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     Volume 6 Issue 30 | August 3, 2007 |

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Writing the Wrong

George Orwell Wasn't Kidding

Sharbari Ahmed

Lately I have been ruminating on the concept of fear. I am living in a nation gripped and manipulated by it. Fear is the modus operandi for stripping the American people of their civil rights one by one. And fear aids this administration in sanctioning the bigotry and injustice wrought upon those in this country and abroad who are Muslim or Arab.

The architects of the fear campaign possess a deep understanding of the American psyche. Single out the enemy (usually he or she has their head wrapped in some sort of towel they will helpfully point out, and most importantly, they are distinctly un-American, a concept no one is fully sure about but know that they could be punished for personifying it.) Step two is then to proceed to dehumanise the enemy, making it easier to justifying bombing them.

I think what amazed me recently is how insidious the fear campaign is. I, a relatively rational, educated dissector of the American media, and a Muslim to boot, am just as much prey to it as say, Vern from Duluth, of solid Nordic stock, who has a God Bless America bumper sticker affixed to the back of his Ford pick-up.

I pride myself on being impervious to the machinations of the American media. I send angry messages to a list serve of progressive deshi women on how shows like “24” have villains who are almost always from the Middle East, not to mention FOX news' insistence on covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as if the Israelis are innocent victims. I once sent a message to CNN's dapper Anderson Cooper telling him that he didn't have the guts to be embedded in Hezbollah and show last summer's deadly battle from another perspective, especially since his Prada shirts would probably clash with Islamic green. I told him he wasn't a real journalist. I am still waiting for a response.

Palestine--an endless conflict.

Ever since I could remember the situation in Palestine and Israel has haunted me. Perhaps it is the Shakespearean nature of itit is like a horrendous biblical family squabble. Or maybe it has to do with the land they are fighting over itself; a mythic and holy place.

I have dedicated hours of creative energy into illuminating the conflict from different angles for an American audience, and finally learned to accept that I cannot fully comprehend it because I live an insulated Middle Class life in an idyllic suburb.

The plight of the millions of Palestinians languishing in squalid conditions in the West Bank weighs heavily upon me. I have talked about it, signed petitions, and protested. I even lost friendships over it. And then one evening, on my way home from Manhattan, I met Rafif Darwish. Rafif and his female companion were both Palestinian students studying at a college in Purchase New York. I did most of the talking, chattering about what I was working on, a film about Muslim-Jewish co-existence and how I wanted to film in the West Bank but knew that no American company would fund me, and so on. They both listened politely, expressionless. I became uncomfortable because I got so excited in front of two strangers and stopped talking. The girl asked for my card. Rafif wistfully said, “But you're an American so you will have no trouble if you go there.”

I got out of the cab and encouraged them to visit my website. They nodded and the cab sped off. For two years I heard nothing from the students, and then about two months ago I received e-mail from Rafif, asking for help.

He apologised profusely for bothering me but said that he was graduating in June and was having tremendous difficulty finding a job, could I help him? At first, I was a bit put out, as I had thought about the two students from time to time. And then it happened. It crept into me. Suspicion.

Right after 9/11 the FBI had gone through my mail. It was blatant and a long taloned postal worker named Sheila confirmed it. For at least one year, every day, at around 3 in the afternoon, I heard tapping noises on my phone. I was full of bravado at first, cracking jokes specifically for the benefit of the agents who I imagined to be listening in from a white unmarked van across the street. I even had the gumption to make fun of the President something that can land you in jail these days unless you are a celebrity. Then I began reading about American citizens being “disappeared” for trumped-up crimes. I read about the Guantanomo Bay detainees some as young as fifteen being held without the benefit of due processan intrinsically American ideal. I started to think a bit more about what I said publicly. I could not help but wonder who had access to my e-mail correspondences. And now here was a young Palestinian male contacting me and asking for help.

If I answered him what would happen? For a one brief, terrible moment, I became Pat Buchanan and thought only in stereotypes. Rafif was a terrorist and I imagined being torn from sleep by a light in my face and dragged to a warehouse where I would be interrogated about him.

Another scenario had dark suited CIA agents trotting out my abysmal SAT scores and claiming that was grounds for detention to a secure facility on the North Sea. People are being detained for lesser infractions in this country. Anything is possible right now.

I started going down a mental list of how many times I had publicly called for President Bush's impeachment. I am not trying to be funny. I was genuinely worried. I was ashamed of my thoughts but could not prevent myself from having them. I knew suddenly that I had too much to lose. I have a son, a life, dreams. I kept my fears to myself, however, and circulated Rafif's resume out to friends. My husband suggested that Rafif post on his company's website. I looked at him then, a white man, searching for signs of suspicion or mistrust. None. This was, then, entirely my problem.

My father always told me that everyone, deep down inside has some prejudice. Most people don't even know they are bigoted. I discovered a part of myself that I found embarrassing. I knew I was flawed but I never suspected I was so ordinary. In the end Rafif never responded to an email I sent him asking for more details on what he needed. I am still nervous about helping him. Most recently I was reminded again of the climate of suspicion we live in. An organisation I co-founded with three other women called Muslims For Peace was turned down twice for non-profit status by my government. On paper we are impeccable, a writer, an award winning journalist, an entrepreneur, all mothers, trying to show a different face of Islam to the American public, and yet that is not what our government sees. One guess as to what they picture, maybe, I am ashamed to say, the same thing I did when Rafif asked me for help.

Sharbari Ahmed is a Bngladeshi-American filmmaker and writer living in the US. This is the first installment of her fortnightly column.


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