Reclaiming History. Reflections on a decade of 9/11

On September 14 2011, I was asked to provide remarks reflecting on the Arab-American experience at a 9/11 Vigil at Rutgers University, hosted by the Arab Cultural Club. Here are my thoughts:

Thank you to the ACC, the Rutgers community, all of you. I am honored to say a few words to reflect on the experiences of the past decade.

Let me start by saying, our history in this nation did not begin on 9/11. Let me explain.

Yes, it has been a touch decade for our community. The NSEERS program, attacks from fellow Americans, hate-crimes, the hysteria that followed those tragic events, and the hysteria that continues today…

Yes, our community has been under the microscope over the past decade, however we must recognize that our history in this nation did not begin on 9/11.

More importantly, the narrative of our people has been literally hijacked by racists and bigots with agendas, as we’ve seen by the raging Islamophobes pushing the discourse on the community center by the World Trade Center.

We forget that not so long ago, an Arab enclave thrived downtown. Just steps away from the World Trade Center, on Washington Street. Allow me to read a passage out of a NY Times article published last year:

Yes, that is the fragrance of strong coffee in the air, of sweet figs and tart lemons, of pastries that remind buyers of childhoods in Damascus and Beirut. Bazaars abound with handmade rugs and brass lamps and water pipes. Men wear fezzes. A few women retire behind veils. Al-Hoda is the leading newspaper. Business signs — at least those legible to a non-Arabic speaker — proclaim “Rahaim & Malhami,” “Noor & Maloof” and “Sahadi Bros.”

This is not what the lower west side of Manhattan would look like if the much-debated Islamic community center were built two blocks from the World Trade Center site. This is what it looked like decades before the World Trade Center was even envisioned. This is its heritage.

This is our heritage. Our shared history, as immigrants, as Americans.

When the lower west side of Manhattan, just blocks from where the World Trade Center was built was called “Little Syria” and was the heart of the Arab-American community.

Where Khalil Gibran, and Ameen Rihani wrote great works of literature, like the ‘Book of Khaled’, which inspired millions around the world.

So, as we look back at the past ten years, let us remember that our experience doesn’t start on 9/11. Let us reclaim this history by communicating the experiences of our forefathers, as this is our shared, collective history.

Thank you.

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