Rage Under Raps

Listening to the Arabs of New York

"It's an indication of how badly the community needs a voice," he says.

That need may have existed for some time, but became pronounced after September 11. Faisal was in the subway underneath the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. He lost his marketing job soon after, and faced with the looming holidays, a dwindling bank account, and an awareness of what he calls "the Arabs' shitty situation," he decided to start his paper. "Twenty-five of the 27 people I asked advised me not to start Aramica," he says. "Some of them strongly." He was told it was a waste of money at best, and at worst, would be dangerous for him; again, there was fear of retribution. He did his own market survey, and decided to go ahead with the project.

"Any silence after September 11 was interpreted as complicity in what happened," he says. The community has never recovered, he says, and in the past few weeks, "all attempts by the community to reach out have been erased." Newer immigrants especially, he says, "have been taken right back"—figuratively, one assumes, but these days, often literally—"to the places they fled."

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

Leafing through issues of Aramica provides a window into Arab concerns over the last year and a half. "What Do They Think of Us?," screams one headline, a somber reversal of the popular media refrain. "What Arab Americans Say and Do Can Hurt Them in Court," says another headline over an article about civil rights. In the latest issue, an ad taken out by Faisal wonders, "What Next? Prison Camps?" asking at the bottom of the page, "What more has to happen before we mobilize?" In perhaps an illustrative display of community paralysis, though, there is no number to call, no e-mail address, just some wishful thinking.

"Those who can hide their Arabness might be tempted," he says, speaking as someone who could probably pass. "But at some point, you decide there's no point in being a hypocrite." He weighs his words less carefully now, and speaks quickly. "The media is not kind towards Arabs, and we just swallow it," he says. "They scratch the surface, pretending they've hit the nucleus."

Safa speaks up, confessing that she herself has never been a victim of prejudice or racism, but shares her neighborhood's anger. "I was watching CNBC the other morning," she says, "and the call-in question for the show was 'Should the Post Office make another Eid stamp?' I couldn't believe it!" These are smaller indignities, maybe, but they accumulate.

And then she says it. "All the immigrants have gone through what we went through. You don't pack up your bags and go. It's just our time now."

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