The Other Americans

In the aftermath of brutal terrorism, some Americans have been singled out. But people rarely fit into the categories we create.

Maha Ayesh heard about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in her first class at the University of Tennessee that morning. A classmate mentioned that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center. It was terrorists, he said. He was kind of vague, but said a guy on the radio was blaming Palestinians.

"I found this very startling considering that Palestinians generally throw rocks at army tanks," she says. "I don't think they have the equipment to do this even if they wanted to."

After class she walked over campus alone. It was 11 a.m., and she was worried about what it all meant and not sure what to do, knowing that everyone probably suspected Arabs or Muslims.

Students were crowded around a television in a lounge but she was afraid to join them. She called her mom on her cell phone. "Come home if you want to," her mother said.

"I have a Palestinian flag on my rearview mirror," Ayesh says. "She told me to take it down."

As a devotion to Islam, Ayesh wears a scarf to cover her hair and neck, as well as long wool skirts and long-sleeved sweaters that reach to her wrists. She stood out from the other college kids even before the attack. But born and raised in Knoxville, she's as American as any of them. English is her first language; she grew up in the suburbs and went to West High.

Her parents—both Palestinian—were studying at college in Egypt during the Six Days War in 1967. The Israeli government revoked the citizenship of anyone who wasn't in the newly-occupied territories at the time. Suddenly without a country, her parents emigrated to the United States.

Luckily, Ayesh hasn't had any major problems since the terrorist attacks. But she's sensitive to the stares and questioning looks, and she worries about what's to come.

"I'm worried about U.S. retaliation. But I feel like I can't speak out that much about it. We have to be real careful about what we do and say," Ayesh says. "People put it in terms that you're patriotic or you're not patriotic. But you can be attached to your society and recognize the faults within it. I think it's important not to make these divisions."

Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have suddenly become the others, a state that few of us can grasp. Whether we project our anger on them, are afraid for them or of them, are sympathetic or just plain curious, it's hard not to think about them differently, even if there is no actual them. Those lumped into this category often have little in common with each other—maybe a skin tone or religion or citizenship or cultural heritage, but maybe not even those. In the end, all they may really have in common is that they all live in the United States—some of them in Knoxville.

Nidal "Ned" Odeh describes the first time he feasted his eyes on East Tennessee as though it's a recurring dream and he can hardly believe the place is real. It was 1987. He had been living in Chicago at the time but was interviewing for a job in Nashville. After the interview, Odeh and his wife decided to visit the Smoky Mountains, which they'd heard about.

"As soon as we hit the mountains, I paused and said, 'I want to retire in the Smoky Mountains,'" he says.

The mountains and the weather and the friendly Southern atmosphere—all of it reminded him of his hometown, Fuheis, Jordan.

A predominantly Catholic and Greek Orthodox town, it's where Jesus was Baptized. "A lot of people don't know there are a lot of Christians in the Middle East," Odeh says. (Some Christian Arabs say they're often asked, "When did you convert?" by people who assume that they were once Muslim. Of course, Christianity originated in the Middle East and pre-dates Islam by about 600 years. Most Christian Arabs were raised in the faith.)

When Odeh was in 6th grade, his family moved to Amman, the capital. He experienced two wars: the '67 war with Israel and the civilian war with the PLO.

"Because we lived close to a cement factory with huge oil reserves, my mom was afraid the Israelis would bomb them," Odeh says. When the planes came, they hid in a cave near their grandmother's house—sometimes for days at a time. Once they were shot at. "I remember a bullet coming very close to my head. And the guy shooting at me was probably my cousin. Nobody knows," he says.

There were happy memories too: playing volleyball and ping-pong with his clique of friends, half of whom were Muslim, half Christian.

When he was 17, he moved to Detroit, where he had relatives. He was smitten with the United States from the start—at the airport in New York City, he couldn't understand how to dial a long-distance number. A stranger noticed his confusion and helped him dial. "This man, out of the blue, sensed I was struggling, and he helped me. I'll never forget that."

Odeh didn't have to wait until retirement to move to Knoxville. A few years after his initial visit, he found a job working at CTI.

