Voices from the Corral
“Wake up—wake up! There’s something you need to see on TV. It’s big.” My oldest brother Haitham prodded me. I moaned and tried to ignore him. He left but the anxiety in his voice banished sleep from my thoughts.
I propped myself on my elbows and inspected my pillow. Dozens of hairs lay scattered about like fallen soldiers in my war against hair loss. I sighed, threw off the bedsheets and rose out of bed. I left my room and paused outside Haitham’s bedroom. I contemplated sneaking in and setting his alarm clock to 3:00 a.m. as payback for waking me up. Instead, I descended the stairs to the first floor of our house.
I sat down on the couch and blinked the sleep out of my eyes. It took me a few moments to realize what I was watching on the television. Black smoke poured out of a jagged wound in the side of the northern World Trade Center tower. Businessmen, tourists, locals, and homeless people all ran through clouds of dust and debris, trying to escape the rain of glass and steel.
“What is this?” It seemed like I hadn’t quite woken yet. My brother stood off to one side of the room and stared at the television. He ignored me despite the alarm in my voice, eyes hypnotized by the screen. The camera focused on the burning tower. I thought that this must be a movie, something like The Blair Witch Project, filmed in such a way as to seem real.
The din of anxious voices gave way to a deep mechanical whine that descended in pitch as it ascended in volume. The sound reverberated throughout our family room. The apparently prescient cameraman panned the image out so both World Trade Center towers were in view. A jetliner slammed into the second building. An orange fireball erupted from the back of the tower. Glass and metal billowed; shards flipped through the sky, reflecting the sunlight before they fell to the ground in a shower of silver.
Haitham was transfixed by the horror that unfolded on the television screen. I sat in stunned silence. I took the remote in my hand and flipped through the channels. Maybe the reincarnation of Orson Welles was putting on the hoax of the century. Like confused radio listeners in 1938, perhaps I had missed the introduction to a convincing but fictitious news broadcast. My hopes crumbled as each channel repeated the same dreadful scene. Only one thought raced through my mind, and my mouth dried as I gave voice to it.
“Who did this?”
“They don’t know yet.” Each of us reacted in our own way, and his way was to leave the room. I tried not to acknowledge the thought that eroded my will to resist it.
On the television screen, the North Tower of the World Trade Center crashed down upon the streets of New York. My resolve crumbled, and the thought I had kept inside sprung from its cage.
Please God do not let it be Muslims!
Just two days passed before my fears proved valid. The first names appeared in the news, and every day thereafter more were revealed. Mohammed Atta. Marwan al-Shehhi. Ziad Jarrah. Hanji Hanjour. Osama Bin Laden. Arabic names, Muslim names. The names burned me like a hot iron branding the letter ‘M’ for Muslim into my skin.
In response to the 9/11 attacks, the entire country bandaged itself in red, white and blue. Flags appeared everywhere where none had been before: hung from aluminum siding, pinned to backpacks and lapels and stickered to car bumpers. Our family hung a flag from the railing of our front porch.
When the patriotism went beyond flag-waving, things became disconcerting. The government told Americans to be vigilant, but to go about our daily business. They told everyone it was an attack on our very personal way of life, not an attack against something more esoteric, like U.S. foreign policy. They poked and prodded us with orange and yellow alerts, then told us there was no specific threat behind them. Americans were instructed to get to know their neighbors better; the threat could be right next door. George Bush declared a “War on Terror,” and we were all recruited, most of us ready to support any policy at any price to feel safe again.
Upon the revelation that the perpetrators were Islamic extremists, fear besieged me. It began when my friend Jerry, a fellow graduate student, phoned to tell me that if anyone messed with me, he’d break their legs.
That was when it struck me that I could be a target of harassment and reprisal. I could be called a terrorist for no reason other than being Arab. Would my friends avoid me? Would an acquaintance call up the CIA and say they knew of a suspicious person who spoke Arabic? Would they question me about my religious beliefs? They might ask me how often I prayed or why I had a beard. They might even ask me why I traveled to Egypt every year or why I was watching Air Force One on the Movie Channel a few nights ago. Would thousands of young Muslim men be deemed a threat to national security and sent off to internment camps as Japanese-Americans were in 1942?
