Dubbed “Terror Town” by the New York Post after September 11, Jersey City has been painted as a hotbed of anti-American Islamist fervor. (Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman—the “blind cleric”—preached at a mosque in the Journal Square area; two men arrested in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 11 came from Jersey City.) For Middle Eastern students at Hudson County Community College, with its main campus in Jersey City, the tag is just one of many names, pinning them to the disaster they watched unfold across the river. Their presumed guilt has prompted a range of sartorial responses.
Rabia Khan, a poised 20-year-old pre-med student who plans to transfer to Rutgers, moved to Jersey City in January 2000 from the Pakistani section of Kashmir. She’s always worn a head scarf, or hajib—black in winter, white in summer—because it allows her not to “pay attention to my physical self.” After the 11th, Khan tried to keep wearing the scarf, though her parents urged her to take it off. She finally did after withstanding stares during bus rides and a group of neighborhood children who yelled, “Look, a Muslim terrorist.”
“That day I took it off,” she says. Though she feels that wearing a head scarf shows respect to God, she figures that He may be lenient on the matter these days.
Directly after the attacks, Abla Fahmy, who is Egyptian and has lived in Jersey City for 20 years, worried about her safety; she was four months pregnant at the time and didn’t want to call attention to herself. A 33-year-old graduate of the school who now works in its writing center, she decided to exchange her head scarf for a floppy, checked beret. But the switch lasted a week. “I like to dress modern,” says Fahmy, who favors pants and turtlenecks. “But I’m comfortable with the scarf—that’s the way I like to be dressed.”
Dina Botros, an 18-year-old Coptic Christian from Egypt, is a business management major who raises money for school by working in a postal station cafeteria. The day after the attacks, her customers made a point of talking loudly and pejoratively about Muslims and calling her “Little Arab.” But after a few days they began to notice the large gold cross she was wearing, this one with a figure of Jesus. She says she’s always worn it, but “maybe after what happened they look [at me] more.” Her classmate Abdulfattah Lihmeidi, a 21-year-old computer programming major, has worked out a precise, if false, ethnic identity post-September 11: If he meets a girl in a club, he calls himself Arturo and tells her he is half Brazilian, half Puerto Rican. “I speak Spanish, so it works.” Lihmeidi moved to West New York, New Jersey, from Palestine in 1998. He and a cousin run his father’s grocery store there. On the 11th, someone broke their store window with a hammer.
He says people have told him that his thick eyebrows make him look like a terrorist, so to make himself less conspicuous he’s taken to shaving the space between them. “Trust me. They called me Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Arafat. It’s a joke, but it bothers me,” says Lihmeidi. Needing to monitor his clothes, his face, the size of the Palestinian flag he hangs from his rearview mirror is for Lihmeidi a symptom of a greater loss: “I used to feel free here.” Now he’s not so sure.
“Crisis Ethics: Foreign Students Under the Microscope After 9-11″ by Jyoti Thottam