Originally printed in Razorcake 81, Aug./Sept. 2014, here is a printable PDF and full text of Donna Ramone’s 9/11 Never Let Me Forget. This version is updated and expanded.
These zines are also available directly from Razorcake for $2, here.
9/11, Never Let Me Forget-Expanded Version
By Donna Ramone
2014, or “9/11, Never Let Me Forget”
Few things can make me as angry as when a stranger grabs my crotch.
I made the short flight from Salt Lake City to Ontario, California earlier this year to see my friends and family. After my quick vacation, I got a ride back to the airport and took my place in the massive security line. It took almost an hour to get to the front, and if I didn’t hurry I was going to be last on the plane. I disrobed. I took off my shoes and jacket as I was commanded to do and assumed the disco position for the radiation tube to get a good naked look at me. I jumped out, ready to grab my bag and bolt when I heard the very stern, and very familiar, “Miss, could you step aside.”
My last name gives away the fact that I am Middle Eastern. (The byline lied; my last name isn’t Ramone.) Unfortunately, so does my face, and probably my thighs. Getting taken aside or getting an extra pat down is just part of my airport experience and has been since I was a teenager. At 5’ 3” and 130 lbs., I’m easily the greatest threat any airport has ever known. Usually, I roll my eyes, let them hear one of my annoying Californian “totally”s, and after a full leg and back rub, I’m let go. Usually.
“Hold out your hands, palms up.” This is a new security measure I’m already accustomed to. A little cotton pad is held in what looks like a big, black plastic shoehorn. They rubbed the cotton across my hands. Then the cotton pad was dropped in a machine which tests to see if there is any explosive material residue. That’s right, friends, I regularly have my hands tested for explosives. I was dead-eyed and irritated, waiting for this to be over so I could catch my plane. I glanced over at the screen and looked for the green “OKAY” to flash and for someone to give me the, “You may go.” Instead, I saw something I was not ready for. It flashed red with the word “ALARM,” and—would you believe it—an alarm sounded.
Two women grabbed me, took away all my stuff—in particular my phone—and put me in a frosted-glass holding cell. In their eyes, I was already a criminal. They barked orders at me while they pulled out all of my unmentionables looking for my explosives, I guess.
“Are these all of your things?”
“Where are you flying to?”
“Do you understand what we’re asking you?”
I was swallowing my anger but I suddenly spit some up. “You’re going to make me miss my flight.” I probably sounded like I was growling.
She asked what time my flight was and then told me I had “plenty of time.” Knowing that was a complete lie, I took the words as a threat and shut up. Then in a very bored tone, one woman read me the procedure about to happen while the other made me stand up and started to perform said procedure. All it consisted of was touching the surface of my entire body. As I felt this stranger take solid hold of my bathing suit areas, I couldn’t help but think, “I really hate you, 9/11.”
In a surprising twist, I didn’t have any explosives.
I also missed my flight.
Born in the USA?
This didn’t start in the Fall of 2001, though, as much as I wish it had. As a kid, I eventually learned I was not lumped in with the so-called “good guys.” I remember seeing Popeye cartoons from the ‘40s, where he fights some fat, bearded Arab men living in a tent in the desert and thinking, “The bad guy looks just like my uncle.” I’m just one of many ethnicities that unfortunately got thrown in the “not good” pile by the melting pot of America. Being a child, I never really understood what that could mean for me, though. I had already separated bad guys from their ethnicity or the religion they practiced, and had never thought to mix the two.
The moment I personally felt like things were amiss came in 1990, when The Gulf War began. I’m not sure how many of you really remember that short-lived bloodbath, but I do. I remember it better than anything else that decade. I remember it because I had just turned seven and that was the first time anyone had ever looked me in the eyes and said, “Go back to your country.” I’ll never forget the look on the face of the little white boy who said it, either. I was stunned and confused, but you better believe I held back any tears and shouted, “This is my country, Buttface!”
I was born in Los Angeles County, but my parents were born and moved here from a tiny island of paradise, Bahrain. Up until this point, I had never fully found myself stereotyped as anything other than a little girl. Being a little girl, it felt justified and I never found myself upset or misrepresented. For all I knew, everyone traveled to see their extended family and spoke other languages. My entire extended family still resides on that little gorgeous teardrop in the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf, which is a whole debate I’m not about to get into but you’re welcome to look it up yourself). Back then, I visited them almost every summer for the entire three months. If someone else paid for it and work had summer breaks, I would still be going now. It was my other home. So, could someone please explain to the long-haired seven-year-old with the big nose why the U.S. military was threatening to drop a bomb on her grandma?
