Do you remember 9/11? No I mean like really remember. I remember being 11 years old, sitting in the passenger seat in my dads car on the 405. I remember half-understanding what was being said in Farsi on Radio Iran 670AM, and my father shaking his head, smoking one cigarette after another, looking so handsome but so distraught in is aviator sunglasses. I remember being confused, and asking him what happened, to which he answered,
“Two big towers got hit by airplanes in New York, people are hurt”,
and I remember thinking…why is he so sad? Who did he know there?
I remember going to 1st period, then 2nd period, then 3rd period….the teachers had the news on all day. And I remember watching two very big airplanes go into very big buildings, and many, many people being hurt. I remember Ms. Kassel who was from New York, crying, trying to maintain composure in front of a class of 6th graders.
I remember phone calls my mother had, worried about us, our names, our faces, our families in Afghanistan. I remember her buying cable television for the first time just to watch the coverage.
Then I began hearing new names. Al-qaeda. Who was that? Why did they look so angry, and so proud of what they did? Osama bin Laden. Who was that and if he’s Arab, why was he in Afghanistan? Why is America going to Afghanistan?
I remember the first time someone called me a terrorist. A boy with dirty blonde hair ran up to me on the quad, pointed at my “Allah” pendant I wore everyday, and yelled, “Terrorist, terrorist, is your dad a mummy?” and I remember thinking, I’m Afghan, not Egyptian. But I responded with, “I’ll blow you up just like those towers, I am a terrorist”.
And this was the first time I had to defend who I was, abrasively, terrified, in a panic, in anger, in frustration, that my people, and people who looked like my people, were being attacked.
The implications of my response were obviously not understood at the time. From that point on, I turned insults into jokes.
“Hey! Do you know where Osama is?”
“Yes, he’s in my closet” and an uproar of laughter followed.
High school was easier. I found my niche in a group of friends who were just as ethnic as me. Van Nuys High School was a melting pot of cultures and religions, and I seldom met intolerance there.
But there was Mrs. Johnson. She had a very warm smile and always smelled nice. She was a Spanish teacher. Although she rarely taught Spanish, I did learn a lot in her classroom. I learned how to control my temper when met with blatantly discriminatory comments. I learned that in order to defend my people, I had to learn more about them. And I learned that born-again Christians, what Mrs. Johnson was, had a lot to say about what they called, “terrorism”. In between “yo, tu, usted” we learned from Mrs. Johnson that the Qur’an said to kill people. That Muslims were happy about what happened. That Muslims enjoyed killing Armenians. (Mrs. Johnson was an ethnic Armenian who spoke very little, and seldom spoke about it). This made it very awkward between my best friends in class who were Armenian. I reassured them I’d never want them to die.
Working at my uncles valet parking lot (how very Afghan of us brooo), a very very handsome Caucasian business man courted me for about two weeks. He worked in one of the corporate offices upstairs. He threw cute flirty comments at me, tipped me, smiled, commented my long hair and dark eyes. One day, he asked something:
“Where are you from originally?”
“My parents are from Afghanistan”
“Woah! No way! But you’re not dark? And you don’t have that dot on your forehead”
I did not smile at him anymore after that.
In Los Angeles Valley College, I found myself on the defense, yet again. In a political science class we were shown a documentary about Muslims in America. One teenage girl being interviewed showcased all her silk scarves and hijabs, in beautiful colors she chose, pinks, and florals, and neons.
An ex-Marine raised his hand and said,
“Well if she’s so dedicated to AWLAH, shouldn’t she not care about the color of her turban?”
To which I responded loudly, without raising my hand,
“UMMMM She’s 14. That’s what girls do. And it’s a hijab you moron”.
My wonderful professor Dr. O’Reagan gave me an approving wink and nod, walking up to me after class with words of encouragement.
You see, throughout my life, it’s been pretty 50/50. There are those who said mean things, and there are those who always accepted me. And today, it can be even cool to be Middle Eastern, what with the blowup of hookah bars, the Kardashians, (who only really made the Middle Eastern body image more acceptable: the curves, dark features, exotic names) and the Shahs of Sunset (yes, there are some of us who are rich and succesful, yes, we’ve lived in Beverly Hills and drive nicer cars than you, no, it’s not oil money).
There is more open dialogue about who we are, why were similar, and how we’re different. It has also brought Middle Eastern people closer together, regardless of race or religion.
There is always room to grow. More platforms for communication, dialogue, understanding, need to be made. I’m a hurt person. I am hurt that I’ve had to defend myself from such a young age. I’m hurt that my nieces and nephews might face the same intolerance I did. I’m hurt that as soon as I say “I’m Afghan”, I anticipate the response of my reciever. I’m hurt I had to turn my face, my religion, my people, into a joke, so that I could be accepted.
Basically I’m sick and I’m over it. I’m Afghan, you don’t like it, fuck off. I’m muslim, no I don’t pray 5x a day, no I don’t speak Arabic, but I was brought up around it, and although my parents might as well be Agnostic (surprise! Many Afghans are), I will defend Islam wholly against anyone who negatively attacks it. It’s who I am – an American-Afghan semi-practicing-but-not-really-Muslim. And yes, I club, but no, I don’t eat pork.
Lets begin together, opening hearts and eyes to our connectivity, over our differences.