GRANVILLE, Ohio – Last week in my college political science class my professor passed out a sheet of paper with a question: “What comes to mind when you hear the word Arab?”
She asked us not to write our names on the paper and after she had collected them our class discovered some people also had a different paper that said, “What comes to mind when you hear the word Muslim/Islam?”
There is no need to repeat the responses we got, merely because I think we all have an idea of what they were. Terrorist. Extremist. Violence. Oppression. Al Qaeda. Bin Laden.
Being away from home for college and being the only Arab does two things to you. One, it makes you homesick and proud of being who you are. Two, it makes you self-conscious to see what kind of looks you get on 9/11.
Many people have been in my place before, having come to the United States with the goal of changing the views the West has on Islam and ending the stereotypes, including those more qualified and prestigious than I am.
But even with all their success, in the back of the Westerner’s mind (although not all) many see a bearded man holding a gun with a veiled woman forced into slavery in her own home.
This year I will attempt to rid Islam, Muslims and Arabs of all religions of being the victim. I will lead a normal life, full of flaws and love and impatience.
And like all my age who remember what and where they were doing on 9/11, I, too, as an Arab, have a story.
Ten years ago this day, I was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia leading the life of the typical elementary school child.
It was around 3 p.m. when I got home to watch my favorite cartoon then, Timon and Pumba. Ironically it had a theme song called Hakuna Matata, which means “no worries.”
Needless to say, this was the beginning of all my worries.
I went to an international school in which the day after the attacks my American teachers and friends left the school.
Later, my father’s company notified us to leave the country as we had American nationalities. A month later the compound I used to live in was bombed.
When I visited the site of where my neighbors died, I didn’t cry. I couldn’t. I saw the broken mattresses and blood stains and as a child I didn’t know what to think.
I say this now because of the discussion we had in that political science class, where my classmates said they were brought up hearing that Arabs are bad.
They said they had never before heard of Muslims then and when they did, it was in the context of the enemy.
At first I thought, well, I don’t blame them.
But that was then, when they were too young to have any other exposure to the truth.
The time is now to rid ourselves of the stereotypes.
The world is in revolution but so many minds in the West are still stubborn with their misconceptions.
I hate to say the media can and does brainwash America, but that’s beside the point. The point is that as children the people who did this horrible thing kinda looked like me, or like people from back home, friends and family who are the gentlest people I’ve ever come across.
I wish that this year people in the U.S. and all over the world would realize that the Arabs mourn with them. They know how you feel. They mourn all the time.
And like on many Facebook and Twitter feeds, they say today – “Dear US, Your 9/11 is our 24/7, Sincerely Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan.”
I also wish that we paid attention to the souls that die everywhere and not just in the U.S. An American’s soul is no more valuable than another one and so we must always remember 9/11, and also Gaza and Libya and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and so many more in which day after day people die for no reason.
My final wish is for the Arabs and Muslims that I know here in the U.S. who feel ashamed of going out in public today.
They see it as a good thing so that no one’s pain is enhanced by seeing them. But what these Arabs/Muslims are doing is giving others the chance to call them the enemy and make them feel guilt for something they have not done.
The twin towers have fallen, but not my faith in a better world.
May God bless the souls of the innocent dead. As a Muslim I believe they are all in heaven now as martyrs.
To end I want to refer to a famous journalist, Mona Eltahtawy. Here is her view of life as an Arab in the U.S. after 9/11.
Today, I hurt, too.
I hurt for the families whose loved ones died.
I hurt for the Middle Eastern countries that had to suffer the consequences for so long.
I hurt for me and my family who had to leave a home we loved because of this and forever be looked at as the other.
I hurt for the fact that the world changed because of 9/11 and not for the better.
But I am from a culture that believes nothing is impossible, a country of the likes of Martin Luther King who said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
It’s overwhelming when I think how the entire world has suffered due to 9/11. May God bring protect all nations and bring peace and comfort to the hearts of all those who need it. Inshallah.
Jessica Elsayed is a Senior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.