Call 911! There’s an Arab on the Train!

A couple of years ago, an American friend of mine asked me: “Would you want to live in the U.S. ?” I replied in the negative: “Why would I want to live in country where I’m treated as terrorist until proven otherwise?” She said that my expectations were inaccurate; that I would blend in, and go unnoticed in an international city like New York.

Being the skeptic that I am, I had to see for myself before I could make a final judgment.

I arrived in Boston on June 20th, 2009, knowing that I would have to go through “Secondary Screening” at the airport. The waiting room had a weird mix of people:  a Lebanese kid (he looked 16); a Russian young man with missing papers that was trying to weasel his way in; a bunch of disgruntled Spaniards, including a plane crew, that were irked by the fact that they would have to go through the humiliation of secondary screening. My experience was not so bad, I waited for a little over three hours before my turn came up and I was asked a couple of trivial questions about my parents before being allowed out. That was anticlimactic. It was an inconvenience, but it was still easier for a Syrian national to be granted entry to the U.S. than to some Arab countries.

Up until last week, my stay in the U.S. had been one smooth ride. I had been pleasantly surprised to have no incidents, no one with nasty prejudices. I had been treated as any other human being. Then came a trip to Washington D.C. where I opted to take the train because flying for a Syrian in the U.S. does not go without hassle. To my surprise the train  had no WiFi so I unfortunately chose to watch an episode of Al Jazeera documentary in Arabic called The Story of a Revolution ( حكاية ثورة Hikayat Thawra) on the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression and occupation, and yes, the oppression of the various  Arab regimes that were trying to use Palestinian suffering for domestic political gains.

حكاية ثورة - Copyright Al Jazeera

Halfway through the episode I noticed a hawk-eyed middle aged man ogling my screen with a death stare. I did not pay much attention to him and I went back to my documentary. Minutes later I hear him  on the phone talking about me to what I assumed to be 911. He was on a rant about a terrorist watching a video in Arabic, at one point he said something about Jihad as well. He was soon yelling profanity making sure I could hear it though he wasn’t saying it directly to my face, things like: “What the fuck is this shit,” “I’m not putting up with this shit.” He soon proceeded to leave the cart, I assumed he was also going to report me to the train’s staff as well. I took advantage of his absence and called 911 myself and told them that there was a guy acting in a threatening manner because he saw me watching a documentary in Arabic on my laptop. They advised me not to confront him and just move to another cart for my own safety.

Needless to say my train ride was ruined because I was paranoid that at any given stop the police might want take me away or that highly disturbed old man would decide to do a preemptive strike and attack me himself. I wanted so bad to confront him myself, call him out for the ignorant racist that he is, but he looked crazy enough that any exchange of words with him would make him physically violent immediately. Even though I believe I did that right thing by not confronting him, every time I think about it I regret not giving him a piece of my mind.

You might have heard about the college senior that’s suing after he was held for over five hours after an airport screener found  his Arabic flash cards and a book critical of us foreign policy, and you might know that U.S. airports make passengers that carry certain passports go through heightened security measures (the list of countries is politically loaded and has nothing to do with national security any way you look at it.) There was also the case of the Iraqi immigrant that was denied access to a JetBlue flight until he covered a T shirt that said “We will not be silent” in Arabic and in English.  The U.S. has gone a long way since Rosa Parks defiantly declared that she had the right to sit anywhere she wanted on the bus, but it still has a long way before allowing tokens of Arab culture and language onto their trains and airplanes.




  1. F says:

    My husband and I arrived in Boston in August 2009.
    We’re South Africans of Indian descent – I’m a hijaabi and he sports a beard.
    Thankfully we have not had any major episodes so far.
    The one interesting encounter my husband had was when he refused to give a freeloading passerby a cigarette. (Btw, what is up with Bostonian’s trying to freeload cigarette’s off every smoker they see?)

    Immediately, the man decided to challenge him on the basis of Religion.
    ‘That’s the problem with you ‘Islamists!”
    ‘Jesus taught me to share’

    All this over a cigarette!

    • Anas says:

      On the train I looked nothing like the stereotypical Arab/Muslim. I was close shaved and had long hair. I believe racism doesn’t let stereotypes hold it back.

    • Lurker says:

      “Jesus taught me to share.” Now that’s a classic.

      You should have replied “My prophet taught me to be self-sufficient and respectful of others.” :)

  2. علوش says:

    مافي أكتر من المجانين، موجودين بكل الدول طبعاً.

    الولايات المتحدة هي أمة المهاجرين، وصعب كتير أتقبل فكرة الخطر القومي عليهم!، الولايات المتحدة انطلقت للأمام لأنها كانت أرض الفرص ومكان ليبدأ كل انسان حياته بغض النظر عن عرقه وعن دينه، لكن المجانين على ما يبدو معهم جنون الاضطراب وانو جميع الناس بدها تقتلهم، وهذا ما بيتعلق مع أحداث 11 أيلول، عملوا هل الشي مع جميع الجنسيات المختلفة عن العرق الأوروبي، لك حتى الايطاليين تعرضوا لنفس القصة.

    الأحلى من هيك كانوا يحتلو أراضي القبائل المحلية ويدبحوهم ويسخلوا فروة رأسهم ويعتبروهم خطر قومي!.

    طبعاً عم أحكي عن فئة المجانين، والمصيبة الأكبر هي انو واحد من هل المجانين يستلم مقاليد الحكم!!.

    لك منيح طلعت بالقطار، لو كانت طيارة شو كان صار :)

    • Anas says:

      لك الأنكى من هيك إنو لما زلمي أبيض بيدمر مبنى فيدرالي لمصلحة الضرائب بطيارته الإعلام بيقول عنو إنو هوي رجل مضطرب وغاضب وما بيجيبوا كلمة إرهابي بتاتاً. يعني المعايير المزدوجة شي بيفلق الراس.

      صديقي لو كنت طلعت بالطيارة كنت لا فتحت لابتوب ولا فتحت تمي، ما بتعرف شو ممكن يجنوا عليك بالطيارة، يعني للعربي الطيارة سجن طائر ما بتسترتجي تحفص لا يمين ولا شمال.

  3. Amanda says:

    That is pretty unbelieveable. I’m sorry you had to go through that and I know exactly what you feel right now – wanting to confront him, but at the same time trying to keep sane.

    Brazilians do not have such a hard time at US (though it is not easy either), but Europe is harder on us. We don’t need visas to go there, but more and more often we have cases of people being sent back because they suspect we are illegal immigrants. For women traveling alone it is even worse – we are treated as prostitutes.

    Last year, there was a case of a professor who was invited to speak in a spanish university. She had all her papers right and still they sent her back.

    I understand they are afraid of terrorism, or they are afraid that their country will be “flooded” with prostitutes. But still, it doesn’t justify the humiliation and constant mistreatment. I’m flying to Madrid in June (then getting a flight to London where I’ll be studying for a couple of month). I really reaaally hope they don’t think I am some kind of hooker.

    Oh, and I am not too excited about the “full body scan” (new machine in London airports that scan your body and it looks like you are naked on the screen. Have you seen that thing?) either.

  4. cc says:

    I have not been to the US in years, but next time I go I will avoid bringing my Arabic flashcards. Are you studying in Boston? It is a nice town.

  5. Yasser says:

    Don’t you know AlJazeera starts with AL…

  6. Muhammed says:

    A similar story happened to me on the train to DC with my Omani friend. Apparently a drunk woman with her idiotic boyfriend looked at both of us and yelled in her own “smart” way that we were both terrorists because of the unfortunate Arab looks that we were blessed with. Fortunately and calmly enough, they were both kicked off the next train station and we both continued on our way peacefully after some Americans apologized to us for the misbehavior. Things like that happen in the U.S.; nevertheless, the experience of living in there is one of its kind …

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