That same year my aunts sent a photo of themselves in their colored bathrobes, wearing gas masks. The masks were simply precautionary and the photo was supposed to be funny; my parents sure thought so. It completely terrified me. I stayed awake, night after night, wondering what was going to happen if they did need those masks. I was convinced the military would kill them using the Joker’s Laughing Gas (Batman had come out the year before and I was seven).
What was even worse was how much the news and my neighbors were all for this war. They thought it was awesome and made Saddam Hussein jokes where the punch line was his death. If what they said was true, then why did my grandmother think he was a great leader? And why did my uncle, the Bahraini diplomat in Iraq, get a photo taken with him? I was young and didn’t understand foreign policy or political conflict. I thought World War III was happening and my entire family was going to get wiped out by one well-placed atom bomb, just like what I had learned happened in Japan.
Honestly, I still think there is nothing conceivably worse than war.
Somewhere in here, public opinion solidified that Arabs or Muslims (or in my case, a deadly combination of both) were all bomb-wielding villains. In high school, I got teased about it here and there, but I was too busy getting made fun of for being goth for them to assume I was anything other than Mexican. In college, I attacked a guy who made a similar assumption and said, “You have to admit, the world would be a better place if we just paved over the Middle East.” My friends dragged me off before I could get expelled for fighting. However, those occasional moments paled in comparison to the coming storm.
“I Can’t Believe It. They Forgot My Birthday.”
Most stories people tell begin on that morning of September 11, 2001. Mine starts the night before. I had busted my ankle something awful during my soccer game and had to ice it all night to keep the swelling down. We lost the game, too, but that wasn’t why I was so upset. I was upset because September 12, 2001 marked my eighteenth birthday. The one I had been waiting my entire life to finally reach so I could make a legal break for it.
September 11 dawned with my mother waking me up, crying. I hopped on my one good foot to the TV in the living room and watched the same newsreel loop the rest of the country was glued to that same moment. As the magnitude of what had occurred and who was responsible sunk in, I immediately became scared for the safety of both my family and me. Only this time, I was terrified of being put in an internment camp, like the Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.
Or worse—having a crappy eighteenth birthday.
I do not cheapen the tragic loss of life that occurred that day in New York, but it did ruin my eighteenth birthday—mostly because everyone forgot. As time passed, I wasn’t just angry with 9/11 for ruining my really important birthday. I had also become mad at NOFX. Not only were the big NOFX fans the goons who beat me up in high school, but now there was this super popular “Not My President” shirt everyone had on at punk shows. I was nineteen and thought it was cool, too. Until I was introduced as someone’s “Muslim friend.” Oh, yes. What is worse? Having honest racism cut you down, or having dishonest smiles so someone can seem diverse and cool? Nothing screams social consciousness like having a female Arab Muslim punk friend post 9/11, apparently, and it felt like everyone needed to cash in on this hot commodity. People I never would have expected it from used their friendship with me as the ultimate middle finger against the supposed White Reagan Fox News America.
Most Muslims Don’t Wear Turbans
Only a few years ago did I learn a new buzzword: Islamophobia. A real thing, it is the fear of Islam and those who practice Islam. It is 2014, and not a day goes by where I don’t glance at the news TV in the break room of my federal job and see a video or photo of someone Muslim and the need to insist they’re all terrifying people, specifically out to get white Americans.
I was listening to one of the biggest comedy podcasts in the country and the host openly admitted that news images of angry Arab men protesting scares him. One time, a self-professed socially conscious individual asked me if I “spoke Muslim.” My look of confusion and long-lasting, “Uhhhh…” helped them recognize they had misspoken and they quickly corrected with, “I’m sorry, I mean, do you know how to speak Islam?”
Even my liberal artist boss at one of my old jobs, in an effort to make small talk, asked me, “So what do you think about terrorism?” Choosing my words wisely, I slowly broke it down as best I could that he was much more frightened of it than anyone living in a multi-million dollar Los Angeles home should be. He stared at me for a long time afterwards, and I wondered if I was the first Muslim woman he had ever personally spoken to, especially since he had sold multiple pricey artworks of Muslim women. He was probably wondering if I had just called him stupid. In all fairness, I think I kind of had.