Although Knoxville doesn't have anywhere near the population of Arab Americans that Detroit or Chicago has ("In Chicago, it's like Little Italy—Little Arabia," Odeh says. "Sometimes you feel like you're on the streets of Amman"), there has been a recognizable Arab community here for decades.

(The term "Arab American"—as with "Italian American" or "Polish American"—is disliked by some, as there's a subtle implication that the person is somehow less American than the rest of us. Most Americans of Arab descent are citizens, and no disrespect is intended by use of the term.)

Christian Arabs were the first to arrive in the United States and Knoxville. Precise numbers aren't available, because the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't track Arabic residents. Nationally, the Arab American population is estimated at 3 million, with most born in the United States, according to the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper—which covers a city with a large Arab American population—reports that there were two main waves of Arab immigration. The first lasted from 1875 to about 1920 and consisted mainly of Christians, who were seeking economic opportunity. The second wave began at the end of World War II. This was spurred by the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and included Muslims as well as Christians.

W. J. Harb was one of the earliest Arab immigrants to Knoxville, moving here in 1926. He opened Harb's Oriental Rug Shop on Gay Street, selling rugs and linens. He was soon joined by his brother, John. The shop was later moved to Broadway and renamed Harb's Carpet Center.

W. J. Harb had come to the United States from the Palestinian town of Ramallah, a predominately Christian town. He came looking for freedom, disappointed with the British treatment of Palestinians following World War I. The Allies had defeated the Ottoman Empire but did not grant Palestine independence, as they'd promised during the war.

After four years in the United States, Harb visited Knoxville and fell in love with the area. It reminded him of his hometown. His decision to settle here started a chain migration of his extended family to Knoxville.

Many of the new arrivals opened shops or restaurants. Their children typically attended college to become professionals—lawyers, doctors, dentists and teachers.

Today, many of the of the Christian Arabs living in Knoxville are in some way related to Harb. Other Ramallah families who have moved to Knoxville include the Jubrans, Mubaraks, Natours, Saahs, Sakhlehs and Shamiyehs.

According to Harb family members, there are about 800 to 1,000 Christians of Arabic descent in Knoxville. Most of them are citizens, and many are second- and third-generation. They're divided mainly among Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Episcopalian faiths. A few have become Baptist or Methodist.

Danny Harb, who runs HP Video on Broadway Avenue, was born and raised in Knoxville. His father is a nephew of W. J. Harb, and he used to run Harb's Restaurant on Randolph Street. Danny Harb has visited Ramallah twice, but his home will always be Knoxville.

"Somewhere down the line in America people came from somewhere else, unless you're Native American," he says. "That's what makes this country great."

Like a lot of Muslims, Rebecca Husain had the urge to stay home after Sept. 11. Wearing a scarf around her head and neck, she was easily marked as one of "those people."

As luck would have it, the day of the attack, one of her children came down with a bad case of poison ivy and had to be taken to the doctor. Later in the week the car needed repairs. Every day, there was another reason to go out.

"You're very self-conscious," she says. "You know what's on everybody's minds."

If somebody had told her to go back from where she came, she wouldn't have had far to go. Born in Florida, she was raised in a family of Methodists and Presbyterians; her ancestors were Irish, Italian, German, and Polish. Remove her religious garb, and she looks like a typical white American woman.

Husain married a Palestinian man 13 years ago. She converted to Islam four-and-a-half years ago. She didn't begin wearing a scarf until about three years ago. At first it was an experiment. "People were very receptive to me, very nice. I thought, 'This is interesting. I'll try it again.'

"After about two weeks [of wearing the scarf], I realized I had crossed a line."

Husain is administrator of the Annoor Academy in Knoxville, a kindergarten through fourth-grade school (to protect the students, they've asked that the location remain unpublished). It opened in 1998 with eight students. It's added a grade each year, and now has 42 pupils. Along with the standard classes, students are taught Arabic, Islamic studies and the Koran.

"Very often we feel that public schools are not conducive to the values we want to teach," Husain says.

The school—run by the Islamic Education Foundation of Knoxville—is breaking ground on a new $1 million building in West Knoxville.

