Rage Under Raps

Listening to the Arabs of New York

"Come cut your hair," the barber said, genial in a red smock, his head shaved and his goatee trim. Mohammed S. stands in his barbershop on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, one of the centers of Arab commercial activity in the New York/New Jersey area. "I welcome anyone and everyone here." He talks as he deftly blows out a customer's salt-and-pepper 'fro, then sets about slowly reducing it. The barber says he's happy to talk about the headaches of running his small business in this neighborhood where prices are on the rise, or about football (his customer, Ahmed Ahmed, was once a famous soccer coach in Sudan). He'll tell you about life back home in Khartoum. But the strangers stepping into shops on Atlantic Avenue don't come to talk about those things. He stops snipping and looks up.

"How is it that journalists keep coming down here to talk to five or six people, and then imagine they have the opinion of the Arabs?"

Mohammed is suddenly angry, and who can blame him? Every New York Arab unlucky enough to be out in public is apt to become a spokesperson—to a reporter, a fare riding a cab, or anyone, really, with a burning question on their mind. And the political opinions Arabs express inevitably gain the currency of gospel.

Mohammed Bashir, owner of the Eastern Lights Café on Steinway Street
photo: Jay Muhlin
Mohammed Bashir, owner of the Eastern Lights Café on Steinway Street

Outside the barbershop after his haircut, Ahmed, freshly shorn, shows us clippings on him and his team from the Sudanese sports pages. "Don't worry about Mohammed," he says. "But you people have to start writing good things about us. People in the community are scared."

Sixteen months of intense scrutiny, intimidation, arrests, deportations, and the like reached a boil last week as thousands of male Arab and South Asian immigrants lined up to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The photo-and-fingerprint registrations here have meant arrests and more deportations, as they have in other U.S. cities where this exercise in forensic profiling is occurring. And nowhere is the fear more strongly felt than in the Arab neighborhoods of New York.

But perhaps what is most interesting and dismaying is the sentiment simmering underneath the fear expressed by Mohammed and other New York Arabs that the community is caught in its own terrible crucible, not unlike the ordeals of predecessor communities, like the Italians, the Japanese, the Irish, and the Jews. Dozens of conversations with Arabs of different national backgrounds yield variations on the same theme. "Everyone had to suffer. This is just our time."

Many of the people interviewed for this story refused to give their last names or to have their pictures taken; this included those who had registered and claimed to be "in status." Many said they feared retribution from the authorities for speaking out, implying that being in the U.S. legally is a favor that can be taken away for speaking out of place.

"I felt like a criminal," says Asaad about registering. The bright-eyed 18-year-old Yemeni kid plays dominoes with a friend at an Egyptian café on Steinway Street in Queens. The café is packed with Arab men, who glance nervously at the photographer's equipment. On the pale green walls here are framed screen-captures of the famous Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez, who made a career singing about heartache, along with a prolific run as an actor. One of Hafez's most famous songs, "Sawah," about his years living abroad, evokes the wistfulness of exile.

"I felt that if the INS needed something from me," Asaad continues, adjusting his baseball cap, "we could just correspond, no? Isn't that how other official things are done?"

Asaad is an optimist. "I believe," he says "that in America, if you are straight and true, you will not have a problem with the country or the federal government." And then he tells stories that leave scant room for optimism. How a girl he dated for a year suddenly started showing an unusual interest in Yemen, and Islam, after 9-11, and then dumped him (she and her Colombian family decided the young pair were culturally incompatible). Or how he fielded endless, uncomfortable questions, he says, about the Yemeni custom of carrying guns.

"I tried to explain that it's ceremonial," he says, wearing a grin that never fades. "It's, like, our national dress. Like a Michael Jordan T-shirt!" Now, in his words, he's "New York-ified" himself, and today wears a red Air Jordan T-shirt, baggy white jeans ("They're twice as long as my legs!"), and a large gold chain.

Hafid, his domino partner and a classmate at a nearby college ("Leave out the name of the university, please") has been listening in. He's also on his cell phone negotiating a rendezvous with several Spanish girls. They are on their way, he finally declares, which lightens everything. Then he becomes serious, and says he watched a prominent Arab American speak on C-SPAN this morning, "saying beautiful things." It all got the 20-year-old Moroccan thinking about identity.

"One day I was born, I opened my eyes, and I was a Moroccan," he says, slowly. He has light skin, is clean shaven, and believes people think he is Italian, Greek maybe, anything but Arab. But clouds seem to gather over his conversations whenever he tells people where he's from. "I can't get rid of it. I have nothing to do with it, and it's not my fault."

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