First, some background. After graduating high school in Baghdad, my father received his medical degree from La Sorbonne in Paris. Returning to Baghdad, he founded a private hospital with an Iraqi partner also educated in Paris. My father was Jewish; his partner Shiite; their nurses Catholic nuns in the then multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Iraqi capital.
Following Israel’s creation, anti-Semitism surged throughout the Arab world. My mother fled with me to Europe. Unable to get permission to legally emigrate, my father smuggled himself to Iran in a fishing boat. From there, he flew to Europe, rejoining us, and bringing us all to America. He got recertified here, and would treat thousands of patients in an office off Fifth Avenue.
Not exactly a terrorist’s story. But in America, where my family learned a different language and customs, we nevertheless had difficulties assimilating. I sensed this even in Sunday school, where nearly everyone was Ashkenazi (European) Jewish, while I was Sephardic (Arab) Jewish. Yes, we shared a common religion, but my family was still different.
I learned English at school. My mother learned English by reading, dictionary at hand, my assigned school books – including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Nor did my parents volunteer where we came from, although friends from the diaspora regularly came over to play backgammon or cards - in Arabic.
I became a reporter, moved to California and became a contributor for the Los Angeles Times, “forgetting” where I came from. As I became more established, however, I started exploring my other world. Thus, I was the only reporter there when Richard Riordan in 1996 became the first Los Angeles mayor to visit the Muslim Public Affairs Council near downtown.
After giving a speech, the Republican Mayor walked out to his limousine, surrounded by immigrants longing for acceptance, as my family had. Few, however, dared vigorously question him. So on that crowded sidewalk, I asked what Riordan’s advice would be to then Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole about integrating Islamic-Americans into the mainstream “You should use them,” he answered. “They can be strong allies.” Before closing the door to his limousine, however, he whispered, “You’re not going to include that in your article?”
Of course I did – while becoming even more aware of the great divide. Outwardly, we Americans include all minorities. Inwardly, we suspect them to be subversive. So when I left newspapering, I went back into the closet. Then, during a vigil I helped organize against Bush’s war in Iraq, a speaker asked if any Iraqis were among us. I hoped someone else might raise their hand; no one did. Neither did I. Over the next several weeks, however, I felt uncomfortable with denying my identity. What, exactly, was shameful of being born to a family which had lived for multi-generations in the cradle of civilization?
My turning point came with the Iraqi elections of 2005 – the promised democracy for which so many lives had allegedly been sacrificed. As an Iraqi-American expatriate, I was allowed to vote. My polling place was El Toro Marine Base in Orange County, near where Alawadi would later be murdered.
After voting, I drank from the rivers of tea and joined an Iraqi Kurdish line dance in the parking lot, our pinkies interlocking to Arabic music from a car CD player. I was out for good – as were my fellow Iraqi-Americans - Muslims, Christians, and Jews – a few who had driven six hours for the privilege.
Yes, the world can be a scary place, and yes, terrorists abound. But we who have become American citizens are not those terrorists. Rather, we are the ones with a foot in both worlds. And our cultural and linguistic understandings can help root out real terrorists, who would also kill us.
We are not the enemy; we are part of the solution. And if we don’t claim this, nobody else will do it for us.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist