Self portrait, 2011

Growing Up Muslim American in DC After 9/11

A story of racism and bullying as an Muslim American in the nation’s capital.

Middle school was horrible for anyone — I don’t care who you were or where you grew up. It sucks. It’s a cesspool of puberty and hormones. Identity crises and who-kissed-whos, gossip sometimes more evil than tabloid pages. I was born in America, raised completely American. I saw all the movies, I thought I knew what I was in for as a teenager in a middle-class American suburb.

I wanted so badly to be cool in the most uncool way possible. My dad never let me shop at Hot Topic. I worshipped punk music but secretly loved The Backstreet Boys. I hacked my way past my AOL “Kids Only” account but never got invited to cool kid parties. I “dared” my girlfriends to watch late night Cinemax when I really just wanted to feel less weird about being amazed by it. I liked all the strange things most wouldn’t talk about it. I was smart, really smart, and painfully uncool.

I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in Northern Virginia in various small suburbs outside of the District. Me, my two older sisters, and brother grew up in rougher areas of Virginia, but by the time I was ready to go to middle school, my father could afford to live closer to his job. He moved us to McLean — a largely white, upper-middle class town. My high school was only a five minute drive from the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Everyone’s parents worked for the government in some way shape or form.

One early morning, just like any other, my whole 8th grade civics class was rushed into our small library to watch a rolled out TV sitting on a cart. I saw images of NYC burning, the Pentagon burning, and a crashed plane burning in the woods. We watched the second plane hit the Twin Towers. I didn’t understand what was happening. No one did. All I could think about was my older sister, Eman, who lived in NYC. I saw the dust covered faces of those on the streets and only saw my sister, my best friend. I couldn’t help but cry, wondering if she was okay. Our parents were called — many of whom worked at the Pentagon, and we were sent home. School was canceled for the remainder of the week.

When I got home, my father was already there, glued to the TV. My father, a Yemeni who worked as a diplomat for the UAE. My father, a single parent of four. His voice was calm and quiet, different from his typically energetic self. That voice became a permanence for the years to come.

The UAE embassy where he worked immediately shrunk its operations in the US for reasons too obvious to ignore. My father feared his ability to continue raising us in America. He brought us all here for a life brighter than one he had in Yemen, with more freedom and opportunity for his daughters and son. For peace, a new start. He managed to keep his position until I completed high school. But over those five years, life was no longer a dream for any of us.

After getting back to the normal routines of school, my desire to be different truly manifested itself in a way I never saw coming. I always knew of my background, and always knew that I was the only one of my siblings lucky enough to have been born in America, to be a citizen. I was always enthralled by my father’s past, my family’s past, and where my roots came from. We traveled back to Yemen frequently, and my father made sure to raise me with the same ideals, food and love he was raised with so that a part of him would not be completely lost. Even then, my identity as an Muslim American was never once the thing that made me feel different than the rest. That was, of course, until 9/11.

Being the youngest child of four gives you some pretty thick skin. I was almost always used to some form of bullying. But being on a different wavelength than your peers in school makes you a special target. Like I said, I was always a little weird. Still, no amount of thick skin could prepare me for the type of bullying I faced after 9/11.

One boy in particular had a special place in his rampant tactics for me. I’ll call him Justin, because Destiny’s Child taught me that I’m above name-dropping my enemies on the internet. I was always a huge slut in his eyes, because I was probably more in tune with and confident with my sexuality than he could feel comfortable with. ‘Slut’ and ‘whore’ were common for a lot of females like me in school, alongside false rumors I usually just ignored.

This name calling seemed to escalate as we got into high school. ‘Slut’ turned into ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorist’ turned into teepeeing my house four times. Teepeeing my house turned into throwing an open water bottle at my back in the hallway. I snapped. I told his best friends to meet me where they all usually smoked cigarettes (“The White Path”) on campus after school, because I was going to kick his ass. And I did. Five foot me, royally kicked this idiotic six foot bastard’s ass for pushing me over the edge. And to prove a point, I did it in front of all his friends. He still managed to give me a bloody nose, but it was an epic fight. After years of him treating me and so many other people in our school like complete and utter shit, I felt a small victory.

The next morning I got called into the principle’s office and they informed me that I was suspended for fighting a student on campus. I tried to explain what he had done numerous times, only to be completely ignored by all of the faculty. I had to meet with our school’s on campus police officer and explain why I was being suspended for a week so he could take note in case I did anything else that needed to be “handled further”. He listened to everything I said, and sympathized with me. He was African American, and little did I know that he would end up being the only faculty member to stand up for me as time passed.

My father laughed at first, “why are you fighting boys?” he’d ask. I told him that I was defending myself, that these were the idiots that destroyed our house repeatedly and harassed me nonstop. My father was never angry. In fact, he was a little humored, but mostly confused as to why I was receiving so much harassment. It seemed that my childish fights were the least of his problems.

