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Straddling a Culture Fence: Thoughts from a Mixed Descent All-American on 9/11

Part Palestinian, part Scotch-Irish, an American woman's unique perspective of the tragic event and what followed.

I was holding my newborn daughter at the front door while kissing my husband good-bye as he left for work. 

Just then my neighbor called out, "Did you hear what happened? A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” 

As a mother, I was terrified for my kids. What was going on? Are there more planes and where will they hit?

It was hard to sit still and watch. As a wife, I wanted my husband to turn around and come home. He assured me that he would be all right. As an American, I hoped my country was not being attacked. Was this an act of war? Why is this happening? As a human being, I just wanted answers. I thought of all of the people in the buildings and their families watching helplessly, and I began to sob.

Many American mothers can easily relate to what I just described. We all felt scared, lost and helpless that morning.

My name is Nabeha, and I have a unique perspective.

My father is from Palestine. My mother was a combination of mostly Irish, Scottish and American Indian descent who was from the South.   

I just celebrated Eid Al-Fitr and will celebrate Christmas in December.

My mom had her heart set on naming me Alicia Marie. When I was born, my father suggested they name me after my maternal grandmother. My mother agreed, but added Mary, an American sounding middle name, "just in case I needed it."

I grew up watching the news of hijacked flights by "Arab terrorists," followed by movies constantly portraying the evil Arab complete with mustache and inaccurate accent. The cartoon villain, also with a mustache, who tied the helpless woman to train tracks seemed eerily similar to the Arabs portrayed on TV.

As a person of partly Middle Eastern descent, I hoped the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack would not be Arab or Muslim. 

Then the news media reported that Osama bin Laden had claimed responsibility. My heart sank.

My Aunt Margaret was a Sunday school teacher who taught me to sing Bible songs. I also attended Islamic study at the mosque in Bridgeview on a weekly basis for a while. My take was that both religions passed on the same stories, taught us about the same prophets (aside from Prophet Mohammad in Islam), and sent the same message. People should do what is right, be kind and help one another. In other words, we should live harmoniously. 

The Islam I knew did not warrant this type of horrific and evil action. How dare these deranged people committing acts such as these defame a religion and claim to be doing so in the name of it?

I knew backlash would soon follow, and it did. People were gunning down others, attacking their neighbors because of their religion. A Sikh man from India was shot to death while working at his Arizona gas station, because he apparently looked Middle Eastern to a man who is now serving a life sentence for the crime.

I can see why people were angry. We all look to point the finger of blame when we are hurting and mad. But more violence against people who had no more to do with what just happened than you was not the answer. Blaming billions of people for the acts of few is senseless.

People who I had known for years, who never thought twice about my heritage, suddenly had questions, lots of them. I often wondered if they chose me to talk to because I don’t wear a headscarf. 

People were rapid-fire asking me, "Why do some women cover their heads and some not? What does Allah mean? Why no pork and alcohol?"

I obliged with answers. I do so even today because if people become just a little familiar with different religions and ways of life, they might not be so quick to jump to a generalized conclusion.

After all, we’re inherently cautious of what we do not understand.

At the same time, I felt like I was explaining away, like a defense attorney, why Islam is not an evil faith. This role robbed me of my time to grieve and mourn. Am I less of the collective American culture because I am of a mixed culture and a mixed-faith home? Is my being born to a Muslim father an automatic "you are one of them, not us" card? 

My country was attacked that day and I felt the same things my neighbors were feeling.

I had as much anger for the perpetrators of the attack as they did. But what really bothered me was why others would think I wouldn’t.

My mother's side of the family worried about our safety.

"Ignorance and anger are a dangerous combination," my aunt Donna said after the attack. 

In my mind, it all comes down to this: a horrible act happened 10 years ago. To blame an entire people of a particular faith for the actions of a few is flat out wrong.

We all want what is best for ourselves and the people we love. 

When we allow radical people, governments or groups to alter the way we live, think or feel, we have given them more power than they deserve. 

I feel this way not as a Muslim or a Christian, an Arab or person of Western European or even American Indian descent, but as an American.

That is what I am. 

Yes, even with a name like Nabeha.