Muslims—both Arabs and non-Arabs—began trickling into Knoxville in the early '70s. When Hanan Ayesh (Maha's mother) and her husband arrived in Knoxville in 1973, there were very few Muslims here. "You could count them with your fingers, a couple of people doing their masters degree or doctorates," she says.

In the mid- or late '70s, a group of Muslims got a house behind a Cumberland Avenue garage to worship in. Ayesh remembers taking her children there for Arabic lessons. Around 1981, the community bought a house on 11th Street for $29,000. "I don't think we had more than a couple of families. Most of them were students," she says.

But the numbers have steadily grown. Eventually, the Muslim community raised enough money to build their current mosque, off of Grand Avenue. They moved into it in the summer of 1991.

The mosque now estimates there are 300 Muslim families in Knoxville, or about 1,500 to 2,000 people. About 40 percent are Arab. There are also Asians, Persians, African Americans and white Americans.

The mosque is large enough for most prayer services, but they must rent space on holidays, when attendance is much higher.

The immigrant Muslims came for many reasons, primarily to escape wars or to go to school. Although the United States is friendly with many Muslim countries, those governments are often corrupt and not ideal to live under, Ayesh says.

"Here you have freedom of religion and freedom of speech. This country is great. It's not perfect, but it has a lot of good things to offer for immigrants. You can criticize anyone here, but you can't say anything bad about the king in Jordan—you'll be put in prison."

Although it is well-established, the Masjid (Mosque) Annoor still has a lot of turnover because about 15 percent of those who worship there are students. Many of them don't stay after graduation.

The Muslim Student Association at the University of Tennessee has about 75 to 100 members, says president Tarek EL-Messidi. He estimates that about 40 to 50 percent are citizens; the rest are international students.

People pray at the Annoor Mosque every day in the afternoons, and there are larger services on Friday and Sunday.

The Friday after the terrorist assault, the mosque is packed with about 200 people. Shoes are kicked off at the door, and many of the men go to a bathroom to wash their feet and hands (the women pray in a separate chamber, which they enter through a separate door). As the men enter the mosque, they quietly walk into the carpeted room, bowing to kiss the floor and pray silently, facing east toward Mecca. The service begins with a sermon delivered by Mohammad El-Harithi. He talks at great length about how Islam condemns killing.

"We are part of this society, and we feel its pains," he says, as people continue to arrive. "Whatever some ignorant people say about Islam is false....[Mohammed] never reacted with violence. Even when he was asked to pray to Allah to destroy his enemies....Instead of coming with a revengeful mentality, he came with a peaceful, forgiving mentality.

"We are against all forms and types of terror, regardless of the race or religion. The blood of a human being is sacred, regardless of whether he lives in New York City or China or Russia or the Middle East."

He tells a story about Abraham—the same Abraham who is also recognized as a Judeo-Christian patriarch. And he quotes from the Koran, a passage that is similar to one found in Jewish scriptures: "We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people."

At 2 p.m. the men all pray in Arabic, bowing to kiss the ground at certain parts. After the service, the men greet each other. Usually, they have food after the service, but there's no feasting today.

"It's terrible about what happened," one of them says.

Nabih Aqqad—or Ali Baba as he's known—opened his Kingston Pike deli as he always does at 6 a.m. the day after the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The phone rang and an angry man was on the other end of the line. "He said, 'You close your business or I'm going to kill you,'" Aqqad says. "I say, 'What you talking about—I'm American like you. We're all American, whether we're from the Middle East or Europe or wherever. People come from all over.'

He said, 'Watch me; I'm going to kill you.' I said, 'I'm not worried about that.'"

A U.S. citizen, Aqqad has lived in this country since the early '70s. He came from Jerusalem just to visit, but he fell in love with Knoxville and stayed, recruiting his brother, Nazeeh, to help him run the deli. Although he's been here for some 30 years, he talks with a thick accent—punctuating each thought with a "You know what I'm saying?" to make sure he's understood. Today, he wears a white T-shirt with "God Bless America" written on the front, with a ribbon to mourn the dead pinned on it.

