The idea for my first book started many years ago but became especially persistent a few months after September 11th, 2001. Soon after that horrible event took place on that black Tuesday morning, I found myself thrown into the limelight accepting invitations to speak to Americans about the Arab world and Islam. Less than a week after that fateful day and after getting tired of watching American television and non-Arab and non-Muslim pundits babbling about how Arabs and Muslims think, many Americans felt that they needed to talk to people from that part of the world.
It all started when the local paper did a huge feature on Islam and Arabs and I answered many questions posed by the reporter. This feature was published shortly after 9-11 and on a Sunday, the highest circulation day of the paper. Calls for me to speak at local clubs, churches, and synagogues immediately poured in—sometimes I had three or four speaking engagements a week. Each engagement required preparation and was exhaustive both mentally and physically. I vividly remember the first time I faced the public at a Unitarian church in Port Charlotte in the presence of local media. I was literally petrified. I could not eat or drink or relax before the event. The only calming factor was the idea that soon it would be over. I thought only of how happy and free I would feel after the event. I did not know how Americans would react to my presence. I was also afraid of the media. I thought, now my face and name will be in front of people who are angry with Muslims and Arabs. What if they lash out their anger at my family and me?
I did not accept these opportunities to speak in order to apologize—I had done nothing. I just wanted Americans to know that Arabs and Muslims are regular people just like them. I wanted them to know that a democracy should not collapse because of an event like September 11 and lose its civil liberties and all that its founders struggled to create. I felt deeply uncertain of how the audiences would react to me. I am not sure how I managed to speak at all—but it seems that my anxiety was not obvious to my listeners. People told me that I appeared calm and confident—while I felt petrified.
What always kept me going and accepting these strenuous public speaking engagements was the reaction of the audiences. I had people in tears asking me to keep reaching out to Americans. To help them understand and open their eyes to a different viewpoint. The response was almost always positive and whenever I had disagreeing audience members, it was always civil and polite. So many people said I should be on national television and radio—as if I had any say in this. So many asked me to write a book. Book? What book? I kept asking myself.
I always tried to be honest and truthful in my answers and analysis of the Middle East region. I felt that I was qualified to do so not only because I was Arab and Muslim, but also because of my education and life-long interest in politics. Since the age of nine I have read newspapers and watched television news every day. In recent years, the Internet and the satellite networks made it even easier to follow minute-by-minute events occurring all over the world. All I really wanted to do was to bring Arabs, Muslims, and Americans closer to each other. I knew that we had so many things in common and that the fault lines were artificial and could easily go away.
As time passed and after hundreds of speaking engagements, I realized that I was increasingly answering questions on the minds of Americans that were directed at Arabs living in the Arab world. Americans were not only asking political questions, they were also posing basic questions to the average Arab. Questions related to their daily lives and their impressions of Americans. In other words, I was answering on behalf of Arabs still living in the Arab world while I was an American Arab who no longer lived there!
In addition, being an Arab-American is not a cliché or just a definition to make the census easier. It is not just a statistic. The term Arab-American means that I am no longer 100% pure Arab. I am also an American and think and behave in many ways just like an American. Soon I realized that I could no longer speak on behalf of Arabs since it had been three years since I last visited the Arab World. Momentous events had occurred since then—September 11 and two wars! I keep up with news coming from the Arab world on a daily basis, but still I felt that three years absence from the region was a long time for me to be able to answer questions accurately.
The more I spoke to Americans the more I realized that I needed to visit and talk to Arabs. I felt that I needed to see this world again through my own eyes and not through someone else’s lens or essay. I had to feel it inside my heart to talk about all walks of life in Arab nations. So I planned my trip to include visits to Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. Indeed, I had initially envisioned the trip as a family visit, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I needed to gather information from Arabs in a systematic way. I had no clue where to start and how to document what I would see there. I thought of submitting columns to newspapers that had published my essays in the past, but I needed to reach as many Americans as possible—even those who do not read the papers. I wanted Arabs and Americans to talk to each other without barriers and borders. I wanted to take all those questions that Americans keep asking me directly to the Arab people and say: “This is what regular average Americans want to know about you. This is your chance to tell them how you think and feel with no censor or government standing between you.”
I had planned to leave on Sunday, August 15, 2004, but as my departure date loomed, I still did not know exactly how to approach this project. I was quickly running out of time. But it is amazing how good ideas often occur while you are far from home and miles away from paper and pencil. The idea hit me while sweating and speeding beyond my ability on a 50-mile bicycle ride with extremely fit people. Out of breath and energy, the solution suddenly hit me. Why don’t I just e-mail Americans and ask them this: “If you had a chance to ask an Arab a question, what would it be? I literally saw the cliché idea “light-bulb” (it was only the Florida August sun) and rushed home to write an email.
I sent the e-mail to every American I knew and asked them to send it to everyone they knew and so on. The response was overwhelming. As e-mails jammed my inbox, I could clearly see that I had something solid in my hands—no longer just an idea. My amorphous project had suddenly taken shape in reality. I was not able to keep up with the deluge of e-mails and the encouraging messages of support from people I had never met in my life who liked the idea of posing their questions directly to Arabs. The response was more like a chain letter reaction; I received e-mails from college students, recent graduates, lawyers, peace activists, hard-core conservatives, journalists, business professionals, army veterans, and grandmothers.
Then my trip was delayed suddenly by Hurricane Charlie and I started to get bogged down in clean-up and every day struggle after a hurricane while the e-mails kept coming. The questions piled up and the whole idea of writing a book had become a burden on me. I felt that the task ahead was larger than me—all I wanted from this trip was to see family and friends and get a feel for the Arab world over humus, kebab, and shisha!
