When I Was Hated Like an Arab

By Daniel Vahab

Published July 24, 2008, issue of August 01, 2008.
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It happened not so long ago, on a particularly hot Saturday afternoon in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Red shopping carts hugged the newly paved road. Baby strollers and soccer moms passed by. I had just parked, and was walking up to Target to use up the $50 in gift cards I had gotten for my birthday a few days before.

A big man, dressed in construction clothes, with a scruffy look, was walking toward his 4x4. As I passed him, he glared at me and said, “I’m gonna take out my .22 and kill all them Arabs.”

I was confused and angry. Did he think I was Arab because I had blotched skin, a long goatee, black hair and brown eyes? I wanted to tell this jerk that my grandpa served in World War II and my cousin in Vietnam, that my mom is a professional volunteer who hosts the annual Memorial Day service and parade in Veterans Park in West Boca Raton. I wanted to tell him that I was in Junior ROTC in high school, that as a boy I wanted to join the military (until I read “Johnny Got His Gun” and “All Quiet on the Western Front”).

And then, I felt like the jerk. I shouldn’t want to tell him any of this. It shouldn’t matter. This is supposed to be America.

Then I suddenly saw all these Middle Eastern people — my brethren. I felt ashamed, and I sympathized with them. I wanted to crush that jerk. But his blatant racism shook me.

I am uniquely mixed. I’m Iranian from my dad’s side, who was raised Muslim, and I’m Jewish German and Russian from my mom’s side.

My older brother always says that we should serve as ambassadors for peace in the Middle East because if our family can function properly, then so can everyone else. Growing up, we went to temple. When members would ask if there’d ever be peace in the Middle East, Rabbi Merle Singer, the head rabbi would joke, “Not in my lifetime, but maybe in God’s.”

We’re not religious, but everyone in my family wears a necklace with a “Shema” charm engraved in Hebrew. The symbol means that we’re all one. It’s uniting. It’s only one sided, and has one edge.

My Mom was the first one to get it. She wanted non-Jewish people to look at it and make a comment so that she could tell them what it means. Corny, I know. She’s like that.

My little brother and older brother wear one, too. We never take it off. We’ll be buried with it on.

Sadly, I’ve tucked my symbol under my shirt before because I was ashamed of being Jewish. Like when someone said a Jewish stereotype.

My mom’s dad was in the garment industry, and my dad’s dad sold Persian carpets. Not that different, come to think of it.

My girlfriend is Turkish Muslim. She won’t eat white fish, but she loves matzo ball soup. My parents were rebels in their cultures after they got married. But they were young and in love and didn’t care. They had planned to go to Japan on their honeymoon, but my dad wasn’t allowed to enter because his passport was Iranian.

The night after running into that jerk at Target, I shaved off my goatee. My mom had been begging me to get rid of it for some time. Puberty had finally allowed me the chance to grow one, and I loved it. But now it was gone.

When she asked me why I shaved it off, I replied, “I was just tired of it.” If only she knew the real reason, she would have begged me to keep just to spite that racist. But I flaked out.

For that one day, I experienced what it is like to be an Arab in post-September 11 America — that is, what it is like to be racially profiled. It sucks. Daniel Vahab, a senior at Florida State University, is a senior staff writer of the Florida Flambeau campus newspaper.


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