That’s really the heart of the big, stupid issue here. Stereotyping. It’s like when Saturday Night Live did that “The Californians” sketch, where blonde dummies in giant beachside homes talk excessively about what freeways to take at different parts of the day. The amount of friends I have that sent me that clip, laughing, saying “Oh my god, that’s you” made me lie awake in bed. Sure, I’ve complained about freeways, and made references to how driving in particular directions during a certain time of day is horrific, and lord help you if you have to even consider the 101 Freeway anywhere near Hollywood on a Friday afternoon—but how am I immediately linked to something this superficial and image-obsessed?
Because stereotyping is the easiest thing a brain can do. I may be from Southern California and call everything I see, including plants and animals, “Dude,” but I’m hardly the slack jawed, well-dressed, Less Than Zero waif. And I might be Arab and raised Muslim, but that doesn’t mean I’m a subservient woman in a hijab, making fertilizer bombs to take on airplanes. The most irrational Arab stereotype of them all is that the villain terrorists are all Arab men in turbans and beards, trying to specifically kill white Christian Americans.
I think one of the biggest issues people don’t seem to understand is when these so-called terrorists are killing people, they’re murdering other Muslims in their home country ninety-nine percent of the time. As an Arab woman who spends time in Arab countries and is a very moderate Muslim, I’m a much bigger target than any American safely watching MSNBC from their couch. Listen or watch any news outlet and you’ll see headlines about bomb blasts killing people in Pakistan or Yemen, not Missouri or Florida.
What many don’t seem to grasp is terrorists hate everything and everyone that isn’t them, not just America. These are people who simply want to see the world burn and spend every second they have lighting matches.
Of course I wasn’t the only one affected. In the wake of 9/11, after he turned eighteen, my brother was detained at airports more often than I was. My dad wouldn’t go to the mosque every Friday, like I know he really enjoyed doing. My mom had been living as a legal alien here in the States with a green card, but to continue to freely travel to Bahrain—as she had done for thirty years—she had to become a U.S. citizen. One of the tensest afternoons I ever spent with my mother (not including the time I was briefly kicked out of the house when I was eighteen for getting a tattoo) was helping her memorize the Pledge of Allegiance. “I’ve lived here for over thirty years. I raised two American children. Why do I have to memorize a poem to prove my loyalty?”
What Ding-Dong Doesn’t Love Falafel?
Today, my entire family is extremely conscious of foreign policy and race relations. When growing up, I don’t think we ever considered ourselves very politically conscious at all. My brother and my dad now get into arguments about how we should present ourselves ethnically. My dad wants us to go low-key and let people assume we’re Italian or Armenian. My brother wants to fly a banner across the front of our house that reads, “JESUS WAS MIDDLE EASTERN AND SO AM I.” I fall right in the middle. I’m incredibly proud of who I am and the beautiful culture I was lucky enough to be raised in, but also don’t want anyone thinking it’s okay to just start confronting me with their half-baked ideas and ramming their opinions down my throat. It can also ruin my day if I see fear and/or glee in a person’s face when I have to correct someone who assumes I can speak Spanish.
I can’t shed my Arab-ness, nor would I ever want to. It’s not just in my bones and blood, but it’s my upbringing. Arab and Muslim culture are so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them. And have you ever tasted anything as delicious as Arabic food? I never have.
9/11 made it so I feel like I’m still getting picked on for being an outsider when I have done nothing but exist.
I have two flights planned this summer and I’m already tense about whether a stranger is going to be getting their fingers between the underwire of my bra and my boob again. And when I see the words “Never Forget” over an American flag, I can’t help but laugh about how much the world will never allow me to do just that.
2015, or “Halal Atcha Grrrl”
It’s an unfortunate travesty stereotyping isn’t something I can punch in its face and be over with. Over a year ago, I published “9/11, Never Let Me Forget.” The publication later received an anonymous letter addressed to me. It contained a page from a European Nationalist rag that had reprinted a speech about removing “monsters” from European nations (the monsters being Muslims). There were a couple randomly highlighted sentences and underlined words. Around the made-up statistic of “55% of all Dutch favor a total ban on Muslim immigration” came the sender’s only written note: “Our numbers are growing. We are winning.”
Discussing my adolescence had resulted in hate mail and I can’t understand why. Islam isn’t some scary, violent, woman-hating cult out of the dark deserts of Saudi Arabia. It’s practiced by twenty-three percent of the world—that’s nearly one in every four people. But in the States, the number of Muslims is less than one percent of the population, just under two million people. The vast majority of those people are immigrants—the rest are often the children of immigrants—and they come from every corner of the globe.