Trepidation gave rise to an instinct for self-preservation. I prepared my defenses. I thought of a variety of responses to harassment. I even concocted an imaginary rebuttal test dummy to try them out on. I named him American Joe. I imagined that he would come and accuse me of being a traitor to America for being Muslim. To this I would say, “Unlike you, I took an oath to this country, bub,” stabbing my finger into American Joe’s chest, “and where I come from, that’s stronger than blood.” Joe would be so ashamed that he would apologize and offer to buy me a beer. I would tell him I do not drink; it is against my religion. He would feel even more ashamed and offer to buy me a Coke instead, and we’d become fast friends.
In another scenario, American Joe would declare all Muslims to be violent murderers. He would pronounce it “Mooooslems” in that way I hate, as if it were some despicable word that required exertion to expel from his mouth. I’d sigh, shake my head and say, “Listen, man, my mother is Chief of Medicine at New Britain Memorial Hospital and has probably saved more lives in her lifetime then any single terrorist has taken.” Joe—who by this point I had decided was a journalist for Fox News—would be so impressed that he’d ask if he could interview my mother for a segment on peaceful, patriotic Muslim Americans. It would air at 7:30 p.m., prime-time television for all the country to see.
Perhaps one day, I would catch American Joe hiding behind a holly bush, snooping around our house. I would confront him and he would charge my family of secretive and suspicious behavior. I would scoff and say, “Yeah, you’re right. In fact my dad is an engineer; he worked on Reagan’s Star Wars project to help defend us against Russian nukes.” From then on, American Joe would proudly tell all his friends that important Americans lived next door.
Having prepared my mind for several disconcerting scenarios, I felt confident that I could at least leave the confines of my house once again. Satisfied with my bandolier of retorts, I tucked them away beneath my profiling-proof vest.
Despite the devices I had built to protect myself, I still tried my best to become invisible. Like some social fugitive, I had no illusions that confrontation was preferable to evasion. For a year after 9/11, I kept up with few friendships and avoided large crowds. I woke in the morning, went to the university during the day and came directly home in the evening. Most nights I would log on to my computer for a welcome respite. I was lured by the anonymity of chat rooms and online gaming. I delved into elaborate fantasies cleverly realized in a fashion that masked their ultimate emptiness. I could experiment with ingredients as if an alchemist; an ounce of humility here, five grams of extroversion there, until I had turned lead into an exquisite golden mask. Though merely the sum of zeros and ones (the binary code of machine language), it was my ticket to a virtual reality in which identity was a matter of choice.
It was during one of these Internet escapes that my cell phone, which rarely rang at all, did so. Irritated by the interruption, I returned to reality and answered the phone.
“Hey! Amr, what’s up, long time no see,” a young man’s voice said.
“Mo? Oh … hey, it’s good to hear from you, it’s been a while,” I immediately brightened up at the sound of my cousin’s voice. In our youth, our parents had made it a point that we grew up knowing each other despite the oceanic divide between Egypt and the States. We saw their family at least once per year in Cairo. On many of those trips we spent summer evenings sitting upon the weathered blocks of the Pyramids of Giza, eating falafel sandwiches and gazing up at stars of the clear desert sky. As adults, Mo and I saw each other much less than we did years ago, even though he now lived in Washington, D.C.
“It’s been too long, cuz. What do you say we get together, take a day trip somewhere?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“New York? Why New York?” I always harbored ambivalent feelings towards that city.
“Look, I don’t want to go there.” The idea that he might want to visit Ground Zero made me anxious. What if there were protestors thirsty for Muslim blood there?
Mo paused, and then understood. “We won’t go there. Let’s visit the Statue of Liberty. We can take the ferry from Battery Park. Bring Haitham with you.” Mo’s mother and sister would come too.
