Listening to the Arabs of New York


Queens, New York, September 11—The thick river of walkers pouring out from
the Queensboro Bridge cat’s cradle of steel cantilever at 3 p.m. today bore
every mark of a successful event, like those to raise funds for AIDS or
Parkinson’s disease. Far from the numbing terror of the utter destruction of
the World Trade Center, smiling crowds ambled unhurriedly, but purposefully,
under unblemished sunshine.

But a second look at that expanse of pure blue was disquieting to a native
New Yorker, raised under the screech of LaGuardia. The sky was too blue.
Not a single white condensation trail spreading into a gauzy haze. After two
hijacked transcontinental jets were steered with murderous accuracy into the
Twin Towers, the skies were emptied save for fighter planes on patrol. When
they swooped low, some people on side streets cowered as if another hijacked
jet were incoming.

News reports had already begun speculating that Osama Bin Laden, a known
terrorist harbored by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, was behind the attacks.
These neighborhoods of Queens have become home to countless Arabs. Could the
crowd turn vicious on rumors of an Arab connection to the bombing?

In one of three Arab-run delis in Queensboro Plaza, a Latino boy of maybe 10
years enjoyed grilling the nervous thirtyish man behind the counter at the
Plaza Deli and Grocery. The gap-toothed boy glowed the way a child does when
he finds he’s got one over on an adult, watching the grownup sputter silly
denials, like denying a bad toupee.

“Are you an Arab?”

“No, I’m a Gypsy.”

“You’re an Arab.”

“No, I’m a Gypsy.”

“No you’re not, you’re an Arab.”

“I am a Gypsy. Next person?”

The only Gypsy on Queens Plaza is the palm reader upstairs from the
fishmongers and check cashers. The workers at the three delis studding
Queensboro Plaza South are largely Yemeni. But one man already knew to hide,
from even a child.

Facing west outside the deli, the crowd streamed undiminished almost from
the moment cops started directing it at 9:45 a.m. In the delis, the
disposable cameras sold out first, and Poland Spring water was running
short. People begged for workers to make change for phone calls in tones
that grew in anger while cell phone users, who long ago exchanged their
reassurances with their families and lovers, chatted idly. People didn’t gather in groups much—support and comfort came from scrolling down speed dial lists.

Workers made less eye contact than usual at Yafai Deli. One Palestinian
worker was eager to share his thoughts, working hard to get them out in

“People here want to work. They want to eat,” the weathered 59-year-old
said. “They don’t know about the TV thing. Nobody have it,” referring to broadcasts showing Palestinians dancing with joy over the strike against America. “They
are idiots; they are nothing,” he pleaded. “We feel no good. Everybody is angry
because it’s not easy [to live in America as an Arab in the wake of the
attacks]. My heart is below, it is broke.”

The man, who asked that he not be identified, found that the hate on
television made him more of a New Yorker than ever. Eyeing the Palestinian
celebration in flickering images, he said, “I have no place there.”

Police Officer Jimmy Acevedo was making a court appearance when havoc broke
downtown. But here at the mouth of Queens he was directing the wayward to
subways away from Manhattan. “The only trouble we’ve had is with some people
wanting to go back for siblings, but they can’t,” he explained.

About 20 yards away, a St. John’s of Queens Catholic hospital ambulance was
wending its way through the crowd, siren blaring. It was a common sight as
every emergency vehicle that could squeeze across the bridge into Manhattan
did. But this one was heading, empty, further into Queens. Its purpose
became clear when cops pushed phalanxes of the sweaty and inconvenienced
back, like prying open a vise. A suited middle-aged white man had collapsed.
His nose bled, he looked dazed, clutching his PDA. You could see him trying
to focus on a face, any face, in the swirling crowd lined up a block to get to
the 7 train stairs. Tagalog, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, and Japanese
buffeted his thoughts as people of all stripes made him the new topic of

The spectacle didn’t lessen lines at the Friendly Deli on the corner a few
feet away. It’s the kind of place where hookers know they can find a bathroom at 1
a.m., and office workers know they can grab a cigarette pack on a lunch
break. A 44-year-old Moroccan accountant who asked that he be called by his
name as translated into English, Richard Golden, watched the towers go down
from his sixth floor office in the city’s Transportation and Education
building on the north side of the plaza. “I thought, ‘God forgive me, This is
too sophisticated for the Arabs,’ ” he recalled.

After his building was evacuated, he came over to the deli to help out with
the crowds, but was wary. Clashes between Arabs and Americans wound him.

“I feel like I’m living between the horse and the horseshoe. We are the
American citizens who get it from both sides,” Golden said. “When we say we
love this land, we get looked down on by our own people. They say, ‘You’re
sold to the West.’ ” But many Americans are suspicious of Muslims and
Arabs in even the best of times, he observes. “With the atmosphere, how
should I say this, so volcanic, I usually tend to stay away. You can pay
either way, for taking either side,” he reflects. “But now, just you asking
me about this, I feel something has lifted. I feel much lighter, happier.”

As the crowd dwindled toward 5 p.m., one man had no trouble in finding
levity. Dressed in a neat olive shirt, thin tie, and khaki pants, he
accosted passersby with invitations to an “eat my ass festival for artists”
at the Phun Factory, a graffiti museum. An Orthodox Jewish student with a
yarmulke and tzitzis cloth watched with evident disgust as he sat on the rim
of the only planter not piled high with trash, commenting that, “America has
been given a wake-up call.”

Not the party promoter. He chanted “Eat my ass” with abandon, hawking $30
tickets to his party. It’s a routine he honed outside the gate of the nearby
P.S. 1 Institute for Contemporary Arts throughout the summer, following packed
“warm-up parties” that ended with Labor Day.

A crowd is a crowd.