One other concern filled my mind—I had not told my family that I was coming to write a book. They were already upset that I ruined their summer plans with the four-week delay in my trip, so I did not expect them to appreciate the book idea at all. I even thought that any Arab I met would ridicule the idea of my book. Why should they care to answer questions on the minds of Americans? Maybe they really did not like Americans and did not care much for what Americans thought.
My dear friend Hooda, whom I have known since college days in Cairo, called to check on me after watching Charlie wipe out Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte live on TV. Suddenly I wondered if Hooda could be my “test balloon” and told her about my idea. To my amazement and shock she absolutely loved it and supported me. She even offered to accompany me to any country I intended to visit and told me to visit Kuwait. She told me: “We Arabs need to be talking directly to Americans. Americans cannot come to us, so why not go to them through your book?” This positive reaction comforted me and there was no turning back after that.
Construction Firm Owner/Manager, Kuwait
For me, [Watergate] was a most shocking experience. To see ordinary people—congressmen, but still ordinary people—questioning the president’s [Nixon’s] morality was something that would never happen in the Middle East. There, you must say complimentary things about your leaders and are not allowed…to criticize them. This caused me to view the American political system with great respect. I always tell people in the Middle East that despite our criticism of the American political system, it is still a system that belongs to an open society that has the capacity to correct itself when it errs.
I am very much against the U.S. policy on Palestine. I feel that the U.S. government and the American people are losing a lot because of their support of Israel. This is a major cause of the Arab people developing animosity toward the U.S. In fact, it is the number one cause of this animosity and something must be done about it.
The [Osama] bin Laden phenomenon is part of the strategic political mistake the United States made when it supported Muslim fundamentalists against the Afghani Marxist regime in Kabul. The U.S. and Saudi Arabian support of political fundamentalism and regimes has backfired on both.
I think September 11th changed the attitude of the decision-makers in the U.S. In spite of all the pain, I think in the long run it will have some benefits. The immediate benefit is that the U.S. government realized that for decades it had allied itself with dictators and that the major players in September 11th were Saudi Arabian and Egyptian—those that were supposed to be allies. Something must be wrong.
Democracy should not have an identity and a nationality. It is an effective political system which evolved through time because it proved to benefit the people. One should not think of democracy as an exclusively Western model or concept, because that would be a very limiting definition that fits only Westerners. I don’t believe this; I think that a democratic system is fit for all societies.
I don’t think Americans are born anti-Arab. The media contributes to bias against Arabs, but I think we bear some responsibility as well. I think September 11th contributed greatly to American anti-Arab sentiments, but we should…blame ourselves. I don’t think we Arabs have introduced ourselves to the world in the right way, and I think that we have to admit when we are wrong.
Businessman, Amman, Jordan
Explaining terrorism in simple untruthful terms like “They do this because they hate us and are jealous of us and our freedom” is completely misleading and will never lead to peace.
If you drove around Amman you would be shocked at…the peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians and between the various Christian denominations within Jordan. We have the freedom to celebrate our religious holidays very vocally and openly. Our Muslim friends visit with us during Christmas and Easter, and we join them in celebrating their holidays and religious festivities.
Living in a democracy means having an empowered people who are informed enough to make good decisions, but to do this people need the right information and free access to that information. This is why unbiased and truthful information is imperative for the sustainability and continuity of…democracy.
The Americans need to know more about the Arab people from the Arab people themselves—not through anti-Arab stereotypes.
I think that before you can have a political democracy you need to have an economic democracy. Before somebody can vote, he has to be able to pay his bills and feed his family. Economic prosperity and economic democracy are preludes to real political democracy.
I do not agree with any form of fundamentalism, be it Muslim, Arab, or Western Christian fundamentalism. When I hear the way some of the leaders of the U.S. government talk I get scared as a citizen of the world. They scare me because they are very narrow-minded in their approach and very fundamentalist in their views, and this is creating more Osama bin Ladens all over the world.
Film Director, Cairo, Egypt
American people and Arab people need to start talking to each other rather than at each other. If Americans merely insist on their opinion and we on ours, it will be difficult to achieve a mutual understanding.
I don’t like Islam because it is a religion, but because it is a way of life. Islam is flexible and it’s not the end of the world if someone violates a rule. There is always a space for forgiveness and repentance. People do not follow Islam to the letter. It does not have one specific interpretation like other religions. I like that.
There are many things that I like about Arabic culture. I love the warm close relations between people. I like the unique warmth of Eastern peoples. There are beautiful relations between relatives, friends, and neighbors. Whatever happens to you as an individual, you do not feel that you are alone.
America is a great country, although we feel they are taking a negative position against Arabs at present. What is going on now, however, is related to the political period and we cannot judge the whole country and the whole nation solely on recent events. Many beautiful things exist there and there is a tremendous amount of variety. Each state has its own richness and many beautiful things. But as a government, and at this particular period, we are angry at America.
We feel that America is against us. We are puzzled by the behavior of the American government. America helped create Saddam Hussein and supported Islamic resistance movements in Afghanistan. If it weren’t for the backing of the United States, neither of them would ever have gained power. Therefore, it is not us who should be blamed for what went wrong; it is the fault of an American government that creates dictators, uses them, and then throws them away.
Terrorism is about the person and not his or her religion. It is also about poverty and injustice. If I am hungry and I need to feed my hungry kids, I might kill my own brother. And if I feel someone is supporting a tyrant who is abusive toward me, then I might want to seek revenge.