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."

"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."

"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.

"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."

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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