We arrived at Battery Park before any of our relatives arrived. We meandered along the walkways that stretched between Castle Clinton to the west and the ferry dock to the east. I clasped my hands behind my back and gazed up at the foliage, mindful that by imitating the other park strollers they might not view me as an other. I felt like some kind of interloper walking those paths and did my best to disappear into the crowd.
The park was a bazaar of 9/11 memorabilia, with vendors selling paintings of the Trade Center towers, die-cast figurines of police and firefighters, and any number of flag-adorned items. All of it reminded me that if Osama Bin Laden's aim was to destroy the American way of life, he had failed spectacularly. Capitalism's mighty heart beat in the chest of each of these patriotic street vendors.
Mo and I exchanged warm greetings as his sister Salma and Aunt Hennah approached from across the park. My aunt, two cousins, Haitham and I proceeded to the ferry dock to Liberty Island. We lined up at the airport-style security cordon.
A security guard pointed at my aunt's headscarf. The guard shook her head and said, “That’s got to come off.” She reached for the end of the scarf that rested on my aunt's shoulder. Aunt Hennah drew back and placed a defensive hand upon her hijab.
“Ma’am, this is standard procedure,” the guard said. Though I’d traveled many times before 9/11, I’d rarely seen a Muslim woman’s hijab come off at a security checkpoint.
“I would like privacy, please,” Aunt Henna said. The guard gestured at an opaque booth and escorted my aunt inside.
A security officer searched Mo and dangled the insulin injector he found between thumb and forefinger. He cast a suspicious glance at my cousin and walked over to his supervisor. Together they examined the injector. The officer returned, handed back the medical device and waved Mo past. My aunt exited the privacy booth, adjusted her hijab and the rest of us passed through the security check without incident.
The ride across the Hudson River was enjoyable. We posed for photos against the railing, the city at our backs. At the bow of the tri-deck ferry my cousins played out DiCaprio and Winslet’s scene in Titanic. We teased my aunt about hiding radioactive tabouli in her hair and Mo pretended to mug me at injector-point.
We disembarked and proceeded down the cobblestone walkway towards the statue, a vibrant lawn to our left and its lifeblood, the Hudson River, to our right. We made a circuit around the dais on which the Mother of Exiles had stood for over a century. I tarried on a park bench; my family continued down the path. I imagined I talked to the Statue of Liberty.
It’s been over a decade since I last visited you, and a lot has happened since then, hasn’t it? Tell me, what do you think of your huddled masses now, the wretched refuse teeming at your shores? You know, when you face east to light the way for the tired and poor, you turn your back, casting a shadow on the tempest-tossed and homeless generations that came before them?
Perhaps we did not earn your respect. We did not toil in mud-soaked fields for a pittance or brave storm-sodden ocean for weeks to get here. Instead, we came by air. We passed you by completely and did not stop by to pay our respects. But we came, and for all the right reasons. We came for the promise burning in your beacon held high, to escape the fall of our homeland into serial dictatorship. We came to breathe free. Doesn’t that count?
Did you know we were both conceived in the very same ancient land? Your father originally imagined you standing at the mouth of the Suez Canal. So I wonder, now, three years after the skyline behind you dimmed, will you step off your stage and turn westward to attend to your flock? Maybe you will wade eastward across the ocean, turn about and beckon us away from here. Dare I hope that you will leave one foot here and set the other down upon our land of conception? Take me in your palm, and I will show you ancient majesties carved of stone but otherwise akin to your own. When we finish we can return to this island a little less lonely. Straddle the Atlantic with me, and then you will finally know me.
“Come with me.” Startled, I searched my surroundings for the speaker. For the briefest moment, I imagined the statue had responded.
“We’ve been looking for you for the past fifteen minutes, and the ferry is leaving in five.” Salma cocked her head. “You know, you are really weird sometimes.”
“I know.” Together we walked to the ferry and left Liberty Island.
Little had changed in the six months between my meeting with Lady Liberty and my upcoming flight to Egypt. I returned to my digitized life on the internet and the mundane one outside of it.