Tara September 06, 2011 at 04:22 PM
I agree whole-heartedly with tolerance and love for all people. However, I am concerned that being a faithful Muslim does mean discrimination against non-Muslims. Is this not true? I empathize with you, but you fail to address this issue.
Kate Duff September 06, 2011 at 04:39 PM
Tara, empathy might lead you to consider more closely Nabeha's words: "...I felt like I was explaining away, like a defense attorney, why Islam is not an evil faith. This role robbed me of my time to grieve and mourn." Perhaps you should clarify what you mean by discrimination, and what has led you to believe that "discrimination against non-Muslims" is a tenet of Islam, and how that may differ from, say, the precepts of some Christian denominations against non-Christians. Better yet, perhaps you should hit the library and do some research of your own first -- and give Nabeha, on this anniversary, her time & space to grieve and mourn along with the rest of us. Kate
Genvieve LaChappele September 06, 2011 at 07:18 PM
I think she wants to know the general viewpoint on the whole infadel thing. It is a legit question, so you can come down from your elitist high horse now. She asked it in a very nice tone. The fact that other religions have issues also is totally off topic.
c.mcdonn September 06, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Good for you, Nabeha, to speak up like you did here. You were right to say: "Blaming billions for the acts of a few is senseless." Yes, be angry at the few extremists-but don't lose our human decency by disrespecting another religion. Aren't we past that?? When are we going to put our effort into building bridges of respect and consideration for our fellow human beings in order to live in peace?? Carolyn
Nabeha Zegar September 06, 2011 at 08:54 PM
Tara, was the issue of discrimination of non-Muslims by Muslims raised? I must have missed it. I have witnessed discrimination of Muslims by non-Muslims and vice versa, but not out of religous obligation in any case. "Being a faithful Muslim", on the contrary, obliges one to be accepting and respectful of people of all faiths. Your concern is a common misconception.
Dennis Robaugh (Editor) September 06, 2011 at 11:54 PM
The term "infidel" actually has its roots in Christianity. Per Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/infidel), it means one who is not a Christian or one who is a non-believer. Wikipedia, citing various dictionaries and academic papers, offers more context. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infidel I found this passage interesting: "The Arabic word kafir, literally the one who "covers", is usually translated as "disbeliever". For example, in English translations of the Quranic verse, 109:1,[16] the Islamic term is commonly translated into English as infidel.[17][18] In the Islamic doctrinal sense, the term refers to a person who does not recognize the one God (Allah) - atheists and polytheists. Because Islam sees Jews and Christians as fellow believers, they are called "People of the Book (Ahl-e-kitab)" instead." Historically, I would think fundamentalist Islamists who refer to the "infidels" are not very much different from Christians who refer to the "savages" and "heathens". Dennis Robaugh regional editor
nick September 07, 2011 at 12:52 AM
Qur'an 008.007: Allah wished to confirm the truth by his words, 'Wipe the disbelieving infidels out to the last'
nick September 07, 2011 at 12:59 AM
Qu'ran 048.029 "Mohammed is God's Apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the Unbelievers but merciful to one another"
nick September 07, 2011 at 01:02 AM
Qu'ran 008.012: I shall terrorize the infidels, so wound their bodies and incapacitate them, because they oppose Allah and his Apostle"
Dennis Robaugh (Editor) September 07, 2011 at 01:59 AM
Deuteronomy 7:1-2 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations . . . then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. I think you can find equally indictable quotations in any holy book. Selectively quoting the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, or any such work, often tends to reinforce prejudices. Only when people talk to each other, and listen to each other, will they find common understanding amidst their differences. I think that, ultimately, is what motivated Nabeha to write this reflection. Having studied both the Quran and the Bible as a child, her perspective is unique.
Kate Duff September 07, 2011 at 02:34 AM
It is a legit question, Genvieve, but given that the theme of Nabeha's piece was her self-identification as an American first, and given that she talked about how discouraging it was to be expected to act as a mouthpiece and apologist for Islam, then posing the question *in this context* was both lacking in empathy and disrespectful, in my view. I also fail to see how Tara's comment is on-topic but raising the question of similar issues in Christianity is off-topic. Nabeha stated clearly that she was brought up to study both Christianity and Islam, and if you read her article carefully, she never once states what she considers her primary religion to be (if she has one). As she put it herself, "Is my being born to a Muslim father an automatic "you are one of them, not us" card?"