There were other angry callers to the store, but Nabih says the support has overwhelmed those. People have sent flowers and cards. One read, "I want you to know that I support you and am praying that no harm comes to you, your loved ones, or your business. We are all in this together." An old customer of his, a 95-year-old man now confined to his house, left his home for the first time in three years to visit the deli. "He came out of his home to come down here and hug me," Aqqad says.

Most Arab and Muslim Americans say the support and love they've been shown has been staggering, far outstripping the rare negative comments and encounters. But many have had at least one ugly encounter, and it's embarrassing to hear about them.

There was the UT student who was watching TV, and when he saw a Muslim woman approach, he announced, "Look, there's one of them now," and spit on the ground in front of her.

The mosque got a threatening phone call—a drunk who called back later to apologize. The Holy Land grocery store had a number of threats the first week, including a group of seemingly affluent, educated people who tried to antagonize the proprietors, Youssef and Sue Kamah. "We asked them to move their car, they threatened to bomb the store. They said, 'Why don't you go back home,'" Sue Kamah says.

Their son got in a fight when another boy blamed the disaster on his father. They made up the next day, she says.

"You can be very careful at your level, but with your kids you cannot," says Youssef Kamah, who also runs an auto shop next to the grocery store. "Kids cannot see the level of hatred coming at them from the older generation. There's no way we can protect them at school or when we're away."

Some fret about what might come. A few fear there could be internment camps as there were for Japanese Americans in World War II. Others worry about pending legislation that would enable the FBI to indefinitely detain immigrants without due process.

For the most part, the harassment is subtle—dirty looks, questioning glances. The fear of violence is real, especially after the random beatings, arsons and murders around the country against Arabs, Muslims and those who resemble them.

"I had a moment of, 'Oh, my God, how can I keep wearing my scarf?' Because I was so scared," Husain says. "But I also knew I could not not wear my scarf because it's who I am and if I didn't I would have so little faith.

"Since this happened, my main focus has been on defense—defense of myself and my family. This is my country and my people who have been killed. But I haven't been able to be concerned for them because I've been worried about my family. I now have a small hair of understanding of what African Americans go through every day of their life, being judged by the way they look."

Maha Ayesh says that she feels as though her beliefs are being judged. "It's like you have to justify your faith, which is weird because I don't think it needs defending. The explaining part I don't mind, but when it gets to the point when you have to defend it, it gets hard," she says. "I can't defend every person's actions. Why did a lot of people use Christianity to justify slavery or the Inquisition? It's one thing to defend your religion but another thing to defend the actions of everyone in your religion."

Tarek EL-Messidi points out that Christianity isn't questioned when a Catholic IRA terrorist blows up a building. Nor is Judaism called into question when the Israeli army kills civilians and children. But Muslim terrorists prompt Americans to question and judge Islam.

"I just hope people see us as Americans and patriots and not people of war or terrorism. Every time something like this happens, our patriotism is questioned," he says.

There's the old adage that if you want to stay clear of heated arguments, never talk about religion or politics. Sometimes it isn't possible.

Although some would rather not talk about it, most Arab and Muslim Americans have a much different perspective from those who trace their ancestry to Europe.

An Indian man at the Annoor Mosque says, "It's a fact that one million Iraqis have died because of American sanctions, and no blue-eyed American knows about it. The American media doesn't tell people about it.

"America never learns from history," he adds. "I'm not saying the U.S. should not retaliate against the terrorists, but they should know what they have done also."

The critics don't necessarily blame the terrorist attack on these wars, but they say that the United States is less than innocent in its dealings in the Middle East.

"Sad to say, but American foreign policy has always killed people," Mohamad Bhidya, a Pakistani-born physician, says after the prayer service at the Mosque one Friday afternoon.

Comments like those are the kind that infuriate radio talk-show hosts, blind patriots and the grief-stricken, and it's frightening to think about how talk can escalate. If those remarks make people angry, they should consider that most of those speaking come from or have relatives living in countries ravaged by wars, some of them sponsored by the United States.

"I've seen a war when I was 5 years old," Bhidya says, as his own boys, both about that age, giggle and yank on his arms. "I know the destruction of war."