When you pack your bags, you unpack memories. While I looked around my bedroom for things to bring with me to Cairo, I instead focused on the objects I was leaving behind. A jar of sand drew forth my oldest recollections: a giant sandbox in a playground in Cleveland, Ohio, where I began my life of otherness in America. An old, weary Transformer toy retired upon a desk hutch, its yellow paint chipped and an appendage lost to its many sidewalk battles with the Decepticons. The same cul-de-sac in Glastonbury, Connecticut, where I tested youthful invincibility by trying to see how long I could ride my bike with my eyes closed. Tough love comes in many forms, including a concrete face-plant.
Cul-de-sacs also made wonderful battlefields for snow forts and snowball fights. As children, my friends and I dug icy tunnels and built trenches from which to throw our frozen projectiles at our momentary enemies. Children can start the day as allies, become arch-enemies in play by noon and then, without a second thought, renegotiate as allies before suppertime, no strings attached.
I glanced at the photo of Laura and me standing together in our high-school graduation gowns amongst the class of 1993. As adults, we lose our ability to morph without consequence. Laura was an ever-present reminder that even as we grow into consistency, what we settle upon as our selves is not always what we are perceived to be. Though I had tried to flatter her with poetry and attention, the endeavor was fruitless. I saw myself as being as American as anyone else in that school. Laura, however, saw my otherness as grounds for disqualification as a romantic interest, the consequence of which was several years of painfully unrequited love.
While I was caught up in these old memories, my father entered my room. His demeanor was serious as he expressed concern for my safety as a solitary traveler of Middle-Eastern ancestry.
“Son, you remember what happened to me at the airport last year?”
“Of course, how could I forget?” My dad and mother had been late to the airport. By the time they got through the Northwest’s check-in desk, the gate for the flight had been closed. They wouldn’t let them on board, so Dad argued with them.
“Good, then watch your tongue when they scrutinize you. It is sure to happen, if not this time, then the next.”
“Gee, Dad, thanks, but you’re stressing me out. It’s like I’m at the airport already,” I said.
“That’s exactly what I am talking about; ‘Yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ should be the only two things that come out of your mouth. You don’t want to be arrested like I was, do you?”
“Of course not, but—”
“But? It seems you do need a reminder. The woman at the gate couldn’t see the absurdity of a plane taking off with a passenger’s luggage when the passenger wasn’t on the plane.”
“Dad, really, I remember.… ”
“I told the woman she was being foolish. I figured I had to spell it out for her in plain English, so I said ‘what if there was a bomb on the plane?’ She lost her senses, called Security, and they arrested me. They put me in a jail cell for eight hours. They sent dogs to sweep the airport. Everything shut down. No planes in or out. The FBI got involved, too.”
“Big mouths get muzzled. I get it. Don’t worry.” Bags packed, we left for John F. Kennedy Airport.
I spent three months in Egypt that summer, the last day of which I spent at a café on the Nile River. The North African sun skipped rays of light across the waters that had birthed civilization. In this place, nearly everyone had dark hair and brown skin, as they did five millennia ago—I was for once part of the majority.
My wife, Iman, sat beside me. We were newlyweds and in love. Despite the vast divide that separated us for the greater part of the year-long courtship, our adoration for each other grew as if nurtured by the sea that stood between us. Now, after just a few months of marriage, we would be separated again. Her immigration visa was delayed and she would have to follow me alone in the weeks to come.
We sat as if glued together, arms interlocked as she rested her head on my arm. I flipped through digital photos on my mobile phone as we relived our honeymoon in Turkey. A hundred rivulets of fountain water arced before the majestic Aya Sofia; Iman smiled beside it. The view of the fairy chimney forests of Cappadoccia as seen from a hot air balloon. Myself crouched in ancient underground tunnels dug when monotheism was but a whisper.
Then came a photo that did not belong. Myself again, but as a sad-faced child barely taller than the Black Labrador sitting on its haunches beside me, a yellow feather stuck to its snout.
“Who’s that?” Iman pointed at the boy in the photo. She knew off course, but she liked to pretend shy ignorance sometimes. It was one of her traits that charmed me.
