Me, Arab. You, wholesome American fearing for your life
Saturday, October 07, 2006
By Moustafa Ayad
Close to where the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette flies its American flag, I was questioned by an FBI agent.
Moustafa Ayad is a Post-Gazette staff writer (firstname.lastname@example.org).
If it had eluded my consciousness before, it was clear at that
moment: This was my new American reality.
You, wholesome American fearing for your life.
But if it has come down to whether this country stays safe or whether I become the scapegoat for all the racist and xenophobic feelings that grow day by day in this country -- I choose the latter. Freedom, after all, is not free. Right, Mr. President?
The 100 or so Iraqis dying on an average day in Iraq know this. The American families missing and fearing for the lives of 150,000 brothers, husbands, fathers, sisters, wives and mothers fighting in Asia and the Middle East are learning the lesson, too.
So, in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his minions, which has gone nowhere for years, it is only right that we investigate every Arab living between the Atlantic and Pacific. In the pursuit of a security blanket for God-fearing Americans, it is only right that some of us feel the chill where democracy pokes its feet out.
Outside, on that overcast day when FBI Special Agent Frankie Canady questioned me about an alleged threat I made to a Texas constable from my work telephone, my mind briefly drifted and I wondered if this was how the hunt for terrorists in America is really being conducted.
Could a Moustafa, Mohammed or Ahmed going about normal life at any moment get sucked into a parallel universe where he becomes a cohort of Osama bin Laden bent on violence against the Westerners and Zionists who control the world, where he waits anxiously to find the al-Qaida decoder ring in his next box of Mujahedeen Marshmallow Cereal?
My ring has yet to arrive, probably because it takes so long to ship things from that cave in Pakistan. But I still have my Muslim Brotherhood calendar of burka-clad women posing with rocket-powered grenades.
Agent Canady questioned me for about 15 minutes beneath the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sign that stares out onto the Boulevard of the Allies.
It was conducted with all of the informality of a passing conversation about the weather, but the transcript would read more like a witness being grilled before the Senate's Intelligence Committee.
"Did you leave a threatening message for a Houston constable?" the agent asked.
"What?" was my reply.
Inside my head, my mother appeared and, in her soothing Egyptian accent, said, "Now, Moustafa, what you say in response to this question will mean a lot."
My own thought was, "How do I answer this man? Anything I say could be used against me in a court of law, right, Adam-12?"
I mustered this actual reply, "Of course I didn't. That's crazy."
In the abyss of my brain, a little me popped up and kicked the back of my cerebellum and said, "Crazy??!!!?? You used the word 'Crazy?'
Are you completely oblivious to what can happen to you if this informal little chat leads back to headquarters?"
The little me inside my head then donned a black hood.
"Sir, why would I leave a threatening message for a constable? A member of the law enforcement community?" I asked, sort of laughing.
Little me: "This is not funny, buddy. Laughing only likens you to the Unabomber. Do you have a manifesto? You are going to be water-boarded and beat with fists wrapped in T-shirts that read, "These Colors Don't Run."
"An agent in Texas was informed by a constable that he received a threatening message and it was traced back to your phone number here," Agent Canady told me, pointing to the Post-Gazette building.
Little me: "TRACED??? They are tracing your phone calls, man. Did they hear you tell your mother about that rash?"
I then went into a lengthy explanation, which probably made it sound like I was guilty, about how I had been working on an obituary involving a gentleman and a dog killed in a home invasion in Texas who may have had ties to McKeesport. I left several messages for constables in the Houston area and even talked to one constable's wife, leaving a number and my name.
Wait , I left my name . . .
A name like Moustafa doesn't fit comfortably on the back of a baseball jersey. Moustafa Grover Washington was not one of the co-signers of the Declaration of Independence. The name Moustafa usually turns up on a basketball court or in a cell at Gitmo.
Sorry, there are no names in Gitmo. Moustafa might be rendered there as prisoner 98764.
Even so, an unfamiliar name left on an answering machine somewhere, even south of the Mason-Dixon line, would not seem to be cause for a federal investigation.
But in Texas, land of executions and black gold, simply saying the name Moustafa apparently constitutes the missing link between now and the next terrorist attack.
It is almost as if Arabs have never been a part of the American dream. As if my mother didn't work two jobs when we first came to the United States. As if my father wasn't born in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I speak Arabic with an American accent. Yet my name, in and of itself, has now become a threat.
What should I do?
Change it, as my mother suggested?
No, said the little me inside my head: Embrace it. Answer all of the FBI's questions fully, without a trace of hostility. Throw in a joke.
Because everything can and will be used against you in the land of milk and honey.
- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html