I’m from the Arabian red tea-drinking, loud, and generous corner, but someone else might be from the Chinese green tea-drinking, humble, and determined corner. How Islam is translated between countries can be vastly different. In Northern India, a colorful, mystical Sufi celebration takes place. Simultaneously, I’m stuck in a convention center in Ontario, California, bored and ignoring a lecture on the evils of premarital relations. In the same way one can culturally identify as Jewish, Muslim lives are ingrained with so much more than religious teachings. It’s a huge, diverse, all-encompassing culture that’s bigger than the faith itself, and the majority of the people surrounding me have no idea how beautiful it all is.
Regrettably, that’s not what America currently understands Islam to be. Without any personal contact, it would seem there are only Arabic-speaking Muslim men who murder white Americans, while their subjugated hijab-wearing wife helps. That’s a scary picture painted for someone who has never visited Cairo or eaten baklava. And that fear sells. It makes news outlets millions in ad revenue because when the news is sensational, it is entertaining. But that sensation and money has a severe cost at many people’s expense.
I encounter racism every single stupid day. It’s like a hammer slamming down on an unsuspecting finger: comments on my friends’ Facebook pages, off-hand remarks by people near me, shirts people proudly wear in public, a real terrible new X-Files episode. Unless I seal shut my eyes and ears, that hammer will find me and remind me there are people out there who hate me enough to throw me out of my home.
As the presidential race continues, the candidates and news anchors repeatedly mention what needs to be done about Muslims. Can’t they use another word that doesn’t implicate 1.6 billion human beings, turning their identity into an insult? Hey, think you can get the fear vote without promising people you plan to monitor me and my neighborhood? Some Americans may feel safer but now I’m terrified—aren’t I part of America, too?
It’s difficult to describe how it feels to be the target of racism or xenophobia to someone who has never experienced it. One moment, I’m weighing the pros and cons of doing my laundry. The next, I see or hear something that references me and my entire family in a terribly hateful way. Emotions fire wildly, and I’m gripped by fight-or-flight. I’m momentarily frozen in an overwhelming mix of panic, fear, sadness, hurt, anger, and intense pain. Then, slowly, reason floats in. I shake it off and try to let it fade. But it always leaves a tiny cut. That’s genuinely what it feels like over time: death from a thousand cuts.
Those tiny cuts come from everyone; the attacks on Paris and Brussels brought out some selective sympathy I wasn’t ready for. Where was this reaction for Lebanon, Nigeria, Turkey, Pakistan, and Syria? My friends repeatedly screamed, “Religion sucks!” as their stance against terrorism, and that hurt, too. Blaming religion means inherently blaming Islam for those actions. Power begets violence begets power. “Religion is the source of all violence” is an ignorant statement. Insisting all violence is religiously based is a terribly shortsighted and unfair thing to assume. Your church-going grandma would be ashamed. Atheism doesn’t give an opinion any more validity. It forces the narrative that your opinion is right and Muslims are wrong. And if you truly believe that, time to check your privilege.
When news of the shooting in San Bernardino first broke, my brother and I anxiously texted each other. “Please don’t be Muslim,” we both pleaded to the Patron Saint of Racist Backlash. We do this every time any news of violence trickles in, and we know the drill when the suspect is Muslim. “The drill” for me is staying the hell away from the Internet for a week and waiting at least a month before flying to visit my parents. (Just being Muslim still puts you on the FBI terror suspect list. FBI training materials liked to use the fake name of “Mohammed Raghead.”) I’ll see a lot of incredibly hateful comments and occasional threats of genocide if I don’t do the drill.
I have been repeatedly humiliated in the middle of a crowded airport when my crotch and butt were groped by the TSA and tested for explosive material. For clarity: my vagina was tested for explosives.)
In January, a co-worker and I were making small talk when he asked my race. He then giggled and said, “Heh, don’t kill me.” He genuinely thought that was an appropriate and humorous response. That evening I went to see Mick Foley, wrestling legend and Santa Claus advocate, on his speaking tour. The event was held at a comedy club, with a local opener by the name of Marcus the Comedian. Marcus says, “So I was getting on a plane, right?” and every single muscle in my body tensed. I knew exactly where this unoriginal, poor man’s Dane Cook was going. The punch line was “Don’t let someone named Mahmood on my plane!” and the room erupted with laughter. Like a ripped bag of groceries, my emotions tore through and spilled out. I doubled over, face in my hands, and I started sobbing. It’s the kind of crying where you’re so overwrought with emotion you can no longer hold yourself upright and your face and clothing get soaked. In a sea of two hundred white people laughing, I was drowning.
