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Seeing Ourselves
Published on Sunday, October 21, 2001 in the Washington Post
Seeing Ourselves
by Diana Abu-Jaber
 
Ten days after the terrorist attacks, I was on campus preparing for the start of school when the clean-cut young man approached and handed me a flier. He looked me in the eye and nodded as if we'd conducted a business transaction. And then I looked at the flier; it called for, among other things, "a rounding up and questioning of all Arabs." My first thought was to tell him he'd confused me with someone else. He hadn't realized I was one of the ones he wanted rounded up. But after I climbed the four flights of stairs to my office, I found the same flier slipped under my office door -- the same door that bears my very Arabic name. For some time, all I could do was stare out my office window at the tiny sliver of sky that shows through the skylight. I remembered that when we lived in Jordan and I was a little girl, there was a woman who used to take care of me who was from a place called Palestine. She used to say: In times of great calamity, clear your eyes and make your mind like a pond of water.

Years later, I read nearly verbatim the same words of advice in a novel by an American writer. It was like coming across a juncture of insight without culture, a moment of mutuality and recognition. I grew up with people always telling me who I was, based on such clues as the color of my skin or the sound of my name, but I often had the sense that they weren't really looking.

Even now, I'm frequently told -- sometimes insistently -- that I don't look Arab. I'm told that I look Russian or French or Irish or Greek or Italian. I don't take it too personally, though I sometimes have the sense that people simply don't want me to look Arab. Just the other day, while discussing the frightening fallout of the attacks, a good friend asked, "You don't think of yourself as Arab, do you? I don't!"

But sometimes things aren't so clear. Even though I've spent most of my life in America, five years ago I was again living in Jordan. An American friend and I were driving through the open countryside and at one point we decided to explore the courtyard of one of the crumbling medieval castles scattered around Jordan. The place appeared to be utterly abandoned and desolate; there was a large rusted padlock on the door. The wind came ringing high over the desert plain, and for miles around the only movement seemed to come from a pack of yellow dogs trotting toward us from the far horizon. Their eyes were soft and their mouths hung open in natural smiles. But then we realized that a man was walking with them and this man had a powerful, rigid face, the aspect of someone who's spent his nights watching the stars and animals, who hadn't learned how to govern his internal state in order to please or comfort other humans.

He approached us with his pack of dogs and the closer he got the more thunderstruck his expression. He finally stopped, raised one hand and pointed at me. My pulse was leaping in my throat. Wind roaring in our ears, both my friend and I stood stock still, unsure if we were intruding. But then his expression seemed to break open and he quietly said, "Anissa?" My grandmother was named Anissa, but she had been dead for more than 30 years. We then learned this man had known her when she was a young woman living in Amman. No one in my family has ever told me I resembled my grandmother -- a woman who died before I was born. But here, years later, and miles away from Amman, this stranger crossed an empty space, squinted through sand and wind, and recognized something.

It's a rare and lovely experience to feel as if someone really has seen you, and it's become more essential than ever for us to try to do just that. We mustn't allow the rage, hatred and terror churned up in the wake of the horrific attacks to tear at our fabric as a people -- as members of a nation or members of the world. Film and television, among other media, have caused viewers to regard Arabs, as well as African Americans and Native Americans -- indeed anyone with dark skin or non-Christian beliefs -- as suspicious, dangerous and even evil. In the wake of terrorism it's natural to feel frightened, angry and disoriented. But to honor our dead and to strengthen our living, we must draw together, recognizing our mutual humanity. We must be at peace -- at the very least -- with ourselves as a nation if we ever want to live in peace with the world.

Today when I enter the little family recreation center at the foot of the hill where I live in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., I overhear one of the mothers bantering with the front desk, saying, "I just wish they would round up all the people with Mohammed and Abu in their names and take them away." She looks up at me; she doesn't know why I'm staring at her. She doesn't know who I am and I do not recognize her. Every day since the terrorist attacks, I've heard comments like these -- a chilling, blind rage that wills people into being Other. How desperately we want a simple world, a place in which some people are innately good and others are innately evil -- how desperately we want to believe that this basic dichotomy will explain why those others do things like hate Americans and attack them. But this is a child's wish for a make-believe world.

The woman who took care of me when I was a child once told me the story of the Tower of Babel. Its creators were punished because they stopped listening to each other: The tower was a monolith, a prideful, fixed eye that stared only at heaven and tried to forget about the earth.

This is a strange and painful time to be Middle Eastern and American -- a time when some people are buying American flags because they're frightened not to fly them. My Aunt J., who also lives in a place called Palestine, once told me: Catastrophes can bring out the very best and the very worst in people. Some people become better than they naturally are and some become much worse. That is why you must not judge ahead of time or expect too much in either direction.

Remembering this makes me hope that there's an opportunity for us to be better: to feel more deeply, to see each other and ourselves more clearly. If only we will look.

Diana Abu-Jaber is a professor of writing and the author of the novel "Arabian Jazz."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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