Nobody cool in America had a moustache in those days. Magnum PI, which starred Tom Selleck and his moustache, had already been off the air for a few years. Even worse, Saddam Hussein had a moustache. And more than anyone else in suburban Baltimore, where I was stuck in my junior year of high school, my father – with his moustache – looked a lot like Saddam Hussein.
Back then, Bush-père was on TV daily, wagging his finger, lecturing a lot and then threatening the Iraqi president, who he always addressed, bizarrely, by his first name. Something about the irregular familiarity and the utter mispronounciation of ‘Saddam’ felt dismissive and insulting not just of the man, but of a language that belonged to millions, implicating people who had nothing to do with megalomania or oil.
But proper syllabic emphasis was mere collateral damage in the war crescendo of the global coalition that would eventually rumble with Iraq. The whole world against one bad moustachioed man.
In another context, my dad, with his jet black hair, dark eyes and new moustache could have been dashing. Debonair. Even Spanish.
But he wasn’t, isn’t, and soon enough we were bombing ‘Saddam’, and on minivans and station wagons everywhere, jingoistic bumper stickers appeared, alongside those boasting of honour students at elementary schools across Baltimore County.
It was the first war for many younger Americans. Yellow ribbons were ubiquitous, America – so it seemed – was united. Thus something was clearly wrong with those of us who questioned what was happening or felt uncomfortable with the whole endeavour.
Given our very American obsession with race, our ‘enemy’ was, naturally, radicalized. Thus we weren’t at war with a former client dictator to whom we had sold the weapons to fight a proxy war against Iran. We weren’t at war with a former client dictator whose plan to claim Kuwait was green-lighted by the American ambassador to Iraq. No. In the absence of nuance and context, we were simply at war with Arabs. Or that at least is what was understood at my school and in my neighbourhood, which at that time was, to me, the whole entirety of the USA.
While Desert Storm was the first time the US was in open combat with an Arab enemy, it came on the heels of decades of demonization of Arabs in the collective American consciousness. Ever since the founding of the state of Israel and the American identification with the Israeli narrative, Arabs had been understood to be either irrational terrorists or oil sheikhs intent on world domination. In pop culture, they had been the go-to bad guy.
‘Dad,’ we – my three siblings and I – begged, ‘shave the tache!’
He didn’t, but the war, mercifully, was over within weeks. At the time, American memories seemed amazingly short. Life went back to normal, or at least to what it had been like before, almost overnight. I thought then that the war might be the low point in the American perception of Arabs and therefore Arab Americans – really, how much worse than a war could it get? In fact, things began to look up pretty soon after. There was the immediate improvement in quality-of-life that comes upon graduating high school and going to college. I met other Arab Americans, other people of colour and other folks who were more critical of American foreign policy.
And the Palestinian/Israeli conflict – which had motivated the less than flattering understanding of Arabs in America – seemed to be coming to an end with the onset of the Oslo process. The nightly news was dominated instead by conflicts in other parts of the world. Action flicks and TV shows then had a whole array of new ethnic stereotypes with which to fill their scripts. It was a relatively good decade.
Though years later in 2000 the peace process collapsed, Arab American voices were stronger than they had ever been, even if they were still dwarfed by those voicing the Israeli narrative. Non-Arab/non-Muslim progressive activists had taken up the issue of Palestine, talking divestment and boycotts, and white kids were spending their summers in the Occupied Territories – it was almost the new old South Africa.
It even seemed as though the next generation of Arab Americans might have it easy, unfettered by the sheer weight of being an Arab in America. Eventually Arab Americans might come to have an honoured place with all the other ‘ethnics’, like Greek and Italian Americans. Could a parade be that far off?
But then 9/11 happened.
You don’t need me to tell you what came next.
The reality was, Arabs and Arab Americans weren’t familiar enough and their stories weren’t known enough. ‘Arab’ wasn’t really seen as an American ethnicity, and neither was Islam seen as an American religion.
Arab Americans had long been accustomed to the cycle where our fortunes in some ways were tied to the geopolitical situation du jour. If something went ‘BOOM’ in America or in American skies or if some Arab did something criminal, we knew that at the same time we were processing our grief, loss and vulnerability as Americans that we were to expect a backlash as Arab Americans. The 1991 Gulf War was one event of many in this history. Usually, as is the case with cycles, the US seemed able to move on and we would emerge a little more seasoned for the next time something similar happened. Those of us who experienced the 1991 war as the ‘enemy-other’ for example, knew to hold our breath for the days it was assumed an Arab had blown up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. We knew being regarded with suspicion would pass, one way or another, while the loss of lives in a senseless attack would not.
But this time, we haven’t seemed really able to get out of the post-9/11 backlash, which is now a decade old. It has ebbed and flowed, but from the immediate days following the attacks when several innocent people were murdered in hate crimes to today’s raging Islamophobia, we seem to be in one open-ended era.
While the death of Osama bin Laden has bookended for many the period begun by the devastation wrought in lower Manhattan, Washington DC, and the field in Pennsylvania, the continued rabid discourse of pundits and politicians would suggest the ‘post’ is not yet past.
My father shaved his moustache off two decades ago, as soon as a respectable time had passed after the war’s end, so it didn’t look like he did it in reaction to any kind of acknowledgement that somehow with the moustache he did sort of look like Saddam. Of course some gains were made in these ten years. On the theme of Arab or Muslim Americans, books have been published, movies made, reality shows are even in the works. Many Americans have participated in speaking and acting out against the nativist and hateful elements that have been openly operating since 2001. Thanks to the Arab revolutions, despots no longer are the sole face of Arabs. Moustaches seem less problematic than before.
But these anniversaries are inevitable times of pause.
In that silence, I wonder what the next decade looks like. What its conversations, its national and international dialogues will sound like. Which voices will speak for it. In that suspended moment, I hope for better than what we have said and what we have done since that September.
And then the clock starts ticking again.
Photograph by James Gordon