About a year later, with no sign of any more bullying from Justin, a new form of harassment started happening at my house.

One early morning, my father woke me up earlier than normal and called me outside angrily. I had no idea what was going on, so I rushed downstairs and walked out of my front door to see about twenty styrofoam plates laying on my driveway leading up to my front door steps. Each plate had a piece of feces with a plastic spoon neatly tucked into it. I was horrified. I turned around and saw a note on my front door, “I wanted to take you out to breakfast, is this what you people eat?”

This no longer carried humor in my father’s eyes. We called the police immediately and let them know what had happened. They came, took photos, left empty promises of finding out more, and left. Our campus police was informed of the incident and brought me into his office to talk. He asked me questions, tried to figure out what exactly was going on and why this level of harassment was occurring. I had no answers, but I could see an look of familiarity in his eyes. I knew he knew that this ran deeper than normal school bullying, and I knew he got it. He genuinely cared, and wanted to find out who was behind this just as much as I did. I felt violated, and angry that someone would do this to my family’s home. I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought my “weirdness” was bringing forward this harassment, but didn’t know why my family had to be involved as well. I just wish they’d confront me.

The next week my best friend, Bella, had slept over on a Friday night. She was on her way out of my house the next morning, and all I heard was a scream after she opened my front door. I ran to see what was wrong, only to find a burned possum lying on my welcome mat. We were horrified. My father was out playing soccer with his friends, and my siblings were nowhere to be found. We called the police, animal control, no one would help. We finally resorted to asking our friends older brother to help us, and my investigation into who was doing this began full-force.

The strange thing about being a bully in grade school is that you think you’re really cool for doing it. You brag about how much of dick you are, talk badly about innocent people to their faces, and tell your friends all the horrible things you’ve done to make other people suffer for no reason. This made it easy to find out who had gone to this extreme level of harassment. His name was DJ, someone I never really had any interaction with at all, aside from being in my biology class. After class one day I confronted DJ, asked him why he had done what he had done, and just as he giggled with a sorry denial, I managed to kick him in the groin. As I walked away he screamed, “I’m telling on you!!!”. And I found my way back into the office. There wasn’t any proof that he had done it, even though everyone knew it. So he got let off the hook, and I got suspended, again.

From that point on, no one seemed to want to mess with me. I can’t say I went about things the right way, but I did stand my ground. My anger and helplessness led me to react violently to the boys who had harassed me. I wasn’t a violent person, I was simply pushed to an edge with no choice, no support from any higher-ups. If faculty at my schools had taken a moment to truly see what was happening within the student body, maybe a conversation could have started, maybe I wouldn’t have had to feel like I was on my own in defending myself or dealing with harassment.

The phenomenon that occurs when you’re dealing with the harassment that comes from an embedded racism at such a young age: you truly don’t understand why these people hate you. All throughout school, I was taught I was an equal. My father raised me as an equal — he didn’t even allow me to feel any different because I was a girl. When all of the sudden, media repeats its oh so common verse of brown people being bad people, a racism gets unearthed. Parents begin talking a way, and their children listen. Children react in their own environments, probably without even realizing what they’re doing. I don’t think I fully comprehended these acts until I left high school and entered a less cookie-cutter world.

I fear more and more for the children in our school systems, now. I want teachers, faculty members, security staff, and mostly, parents to understand that racism begins young. If I was left in school for any longer, who knows what other kind of person I could have encountered and what ways I would have resorted to protecting and defending myself against an entire system that felt like it was against me.

Most importantly: I want young people to know that there are other ways to handle these difficult situations aside from violence. I now realize that my own violence could have been considered an act of terrorism, an act of a “radicalized Muslim”. The reality was that I was young, helpless, and didn’t know how else to tackle my enemies. I didn’t feel any support, because I don’t think anyone realized what was happening to me, not even my father.

Later that year, Justin had gotten in a drunk driving accident and seriously harmed a mother and her child. Our school’s police officer brought up his past cases of delinquency and he was put in juvenile. I moved to NYC the day after my graduation. I came back to DC a few years later to visit during the holidays and an old friend asked if I’d heard about DJ. Apparently, he’d burned down his ex-girlfriend’s parents house and was jailed after that. Again, my case from school was brought up by our campus police officer in court.

Maybe it’s watching too many Tarantino films, or maybe I truly believe that what goes around comes around. Each of my harassers eventually learned their own lessons, in their own ways, without my help. I do wish that someone could have helped them from hurting themselves and others before it reached that point, but sometimes we don’t see what’s right in front of our eyes. Sometimes it’s the acts of unifying, understanding, and supporting that brings justice to those who have done wrong, like the campus police officer who acted when the time was right.

I hope that we all become more understanding, more aware, and more empathetic to the way we treat one another. Our kids need it the most.