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Few things can make me as angry as when a stranger grabs my cooch.
I made the short flight from Salt Lake City to Ontario, California earlier this year to see my friends and family. I emailed my itinerary to my airport ride. She wrote back, after reading through the small print, “Does that really say September 11 Security Fee? That’s fucked.” 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. It’s Baluchi, as in Baluchistan) 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 tested 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 idiocy 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 crotch, I couldn’t help but think, “I really fucking hate 9/11.”
In a surprising twist, I didn’t have any explosives. In front of the women, I had the pleasure of packing the stuff they had carelessly tossed out of my bag and did my best to walk out with my head held high. No one ever says “Please,” “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry” in the TSA. They don’t have to, nor do they think they owe you one.
As I walked out, I heard one woman turn to the other and point out that the clock—the one she referenced when I asked about my flight—was wrong. I absolutely missed my flight. As I sat there waiting for another scheduled flight to get me home, I was left with my seething anger and thoughts. So, being an adult, I muttered, “Fuck you, 9/11. I fucking hate you so goddamn much.”
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. Turns out, my tiny child brain was a lot more progressive than some of my peers.
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 bullshit, 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 Aryan prince 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 perfect 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, okay?).
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, especially since I threatened to tear off his dick and choke him with it. However, those occasional moments paled in comparison to the coming shit storm.
“I Can’t Believe It. They Fucking Forgot My Birthday.”
Most stories people tell begin on that morning of September 11, 2001. Mine starts the night before. I had fucked up 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. And there I was, hobbling around in terrific pain.
September 11 dawned with my mother waking me up, crying. She’s a hysterical person about most things so it took me a minute to realize that something serious had actually happened, but not death-in-the-family levels of serious. 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 shitty eighteenth birthday.
I do not cheapen the tragic loss of life that occurred that day in New York, but it did completely 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 become mad at NOFX. Not only were the big NOFX fans the goons who beat me up in high school (again, for being goth. For all they knew, I was simply another non-white) 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. I was suddenly the fringe minority that was cool to associate with and gave you punk cred. What the fuck 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 “fuck you” against the 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. I believe the number one proponent of Islamophobia were those shit stains on Fox News. It is 2014, and not a day goes by where I don’t glance at the Fox News TV in the break room of my work 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 read several news sources every day, usually for murders and cryptozoological sightings, and not one other news source mentions these stories that Fox News headlines with.
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 the fuck out of 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 an idiot. In all fairness, 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 god fucking help you if you have to even consider the 101 Freeway anywhere near Hollywood on a Friday afternoon—but how the fuck 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 dumbest 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 pretty shitty Muslim, I’m a much bigger target than any doughy, Scandinavian-derived weenie safely watching Fox News 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 Muslim 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… well, my mom is kind of crazy and an anarchist. Now she likes loudly talking about how 9/11 was an inside job, how this was all a ploy to gain a monopoly on foreign oil and how all the leaders of the world needed to be assassinated.
As insane as she sounded, I knew it was because she felt threatened and wanted to fight back, but you can’t exactly punch ignorance. She 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 angriest, most tense afternoons I ever spent with my mother (not including the time I was kicked out of the house when I was eighteen for getting a tattoo) was helping her memorize the Pledge of Allegiance.
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 AN ARAB 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 any dummies 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. Or if I remember my shit eighteenth birthday. That’s still a downer.
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. I may not believe in any deities now, but I do have a particular soft spot for Muslims because I relate to them. 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 sure fucking haven’t.
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. But when I talk about it, and make fun of it, I feel better. When I see other Muslim punks, even when they’re being paraded about as a novelty, I don’t feel like such a lone weirdo. And when I see the words “Never Forget” over an American flag, I can’t help but laugh about how much those assholes refuse to actually let me do just that.