Revisiting 9/11 as an Arab-American is a challenging exercise.

September 4, 2011
Ghassan Bridi

Revisiting 9/11 as an Arab-American is a challenging exercise.

The difficulty is in being overwhelmed with what to focus on. Under the Arab prism I view this catastrophe with one set of emotions. Under the American prism I view it with another set of emotions.

I spent this September 11th in, of all places, Universal Studios. I was with my wife and a group of Arab-American friends from different countries of ancestry and various religious persuasions. I befriended a man named Mohammad, whom I just met that day and was a brother of a friend of mine who was also there. We were a natural fit. I'm an attorney, he is a CPA-upon finding out our respective professions, the predictable clichéd jokes ensued, and we immediately hit it off.

Mohammad was unlike many "Mohammads" most Americans are accustomed to seeing through their American prism. Though he was originally Palestinian, he is very fair skinned with soft, blue eyes. He is a vibrant, gregarious man who makes friends with nearly everyone he meets. He's DEFINITELY the loudest guy in any room he walks into, though he is one the most gentle and approachable people you will ever meet. And he has a heart of absolute gold-we were in an area of Universal where they had carnival games, and he saw an African American girl that couldn't have been more than 8 or 9 years old, trying to win a stuffed animal prize. Mohammad observed her failed efforts, went over to the booth, won the prize, and gave it to the little girl as they both shared an ear-to-ear smile.

Under the Arab prism, this "Mohammad" is not all that unusual. In fact, this Mohammad is quite common.

While we were in line waiting for the studio tour (by the way, that studio tour was far more entertaining when I was a kid-message to Universal: your rides are terrific, but for a $75 admission fee, let's try punching up the tour a little), Mohammad and I were discussing something I think most Americans unacquainted with Arab culture may find quite interesting. We were talking about how funny it was that most Americans view Arabs in the precise stereotype which represents the small sliver of our population which, we as Arabs, almost routinely make fun of. The average American perception of the "mainstream" Arab being a crazed jihadist is ironically as ridiculous as the average Arab perception of the "mainstream" American being Larry the cable guy.

The whole point behind our conversation was that we're really all the same if you toss aside the American and Arab prisms and just looked at the human beings right in front of you with human eyes. You couldn't distinguish the group I was with from any other group that was there-we spoke the same language, wore the same clothes, and we laughed at the same stupid jokes.

And then it occurred to me. I…we…can't look at 9/11 through Arab prisms, through American prisms, or through Arab-American prisms. I…we… have to look at 9/11 through human eyes-unobstructed by diffracted light and skewed perceptions.

The quote in the title of this article, is from another Arab-American-Kahlil Gibran. Gibran was an acclaimed poet, artist and philosopher, born in Lebanon and who spent his adulthood in the United States, in New York and Boston. Many prominent Americans have quoted him-from Maritn Luther King Jr. to John F. Kennedy. His most famous literary piece was a book entitled "The Prophet" which was originally written in English.

Gibran so eloquently revealed his humanity when he put pen to paper. He once wrote, "I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit."

"…you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit."

I believe Gibran was on to something. The human spirit is a remarkable thing. The pure spirit-not a spirit distorted by being Arab or being American-but a spirit which is purely human without the stain or blemish of division between race, creed, color, and religion. The very human being you were before you even knew to identify yourself as an Arab or as an American or as a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

Through the eyes of this human spirit your attention was drawn to the thousands of Iranians who held candle light vigils in Tehran mourning the American dead on 9/11 only days after the attack. You saw them also in Palestine, Lebanon, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Israel-all over the Arab and Islamic world-Muslims, Christians, and Jews together. You heard the voices of the people and the leaders of those countries extend sympathy for the tragic loss of life on that terrible day.

Through the eyes of this spirit your attention was also drawn to the mass of Americans-Christians, Jews, and Muslims who bravely declared they knew this crime was not about religion, or culture, or people-this crime was about monsters perverting religion and culture and people. You heard those Americans declaring they would not let those monsters define that religion, that culture, and those people.

I am not engaging in hyperbole. Those things did all happen-Americans to this day, still take to the streets to march in solidarity with Arabs and Muslims. The Arab prism may have focused on the bigotry expressed by some, but the human being saw droves of Americans compassionately and courageously standing along side their fellow human beings. The human eye saw tens of thousands of mourners take to the streets in the Middle East only days after the attack. It saw the 9/11 murders being condemned by the most unlikely of American sympathizers-Iran, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority among others. It was difficult to see any of that through the American prism-a half dozen random people caught on a video played over and over on a loop became "every Arab and Muslim celebrating in the streets." It took the human eye to view reality un-obscured by the justifiable emotion of being American on that fateful day.

Perhaps this is the lesson we can glean from September 11, 2001. We are all human beings. And in order for our very real human wounds to heal, we must put down our Arab prisms, and our American prisms, and look to the human being standing next to us while uttering Gibran's exquisite words with nothing obscuring our site except for perhaps an emotional tear, "I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit."

As an Arab, as an American, as a Human Being, I want the legacy of 9/11 to be the death of a monster which appeared one day roaring hatred. And I want that monster's death to make way for the birth of a human being who, rather than roaring with hatred, now lovingly whispers in a distinctly human voice…

"Peace, Shalom, and Salaam."

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