“That’s me.” I played along. I pointed at the dog. “And that’s Shadow.”
“Aww, you look so sad. What happened?”
I pointed at the yellow feather on Shadow’s snout.
“That was Katkoot, my pet chick.”
Iman looked up with a mock pout and then asked, “Was that in Ismalaya?”
“Indeed it was.”
My earliest recollection of life in Egypt was in a small Suez Canal town named Ismalaya. In that quiet sun-soaked place, I’d sit under palm trees and watch the gardeners in their rolled-up pants drown the yard with a hose. I would warily watch the maid with her hair tied back drag a wet towel back and forth across the tiles. I’d wonder if I could sneak past without her noticing me walking barefoot on the newly washed floor. My first painful experience happened there—even before Katkoot became Shadow’s lunch—when a car door accidentally closed on my hand.
I put my phone away; I had no more photos to share. I hadn’t brought pictures of anyone but myself and my wife. On my last day in Cairo, nothing mattered to me but us. I owed nothing less to the woman who was willing to leave her whole world behind to follow me across the Atlantic.
The day after my time spent at the Nile café I returned to America and made my way through customs at JFK Airport. A grey evening sky cast sobriety on the anticipated Thanksgiving turkey dinner and the traditional Detroit Lions football game. My mother said they’d wait for me to come home so we could celebrate the holiday together. I arrived at the customs officer’s desk.
“Hey, what’s up, buddy.” I tried to veil my otherness by doing my best American Joe impersonation. I slid the blue passport across the desk and froze the smile on my face. I irrationally thought being obviously nice would spare me from delay. He scanned the passport, frowned at his computer screen and placed my passport in a blue folder.
“You’ve been selected for an interview. Follow the arrows over there.” He handed me the folder and avoided eye contact. Really, I don’t remember submitting a job application. The thought was best left unspoken. I followed the arrows the officer indicated through a bleakly lit side corridor. My face flushed. I’d heard about the racial profiling in airports before, but never thought that I, a U.S. citizen who grew up in America, would ever be subjected to it. The corridor opened to a corner of the baggage claim area sectioned off with glass walls. At another customs desk, an officer took our folders and stacked them in a pile.
The number of seats in the area seemed intentionally inadequate. I arrived before most of the other passengers and took a seat next to the corral’s glass wall. The rows filled quickly, and I shifted uncomfortably as the travel stench of dozens of sweaty bodies wafted through the area.
Eventually the area filled up with Arab people, Muslim people, and a single white gentleman that they could point to and say, ‘see, we aren’t discriminating against you.’ The customs officer who collected the passports left.
Then we waited.
I gazed at my reflection in the glass wall beside me. My eyes sagged, and my lips were cracked from the dry airplane air. I felt suspended in that glass wall, nonexistent on either side of it.
Beyond the glass, a soldier in army fatigues hoisted a duffle bag over one shoulder, glanced at my glass cage and strode towards the “Goods to Declare” desk. I wondered if he thought I was a terrorist. A mother of three shepherded her children towards the baggage cart station. I wondered if she cared about more than getting their luggage, if she saw what transpired in this corner of the baggage hall. Did she and the soldier hope to make it home for Thanksgiving?
Three hours passed, as did several customs officers. They paced like tigers that glanced at us from behind the glass, but did nothing else. Though we were told not to use our cell phones, I called my mother anyway to tell her I would be late. My other brother, Tamir, asked to talk to me.
“Stuck in the airport, huh?”
“Yes, they liked my résumé so much they decided to ‘interview’ me,” I said.
“Let me guess: your interview pool consists of mostly Arabs and South Asians?”
“How did you know?”
“We went through the same thing last year. All the Middle Easterners were detained in a locked room for five hours with no explanation. Oh, there was one white person.…”
“Same thing here, I wonder if it’s some kind of policy,” I said.
