Universal Shorthand – The Post 9/11 Decade and the War on Terror
There was terror.
A multifaceted terror.
There was a delirious association between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. There was an elusive justification for a War on Terror that seemed to miss the target of terrorists by a vast margin. There was the enormous effort by half of the world to take a massive political farce seriously, and the enormous lack of effort by the other half of the world to notice what was happening.
This was the beginning of my terror: I sat near my bedroom window in the American Midwest, thousands of miles removed from my point of reference, which I left somewhere in dilapidated Iraq. I sat near my American Midwestern window, in history yet a mere spectator of history. My window happened to be in the state of Michigan, where the first terror-related arrests were made on September 17th, 2001; where, a year later, the first American city was to have its own office of Homeland Security; and where, two years later, the largest counterterrorism investigation in US history took place.
This was terror for many of the country’s six million citizens who identified as Arab or Muslim in 2001. But not all was terror for me. Some was utter irony that manifested itself in profit. Like many others, I profited from 9/11.
Profit from 9/11
It took a decade to confirm this; it will take a lifetime to come to terms with it.
The attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center took place while I was attending an Arabic literature class. This was during my first week as a Ph.D. student of Arabic Studies at the University of Michigan. At the time, I lived with a group of (non-Arab) graduate students who professed ultra-liberal values. When I returned home from that class, I failed to notice the manner in which my housemates averted their eyes. Nor did I notice the passive hostility. I had taken the attacks of that day to be of equal gravity for all of us, removed from New York as we were, yet close insofar as we inhabited the same country and had the same principles of tolerance. For a day or two it escaped me that I was Arab, someone with an inevitable link to the enemy Other. Somehow, therefore, through some quirk of fate, I was less of a victim than my housemates, and more of a culprit in the eyes of the world.
In subsequent weeks, I was also oblivious to the significance of my friends and acquaintances’ gentle inquiries about my wellbeing. The following months witnessed a torrent of variations on the question ‘Are you experiencing harassment for being Arab?’ from a variety of people, those who genuinely cared as well as those who were ready for a verbal attack. These inquiries were a constant reminder, if not a conjuring up, of an identity that I had until then only passively assumed. To uphold the Arab identity in the US after 9/11 required a new positionality, one that I constantly forgot to maintain in order to capitalise on the context, but which somehow was maintained for me through the strategic agendas of adjacent others. Being an Arab American during the reign of the PATRIOT Act became an opportunity. Not exactly an opportunity to become a victor, but an opportunity to pose as a victim with an audible voice. Sometimes this happened despite one’s ambivalence towards identity-building efforts.
‘Are you experiencing harassment for being an Arab?’ My response, for years to follow, was a categorical ‘no’. It was a sincere ‘no’. Culturally, I identified neither with Arab traditions, nor with the monotheistic religious institutions of the Middle East. Intellectually, I felt removed from the hyper-politicised scene of Arab America. I lived in my memories of the Iraq of my childhood, in fictitious reconstructions generated by nostalgia for lost essences and sensibilities, in fictional Arabic texts and textual analyses that bore little or no relation to my immediate social or political whereabouts. Yet the appeal of my subjective world was only enhanced during the post-9/11 decade. It was as if the histrionic torrent of Homeland Security measures intended to tap not only the telephone lines and email accounts of Arabs and Muslims who had something to say, but also the sentiments and memories of those who had nothing to say. All became Other. And thinking ‘Other’ became a solemn project of inclusion.
Nor did I really mind this intrusion. I had no thoughts that I wished to conceal; only thoughts that were too difficult to communicate for their seeming incoherence or irrelevance. Yet the world insisted on understanding; if not understanding, then knowing; if not knowing, then at least publicising.
The PATRIOT Act dictated thus: all that was Arab or anti-Arab was worth looking at. The post-9/11 era brought unprecedented attention to my person and personal accomplishments. It was generally assumed that I had something to say; nor was this personal. It was for the simple reason that I was an Arab woman living in the US. When Iraq was invaded in 2003, attention redoubled. My seeming importance as a cultural informant came into sharper focus. Needless to say, my Christian background as an Iraqi woman in the US intensified my already intense appeal as a spokesperson. The assumptions about my ethno-religious affiliations bordered on mystical exoticism: the world was all ears for my story.
Have an opinion, even if you do not!
