Rage Under Raps

Listening to the Arabs of New York

"The Irish, the Italians, the Jews—this is our time to suffer," says Hafid. "Maybe it will take another half a century, and then you'll see us. And then, we'll be here."

That these young men are running scared—and both say they are in the country legally—worries Abed Awad, 33, a lawyer and second-generation Arab American with his own practice near Paterson, New Jersey.

"The stupid thing about this is that people who have ill feelings toward this country"—by this he means terrorists—"are not going to go and register. The greatness of America is its notions of freedom and equality, and registering a community runs counter to that." Awad doesn't do immigration law, but that hasn't stopped a flood of calls lately. "The really sad thing is that this community was cooperating until they started arresting people." The young lawyer is a comer, from the sounds of it, active in both New Jersey politics and the Arab community. His father served in the United States Army. He talks a lot about the strong "institutions" Arab Americans have built, about "carrying the mantle of civil liberties."

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

"Our responsibility [to new immigrants] is to say that this is a lapse in American policy, and that if you work hard enough, this system will reward you." But even he has doubts. "I do wonder about this country's direction, about the right-wing and fringe elements that lead it. The community's impression is that they don't want us here."

Other Arab community leaders downplay this growing crisis too. They call it correctable, temporary, apparently fearing that decades of work to involve a community politically are very quickly becoming undone.

Jean AbuNida, of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute, is a second-generation citizen, and notes that even his 92-year-old father is furious about the detentions and the registrations. And while the emerging notion that Arab Americans are being tested concerns him, he understand its origins.

"I think it comes from three things. First is the fact that most Arabs come from states where they are not used to having options. You're used to the government being in power," a very supreme power, he notes. Second, he says, "Arabs are here in the U.S. because they want to be here. They want their kids to be here, and they often don't want to rock the boat."

Arabs see a pattern, he says, but "a lot of what drives discrimination against us is not domestic politics, as was the case with some of the other ethnic groups." Rather, he says, "it's primarily U.S. foreign policy, and because of that, Arabs and Muslims are going to pay a higher price."

Mohammed Bashir, who owns the Eastern Lights Café on Steinway Street, says many of his friends have talked to him about going home.

"They are Egyptian," he says. "They aren't even required to register." (By press time, Egyptians had been added to the list of those required to register.) Bashir has lived in New York for 22 years. He shut down his furniture business after September 11, a victim of the bad economy. Seeing the Arab packing up shop after the attacks, one nervous neighbor decided to call the FBI.

"Twenty-two years in this city, with many small businesses. Since when does the FBI call you?" he asks. "People are different now. I take vacations to Seaside Heights. My wife wears the hijab, and, I admit, I feel embarrassed to walk with her."

At a time when the Middle East and the possibility of war dominate newscasts and headlines, no one really wants to talk about it. "It's really the least of our worries," says Bashir. "Is Bloomberg's smoking law going to kill my business? Ninety percent of my customers come in here to smoke sheesha (water pipe)."

"The Palestinians?" asks Hafid, the young domino player. "I see plenty of Palestinians doing just fine in New York. I need to fight for me first."

" 'Arab' is a really big bag," says Antoine Faisal, publisher of a small community newspaper called Aramica. "A Palestinian suicide bomber is an Arab. Or the Egyptian who went shooting up the El-Al counter [in L.A.]," he says. "He's no longer Egyptian, or an individual, but an Arab." Now, he says, Pakistanis too have become Arabs.

Faisal talks over a double espresso and several Marlboro Lights at a Greek café on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, home to a large—and growing—Arab community. Seated next to him is JouJou Safa, a Bay Ridge native and a contributor to his paper. Faisal wears his graying hair short, and today, a bright red sweater. He takes a few seconds before he answers anything, carefully weighing words, aware how perilous the role of spokesperson can be.

Faisal says the model for his paper is the Voice, minus maybe the sex ads. Aramica today is free, and part society rag, part activist newsletter, replete with Arabic food recipes, jokes, and a growing number of ads, many of them for immigration lawyers. He distributes the paper in four states now, and says they fly off the shelves.

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