Jack Gardner September 07, 2011 at 12:00 PM
I agree with Kate and Dennis: Nabeha is a woman, a human being, a person who was courageous to share her feelings in order to help herself heal and in order to forge a connection with other human beings. We need to exercise far more compassion and empathy for each other, to step away from our own fears and/or curiosities for a moment to acknowledge her feelings (or the feelings of any other person). We cannot control those who choose violence, but we can build on the connections that we make with each other which may in turn reduce the violence. God bless all of us on this anniversary. May we choose compassion over judgement and love over fear-mongering and hate.
Teena Long September 07, 2011 at 07:01 PM
Here is the full verse of Deuteronomy 7:12. Dennis dont omit parts to make your case. It says The Lord will be doing the driving out and the Lord will deliver and that they are a stronger nation then who is entering but the Lord will defeat them. Who is God talking about in this text?? Who is being delivered and who is being defeated?? When you take a Bible verse out of context you make it what ever you want. How about you read the entire chapter. When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.[a] Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
Ben Feldheim (Editor) September 07, 2011 at 07:17 PM
Teena, I'm not seeing a difference in point between what Dennis presented and what you now described. To really delve into what happened after this part of the Torah or Old Testament, you have to get into the Oral Torah or Mishnah, also known as the six books of Joshua. Those stories detail the Israelites' capture of Judea. God steps in here and there, but people are the ones doing the conquering. More importantly, lots of violence exists in religious texts of all kinds across the world. The writings are all stories, fables meant to teach a lesson. Not to be taken literally. Lastly, Tara, I can tell you from firsthand experiences it's never an entire group of people who discriminate as a whole, just a few misguided blowhards. I've seen such people among nearly every different race, religion, age, gender and nationality. Implying that discrimination of "outsiders" is a dictated aspect of Muslim practice is no different than saying all people named Tara make assumptions.
Gina September 07, 2011 at 07:18 PM
All of this quoting of various scriptures only turns this into a pissing contest. None of this gets at the root of mistrust and even hatred that has grown since 9/11. Nebeha was courageous to open herself up on this forum, which has often proven to have serious racist undertones.
Dennis Robaugh (Editor) September 07, 2011 at 07:21 PM
Precisely, Teena. (Although I don't think the full quote is any less martial.) The only case to be made is that the words of any holy book can be taken out of context (religious and historic context). There are many such passages in the Bible and Quran for which that can be done, some much more harsh and shocking. For Nick or others to do so is specious.
nick September 08, 2011 at 12:55 AM
Jack, it has been said that appeasing ISLAM is like swimming in shark infested water with an open wound.
nick September 08, 2011 at 01:20 AM
Since 9/11 many Americans have read many of these books on Islam: Qu'ran translated by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall. An introduction to Islamic law by Joseph Schacht. The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam by Bast Ye'or. 23 Years: A study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad by Ali Dashti. Muhammad Prophet of Doom: Islam's Terrorist Dogma In Muhammad's Own Words by Craig Winn. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam - and the Crusades by Robert Spencer. Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquest from the 7th to the 21st Centuries by Paul Fregosi. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam by Bat Ye'or. The Raft of Mohammad by Jean-Pierre Peroncel-Hugoz. Islamikaze: Manifestations of Islamic Martyrology by Raphael Israeli.
Tara September 08, 2011 at 04:04 PM
Nabeha, I appreciate that you remind us not to assume what is in people's hearts. Obviously, you would not have written this article if you had not been discriminated against. I ask questions because I want to learn and understand. Ironically, you complain that people ask questions and also about their ignorance. You have stated that you identify with the Muslim faith (although not exclusively) and that you have a unique perspective. The events of 9/11 put burdens on many people that they did not ask for or expect. I hope that the world will be kinder to you as you deal with your burden and that you will use the opportunity to educate people. I wish all of us peace! Kate, if I am disrespectful by asking an honest question, then Nabeha should address people privately, rather than in a public forum.

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