Marcus the “comedian” then did a wildly offensive impression of what Arabic sounds like, and an ululation. Ululation is the name of the loud, long high-pitched call where someone moves his or her tongue and uvula quickly. Written out, it would be something like, “Leeleeleeleelee!” That’s what women like me do at Arab celebrations, especially weddings and graduations. It’s a special thing a woman does when they’re really happy for someone. If you think it’s also a battle cry in war, that’s just the racism of western pop culture hard at work.
I had no idea what to do besides cry. I felt so defeated. Later I did something I hadn’t done in years: I called my mom. “Don’t listen to any of it!” she resolutely told me in her signature angry tone. “Stop crying. Don’t be weak—be strong! Fight!” So here I am, fighting by asking the world to understand my experience, explaining how hard it is to go outside some days because I’m scared my face will give me away and someone will try and hurt me. Talking about how my family has an escape plan to leave the country if things get too dangerous for us to live here. Describing how, at thirty-two years old, I’ve experienced for the first time what it’s like to see myself positively represented in pop culture through the comic book Ms. Marvel. Admitting how I sit and cry after every issue because I can’t emotionally handle it. These experiences are important for anyone to recognize if they sincerely want to understand my struggle.
All I ask of everyone reading this is simple: listen. Take the back seat, keep your opinions in your pocket, and just listen. If you have a question, ask politely, but give others the podium. It meant so much to me that Andrew Jackson Jihad changed their terrible band name. It irks me when I see art of a woman in a niqab holding a large gun. It was incredibly difficult to relive those painful moments and write this. It doesn’t matter what poorly translated Qur’an verse you saw online, or what you think “sharia law” means, or even your opinion on the cultural practice of wearing a hijab—because your opinion doesn’t matter when it’s someone else’s life.
A life someone may try to take because they just couldn’t listen.
2016, or “Here we go, again”
It’s now just before the end of 2016, and as I read over the articles I wrote in 2014 and 2015 I’m struck by how little has changed and how much has come full circle. As we collectively condemn the words and ideas behind a man saying “grab ‘em by the pussy,” I constantly have my genitals grabbed at airports due to security concerns. As I felt some inherent mistrust against those touting “Not My President” in 2004, the phrase has returned as a hashtag and now it’s wearing a safety pin. As I worried about Muslims being registered, banned, or put in internment camps fifteen years ago, I now listen to political figures arguing if it would be constitutional to actually do so.
“Terrorist” was the band name my friends in Canada went with, and I wore a little patch of theirs on my punk jacket. A man spotted me across the supermarket and got in my face, demanding to know if I was, indeed, a terrorist. I insisted it was a band and he backed off, telling me, “You can never be too careful. Anyone could be a terrorist these days.” But it isn’t really anyone to him, is it? I want to fix that.
My dad told me he doesn’t like hanging out at the mosque anymore after he ended up in conversation with an FBI informant. There were two men there, one asking where the young guys were because he was “new in town and looking to make friends.” The other was an older man who wouldn’t stop asking my dad really personal questions about where he was from and who he was friends with. Everyone knew what these two were doing, and it hurt to feel suspected and targeted.
The mosque I grew up going to, where I learned how to how to do a jump shot in basketball, was one of several California mosques to receive a threatening letter. “There is a new sheriff in town—President Donald Trump. He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again,” the note read. “And he’s going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews. You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.”
Calling people “racist” or “bigot” isn’t going to change minds or work to build bridges. Telling someone their white skin gives them privilege when they’re struggling paycheck to paycheck probably won’t result in a civil discussion. Acting like one side of this political coin is inherently right and the other is unbelievably evil won’t help the many minority groups concerned for their futures. Conversations need to happen, without the internet involved, so open and frank communication can allow all parties to listen and, hopefully, understand and empathize.
I don’t know how to find the kind of person who would send hate mail and ask them to talk to me. I don’t have a “crazy uncle” at Thanksgiving discussing conspiracy theories. I haven’t been able to personally meet anyone who believes Muslims are inherently bad people. So, now this zine is here. People can read about me, and my life, and can contact me and start a conversation. Pass this around. Give it to someone curious. Give it to upset family members. Mail it to Trump Tower.
Hello, I’m Donna. It’s very nice to finally meet you.
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