high.
An hour later, he approached again repeating the question with all seriousness. One of my friends told him to go away. Another put his hand on my shoulder. I stayed quiet. My head remained . . . high.
It’s not your fault.
Reasons for such behavior range, but ignorance is the main predator. It prays on facts like this one: Out of the one and a half billion Muslims in this world, most are loving people; that there are terrorists of all colors, religions, and nationalities in this world; that ninety nine point ninety nine percent of Arabs and Muslims hate terrorism; that most Arabs are ashamed and at a loss of how to fix the problem.
In the Arab world, we do have more than war, guns, death, hate . . . and terror.
We have love, compassion, mercy, smiles, hugs, and hope. Right now in Damascus, a young lover stole a kiss from his beloved (I did once). A family had a meal with friends at a restaurant (My family does often). Someone baked Knaffe (cookies) for an elderly neighbor (My mom does). Another donated to a non-profit helping the refugees (My brother just did that). And this event from last week: My sister Mimi called to say my aunt, Om Fawaz, had knitted me a scarf; she says hello.
All we want is peace and love and contentment and . . . hope.
Hope of a serene world that knows no white, black, or brown; hope of a world that allows people to coexist without pointing fingers . . . or guns; hope of a world where we would learn about each other and denounce ignorance, prejudice, and racism.
Hope our roots, like those of the jasmines on our Damascus balcony, or the gardenias in your Alabama back yard, coexist in the clay pot weathered by the same sun.
I did find a brilliant lining for the entire ordeal: Over the years, I had run out of fingers hundreds of times counting my blessings, friends, and sincere statements of welcome and graciousness.
With my utmost respect,
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