a view from queer arab america, post september 11th  |  lina & mary


The crisis. The event. September 11th. It's odd, in the midst of so much grief, anxiety, fear and confusion, to notice yourself struggling with terminology. Maybe it's because words seem inadequate that we turn to numbers, as if they could help make sense of what happened or quantify our pain. They range from the speculative -- the number of people still unaccounted for, to the absurd -- numerology re-invented and transmitted via email.

Numbers are revealing, but it's worthwhile to pay attention to the language we use to describe what happened on September 11th -- the event itself and individual, community, and governmental responses to it. Words like terrorist and crusade are not neutral terms, they are loaded with historical significance and like everything that has taken place since the horror of that Tuesday morning, they echo long and loud when they are spoken.

Perhaps a focus on the meaning of language and numbers seems indulgent at a time when so many are dead and so many are grieving. Perhaps this discussion doesn't seem to have anything to do with being lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in America. But bear with these apparent non-sequitors, because they reveal a space that is usually invisible, but does exist. It's a space occupied by those who are Queer and Arab in America.

In the days following September 11th, did you worry about your family, even though they were not in New York or Washington, DC, because your mother wears the hijab and your father has a beard? Did you long to reach out to an Arab American community for comfort and support, knowing you would have to go into the closet to do it? Did you sit fixated and sobbing in front of the television, desperate to make sense of the devastation, and nauseated with the fear that the noisy crowd on the street outside was a mob come to attack your cousin's store?

Were you afraid to go outside because you couldn't get the images of planes crashing out of your head, and you thought your neighbor might spit at you again? Did your co-workers look at you funny and stop talking when you walked by? If you didn't get that job, did you wonder whether it was because of the bad economy, your crew cut, or your obviously Arab last name? Did your friends and family in the middle east read about anti-Arab violence in the U.S. and beg you to come back home?

If they did, maybe you knew you couldn't. Earlier this summer, fifty-two gay Egyptian men were arrested at a club in Cairo and detained on charges of perverting religion. On the morning of September 19th, a poll on Arabia.com revealed that out of 333 respondents, 42% thought those men should be put on trial.

The week of the Arabia.com poll, the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC) reported that following the events of September 11th, more than 200 incidents of hate crimes and harassment had been perpetrated against Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, and others in the US. The network news showed the wreckage in New York and D.C, revealing the dead, the grieving, children who will never see their fathers again, priests and firefighters crushed, and stories of burning people hurling themselves from buildings.

The combined effects of homophobia, racism, and human devestation can leave you feeling trapped in a prison of depression and fear. In these circumstances, is hard to feel good about your humanity, much less your ethnic identity or sexuality.

Does it now seem overindulgent to feel attentive to language?

Especially when we are as tender and terrified as we are, words matter.

If you are Arab or Arab American and Queer in the United States, you are not alone. You are not a bad person. The West has not converted you to homosexuality. You are not a terrorist or a territory in need of a crusade. Hold onto yourself; try to find ways to connect. Don't let the fear stop you. You are human. Things will not be this bad forever.

Friends have suggested that now is the time for visibility, and not a time to hide. Others have suggested we lay low. Vicious phone calls and fear on the street have suggested this compromise: a piece written anonymously and submitted without a photograph. We are struggling to protect ourselves as we try to move forward in a way that resists being boxed in by either our own fear or the reality of a violent world.

We are all struggling now. Whoever you are, if you are witness to ignorance, racism, or bullying, whether you're among gay or straight people, don't be afraid to speak out against it. Try to find the opportunity in this crisis to learn more about the people and the world around you, your own values, and the meaning of justice.


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