Woman, Iraqi, Christian: in line with the freshly-materialising counter-narrative of Arab Detroit, everyone seemed eager to listen to, record, and disseminate my opinions. The investigations often happened with great ease. Literary journals solicited stories and articles, colleges and high schools invited me for ‘cultural’ talks, and scholars with remotely similar interests rushed to collaborate on anthologising the moment. No acquaintance with me or my (irrelevant) work was necessary. A key pressure was to have an opinion, when I often did not. This was the congenial, impersonal face of the War on Terror.
Another key pressure was to assert an ethno-religious identity. Post-9/11 became the era of collective redefinitions. To be a victim with an audible voice, one had to be a spokesperson of identity, if not an identity specimen oneself. Michigan came under a spotlight, and its ‘largest Arab population outside of the Arab world’ under microscopic scrutiny. Thanks to the efforts that sought to disentangle the community from the 9/11 hijackers, neat, mutually exclusive identity modules came to the fore: Muslim, non-Muslim, Arab, non-Arab, Shi‘a, Sunni, Kurd, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Maronite made it to the top-ten list of identities cited by the local media in an effort to disambiguate for the overarching populace ‘who Arab Americans truly are’. (An extensive survey conducted in 2003 by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan set out to demonstrate that the demographic realities of Arab Detroit were far more complex than initially assumed by the government and the media. It showed that 58% of Arabs in Michigan were Christian, unlike the hijackers, that the Muslims were predominantly Shi‘a, unlike the hijackers, and that the Arab population was mostly made up of US citizens – again, unlike the hijackers.)
In September 2001, my future career had seemed at best nebulous. Since my scholarly interests predominantly revolved around Arabic fiction and literary translation, I had accepted beforehand that job prospects would be volatile by the time I finished my degree. I began my graduate studies with the conviction that interest in Arabic language and literature was reserved for the select few: the highly politicised, the religiously indoctrinated, or the antiquated at heart. A decade later, I can confirm that 9/11 has redrafted my future as a scholar of Arabic.
The Arabic language, which I had begun teaching in 2001, was until then considered one of the ‘less commonly studied languages’. One year later, enrolment doubled in the institutions of higher learning throughout the country. It tripled and multiplied soon after. Federal funding that used to trickle in quickly began flooding institutions of higher learning. Appropriations for the fiscal year 2002 included a 26% increase for higher education and international studies, adding $20.5 million to the nation’s centres of Middle East Studies. More universities and colleges across the nation began offering Arabic language and culture courses or expanding their pre-existing programs. More positions were being created for experts in Arabic Studies. New positions by far outnumbered the candidates who were truly qualified to fulfil these proliferating demands. By the time I completed my doctorate in 2008, I could choose from among tens of university positions nationally and internationally with relative ease (while around 300 new Ph.D. holders in Spanish literature, for example, would compete for 200 positions per year). This said little about my genuine qualifications and those of other specialists, informants, and authors. It said more about frames and rubrics. Higher learning institutions, among other post-9/11 institutions, were interested in my heritage (Iraqi), citizenship (US), and title (Ph.D. holder from a US university).
The terror of language reports and recommendations
What I describe above are not the only faces of the War on Terror in the US. One of the worst faces yet, from 2002 onward, has been teaching the language to young, impressionable men and women in the full knowledge of their funding sources and short-term plans. The terror comes in the form of writing language reports and recommendations, and standing aside to watch my students of Arabic join the US Army in Iraq only to lose their lives or compromise those of ‘enemy’ Others.
This is terror.
A multifaceted terror.
There was the initial terror, perhaps the most visceral, the most elemental, but which none of us who live in the Post-9/11 era were able to capture. The initial terror died with the 3000 victims of 9/11 as they burned in hallways, suffocated inside offices, or jumped off roofs and windows. And then came official terror. It came immediately after or long before 9/11. It assumed for itself the haughty name ‘War on Terror’. It gave rise to a subsequent, durable, and collective terror. Patriotic terror festered among Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. and beyond. A terror of irrationality or randomness was born as the biggest world power seemed to target irrelevant or unintended entities: the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and its own born or naturalised US citizens of Arab or Muslim descent.
Perhaps the War on Terror was not an act of vengeance. More so, it was an act of acting up vengeance. Or so it seemed.
is an Iraqi-born literary translator and assistant professor of Arabic language and literature at Portland State University.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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