“The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?” George Orwell, 1984
The events of September Eleventh 2001 changed the world and the world view of the Muslim religion.The attacks brought more attention to the small population of Arab -American communities than they could have ever dreamed. Americans were scared and were turning their fear and hatred on anyone who resembled the attackers.
The following summer my daughter was invited to participate in a summer dance program in San Francisco. She was too young to stay in the dorm so I had to go with her. The dance studio was located in the not yet gentrified Mission district of San Francisco. It was mostly homeless people. Taxis did not go in that area and I couldn’t have her wait for the bus there alone. My driving skills did not include San Francisco hills and tight parking spots. I had to find a driver who would work for a reasonable amount of money to help me. It was before Uber and before everything was on the internet. My cousin in San Francisco found us a driver. She told me that he was a religious Muslim. I consider myself a non prejudiced person but I had to stop and think about it in that new fearful post 9/11 world. I’m not proud of that moment. I spoke to him and he seemed fine. But would I have given him the job at that time if I had any other option? I don’t know.
Nine months after 9/11 Naji came into our lives. He was the first religious Arab Muslim person in the US that I knew. I went with him on the first day to take her. He was kind and courteous. He came from Tunisia and was planning on sending his children back to school there the following year. Naji went to the mosque five times a day. He had other clients and it often interfered with his work. Post 9/11 news put the fear of mosques in America – either because they were being attacked or as a breeding ground for terrorists. One day, Naji called to say that he was at the mosque and could he send Mohammed to pick up my daughter? “Who is Mohammed?” I ask. “He is my friend from the mosque.” Hmmm. Once I said yes, there were often friends from the mosque picking up my daughter. He always let me know first. They were all respectful and kind. One Sunday my daughter went out with her older dance friends and they left her at a nearby bus stop to go home. Naji drove by (San Francisco is not that big) and told her to get in the car and drove her to the apartment. He said to her “Call me when you need a lift. You shouldn’t be out here by yourself.“
I learned about Tunisia and where the best restaurants for Tunisian food in San Francisco were. The food is spicy and good. There was a thick chick pea soup, a tajine that seemed more like a frittata, kefta ( lamb meatballs), cous cous and tomato pepper salad. From the other drivers, I learned about all the different, delicious Middle Eastern food.
We had one bad day. We needed to go to Sonoma and Naji drove us. I’m not sure how it started. We were talking about the similarities between kosher and halal and suddenly he began to try to convince us to convert to Islam. He got kind of frenetic and it was a bit scary for a moment but it never came up again when I said no. He and his friends took care of my daughter for two summers. I always felt safe knowing that they were there. I found out from our other regular driver Mohammed (when Naji was busy) that one year before, Naji’s wife had been crossing the street with their baby girl and they were hit by a car. She was badly hurt and their baby died. With great tragedy, you need greater faith to get through it. Five times a day was probably not enough.
I alway found it such strange timing that while the world was learning a new word -Islamophobia, I was learning and meeting the most Muslims I had ever met. It seemed like something that everyone who was fearful should have been doing because fear and ignorance go hand in hand.
Today, I am very afraid of fundamentalists of every religion. I am fearful of what will happen to my country which was founded on religious freedom. I am worried about my Muslim friends and afraid that other races and religions will follow. I am fearful of this unprecedented chaos in these first ten days. I am afraid that a lot more things than buildings are being brought down now.