What was it like to be an Arab in Texas when 9/11 happened?
Before I shaved my beard, people cursed me in the street because I looked Arab. They called me “camel rider” which they thought was an insult and which in retrospect is funny.
We used to have activities every weekend, going to rivers and lakes for BBQs. We had to stop all of that and stay inside and only go out for essentials.
One thing I remember is when a friend and I were standing at the edge of a street, waiting to cross. A bunch of others were waiting too. My friend, for an experiment said out loud: “Are you an Arab?” and it was just wild what happened. Everyone dispersed so quickly, and it was just my friend and I left standing there.
Did you feel that the media played a role in how Arabs were perceived?
The media was very hard on us. The media showed people in Afghanistan in caves looking primitive and Americans decided we all lived that way. People decided we are not civilized. That’s when most of the trouble started.
I understand that you and other Arab students were contacted by the FBI?
We received calls from FBI. They met with us in our apartments. The FBI seemed influenced by the media. They approached us as if we were an enemy. They asked questions about why we were in the U.S. for three hours. One of my friends had a really rough time with the FBI because his roommate was studying to be a pilot and they found an aviation book in his apartment. That was really unfortunate! They took him to the police station and questioned him for 13 hours.
They did not offer any tips on how to blend in and not be discriminated against. A woman employed at our college called the FBI and got a personal number of someone who would be helpful to us. He called us and asked us to come to FBI headquarter in Dallas.
He told us to lay low, to stop our activities, stop going to the lakes and to the BBQs, and only speak to people we trust. He said to only go out to get food and don’t go alone. He said to shave our beards and grow hair longer like a Mexican, or to learn Italian and try to pass as an Italian. He also told us to be prepared for physical fights.
Really? Did fights happen?
In front of blockbuster we had a flight. We went in two cars with seven guys to get movies. We drove sports cars and unfortunately one of the guys had Arabic music on in the car. We got out of the cars and some guys who looked Mexican heard the Arabic music, there were five of them. They knocked down one of our friends and cursed us. My friend insulted them back. They threw beer cans on our cars. One of our friends spent a week in hospital, he was hit badly on the head. Blockbuster called police. They arrived in three minutes. They took us all to the station. They took more time questioning us than the others.
Did you consider going back to Qatar?
I called my dad and begged him, I wanted to withdraw from studying and go home. He was against it. He believes education is more important than anything else. And he believes that the U.S. has best education system. He told me, “We are human, we can adapt. Try to adapt yourself and get the best out of it.”
I grew my hair to my shoulders, I tried to learn Spanish, but I had to avoid Mexicans so that my lack of Spanish was not uncovered!
Did you have American friends who were able to distinguish between you guys from Qatar and the “terrorists”?
One of the nicest stories that happened to me was when I had lunch with 6 Americans and 15 Qataris at a restaurant in Austin, two days before 9/11. After lunch everyone tried to pay their own share. In Arab culture we don’t like that so us Qataris all tried to pay. One of us paid and the Americans really noticed our sense of hospitality. Two days later 9-11 happened. A few days after that, one of the Americans from that lunch called me to say, “If I hadn’t met you before 9/11 I would hate Arabs so much right now.” He made a point to call me and was so grateful to have met us. I was so happy because I felt I had accomplished something significant. Even though I was only 17—I felt I’d helped create more tolerance.
So when you went home for the summer, did you choose to come back to the U.S. for another year of college?
We went home for vacation in June and then when we went back to the U.S., the worst discrimination happened. We were held in the airport for 7 to 24 hours. The college and immigration told us we would be OK coming back in, so we were not prepared. It showed us how differently the U.S. government looked at us, because the summer before things were so light at the airport. We were young and we had tobacco for shisha and the police officer opened it and smelled it and liked it and we gave him a box and we laughed with him.
This time was so bad. At passport control they told us to sit on the floor, near where passports are stamped. After ten hours of sitting, with no one telling us anything, we finally walked over to customs and said we needed the bathroom and we needed food. The guy we said this to ignored us for half an hour. His boss then came to us, and allowed us to use bathroom, and we gave him money to get us food, and he got us some food. Why couldn’t they tell us what was going on, or tell us to turn around and go back home? Why leave us for 10 hours with no food and no bathroom?
Two years after 9/11 I moved from Austin to Oklahoma. There I received the worst discrimination. On the first day of class, in a class of 300 students, the professor looked at the role and asked, “Who is Mohammed Ali?” I raised my hand and he said, “You have 2 choices: either drop my class or continue it and get an F.”
I reported it to the dean and he said unless it’s recorded, forget about it and drop the class. So I did that.
Did you regret the decision to go to college in the U.S.?
I will never regret it. All my friends said I made a mistake to be there. But I learned how to be independent and how to face troubles. It was a huge challenge to show that I’m not a terrorist. I learned how to face discrimination and to dig deeper inside myself to find my own strength. And I learned how to live within a budget. In Qatar we are babied a lot. No one in Qatar has tried to live within a monthly salary and to face discrimination.
In Qatar young people are given an allowance by their fathers of about $1,000 a week. If they run out of money their fathers will bail them out. Spoiling them is the biggest problem. They think they’ll have this life forever. Romans lived the best life but they collapsed. It can happen to us. Most young Qataris are in crazy debt because they have no idea about saving money. For me, living in the U.S. was beneficial in these ways.
I also had to push myself to see things from someone else’s perspective, regarding the discrimination. I understood how angry Americans were. If something like that attack happened in my country, with the media encouraging the discrimination, I might have felt the same if I had never met people from that country. What made me frustrated is they didn’t give us a chance to explain how my country is different from Afghanistan, how we have different beliefs from Bin Laden. They thought we are all the same. But I think it gave me some good skills, when I tried to understand their perspective.