“Maybe… Anyway, it was an Eastern European woman who said she was there to see Prince, you know…the artist formerly known as. She insisted they call him to verify. At least we had some entertainment. Jasmine was pregnant at the time, too. They wouldn’t even let us go to the bathroom! Omar had to stay in a soiled diaper for hours because they wouldn’t let us go change him. I asked them how they select people for this kind of detainment, and they just kept saying it was random.”
“It is random; A random selection of brown people.”
“Yeah one guy in the room even asked why they were putting all the Arabs in the room. The official said, ‘Hey you wanna stay in here even longer?’”
“Well, I hope they apologized for the inconvenience, at least.”
“Oh, at the end they were apologetic.... But apologies don’t change diapers,” Tamir said.
“Okay, so is all of this supposed to make me feel better?”
“Just letting you know that you aren’t alone, and that you’ll be fine.”
“Well, thanks. Look, I’ve got to go before they see me talking on the phone.” I hung up and quickly shoved the phone in my pocket.
Several more hours passed, and the baggage claims emptied except for the unclaimed luggage of Egypt Air flight 985. An old woman in a wheelchair huffed and spoke to me in Arabic.
“Why are we waiting so long?” she patted the sweat from her brow with a handkerchief.
“I don’t know,” I lied. I did not have the heart to tell her the truth. What possible harm an old woman in a wheelchair could do to the United States of America was beyond me.
After three more hours, one of the officers finally came to the desk and took the stack of passports. I prayed that mine was at the top of the stack. A young Indian man dressed in a purple Gucci shirt and charcoal Massimo slacks popped out of his chair and demanded to speak to the manager. I silently cheered him. The officer escorted him to an unseen supervisor, returned and began the interviews. Eventually the Indian man returned, even more furious than when he left. He told his traveling companion that they told him if he didn’t like how he was being treated, they would be happy to deport him.
Another half hour passed, and my name was called. My prayers were answered; I wasthe fourth person to be interviewed. I approached the customs desk, and noticed the officer’s name tag: Rodriguez.
“I’m going to ask you a few questions, and then you’ll be on your way,” Rodriguez said. Was the first customs officer incapable of asking questions, or did it just take you guys six hours to think them up? Another thought best left unsaid.
“How long were you in Egypt?” He asks.
“About three months.”
“And why were you there?”
“I was getting married.” I couldn’t resist making tiniest of jabs. “This is a real nice wedding gift you guys are giving me, by the way.”
“Where is your wife then?” I saw I was dealing with a real sleuth here, so I confessed. “She’s still waiting for her visa. I couldn’t stay any longer; I had to get back to work.”
“And where do you work?”
“M.I.T.,” I responded.
“And how long were you in Egypt, again?” He tried to see if I’d give a different answer from the first time he asked. My irritation with his line of questioning superseded my father’s earlier advice to respond with “yes sir” or “no sir”. Rodriguez’s question wasn’t a yes or no question anyway.
“Three months.” I pulled out a retractable pen and slip of paper from my pocket. “Can I have the name of your supervisor? I am going to register a complaint.” I clicked the pen several times for emphasis.
Unfazed, he gave me two names and spelled them twice. I write them down.
“Look, I know it’s not fair. I feel bad for you guys. But it’s only going to get worse.” He handed me my passport. “You’re free to go.”
I claimed my bags and waited at the baggage inspection area. I saw the glass holding cell, with all the people waiting to be interviewed by Rodriguez. My travel-weary face looked no different from this side of the corral. I lost myself as I reflected on yesterday’s conversation on the Nile. I traced back to the experiences of my father, Aunt Hennah, Mo and my brother. I followed the thread that bound them all together. You used to be able to visit the Statue of Liberty free of any security checks. In those days, a head scarf was little more then a cultural difference to most people. An insulin injector looked more like a pen than a weapon. Mothers could always change their babies’ diapers. All of that changed, and now a head scarf, brown skin, or speaking Arabic in public marked you as a potential threat.
None of us chose the events that led to this; we were circumscribed by them all the same. We’re penned in, and we can rail against the walls erected around us, but it’s just white noise compared to the percussive sounds of the War on Terror. I moved on from the glass corral but realized I may never really leave.