"Killing people, no matter who does it, is not right," he adds.

Mai Abou-Bakr, a Syrian native who teaches at the Annoor school, has seen three wars, the first when she was 3 years old, the last at age 28. She worries that family and friends in Syria will be bombed as a result of the attacks. "When the president says we need to have a war but we don't know who the enemy is yet, it makes me very scared that innocent people will be attacked."

The U.S.-born Husain has visited her in-laws in Palestine. They welcomed her graciously, calling her "mart akhoui," or wife of my brother, to let her know she'd received the family's approval. Despite this, one day some teenage relatives questioned the United States' strong support of Israel.

"We've all been able to sit in living rooms and watch these horrible things on the news and say, 'Oh, isn't that terrible, honey. You want some more coffee? You want another piece of pie?'" Husain says. "These people have endured random acts of terrorism almost every day."

"The Palestinian people are being obliterated right now by the Israelis.... We haven't ever lived with it. Some people think it's time."

Youssef Kamah left Lebanon 21 years ago because of a war. He sees a long list of tyrannical or trigger-happy leaders that the United States has supported in the Middle East—Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein, Ariel Sharon, Osama bin Laden—many of whom later caused problems for this country.

"One of the main problems is [U.S. officials] are not dealing with the people they are supposed to be dealing with," he says. "Any time you help a tyrant massacre his people it's going to come back to you."

What is especially frustrating is that most Americans are ignorant about Middle Eastern and Asian conflicts and the role their government has had in them. "While our foreign policy affects the rest of the world, we tend to be psychologically isolated from the rest of the world," Ayesh says. "But we do live in a world."

Ned Odeh travels all over that world on business. In hotels everywhere, he says, you can get CNN—but CNN International is vastly different from the domestic version. "Why is the media trying to blind us?" he wonders.

"There is a tremendous admiration for the American way of life in Jordan. There's a tremendous respect for the American way of living," he says. "The American person is admired, and the American policies are questioned."

Although many Arabs and Muslims understand a hatred for the United States, most can't quite grasp what happened Sept. 11. Stranded in a hotel room in Dallas that day, Odeh says he wept. "What has been done to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is the most horrific sight I've ever seen, and I have been through two wars. My body shook and I was sobbing like a baby," he says. "What was done was unjust—it was not Christian, it was not Jewish, it was not Islamic. I don't know what the hell it was."

On the morning of the attack, Renee Jubran got a phone call at her restaurant, the Falafel Hut, from a woman who said, "Now I want to see what you Arab Americans can say about this."

"I asked her who I was talking to," Jubran says. "She said, 'An American citizen.' I told her, 'You're talking to another American citizen,' and I hung up."

Who knows what it is exactly that makes a person "American"? The Jubran family would seem to meet most criteria. Like many Americans before them, they migrated to this country seeking opportunity and to escape wars of their homeland. Renee's husband, Sam, served six years in the U.S. Army. And in the American entrepreneurial spirit, they opened both a corner grocery store and a restaurant. They worked hard and put their children through college (one daughter is an assistant district attorney in Knox County).

Renee moved to the U.S. with Sam in 1963. They lived in Michigan at first. But they had relatives in Knoxville (Sam Jubran's grandmother was a Harb), and liked the climate better, so they moved here in the late '70s.

This is a bad time for Renee Jubran. A sister is on life support in the Middle East, dying. Jubran must decide whether to get on a plane to go see her one last time, but with a war imminent, she's afraid she'll get stuck there. What would you do?

As she talks, it's as though a lifetime of witnessed bloodshed is all converging on her, refusing to let her go. Faces of the dead show themselves in her mind. A brother shot dead during a hold-up at his store in San Jose. A war she'd like to forget. "I was terrorized when I was 10 years old. We fled our homes when I was 10. That's all I want to say about it." Friends who lost a son in the Sept. 11 terrorism. It's all too much, and the tears come once again. All she has is a wish.

"I know what killing is, I know what suffering is. When you suffer, you know what it means to suffer and you don't want to see other people suffer. I wish one of these days we'll see peace, real peace, just peace."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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