A Conversation with My Arab-American Self


America, love it or leave it. I was a Palestinian teenager at a Quaker boarding school in Lebanon when I first saw that slogan, and I loved it. The slogan, that is.

Back then I devoured the slices of Americana dished out by American heroes as diverse as Muhammad Ali and Mark Spitz, and by American institutions as timeless as Hollywood and rock `n’ roll. The 1968 movie The Graduate delivered the genius of Simon and Garfunkel while Woodstock wove the wondrous harmonies of Crosby Stills and Nash. Dirty Harry was the epitome of cool, Midnight Cowboy cast visions of going where the sun keeps shining and Easy Rider spun a purple haze of looking for America and not finding it anywhere.

At the time, I couldn’t love America because I didn’t really know it. And I couldn’t leave, because I wasn’t here. But against the backdrop of the Vietnam War I discerned a pallid undertone to “love it or leave it,” an arrogant rejection of self-criticism that implied it was un-American to ask “What are we fighting for?” Fast-forward three decades and the slogan takes on a palatable poignancy, not just for me — long since naturalized, and father of children who know no other homeland — but for every Arab-American in the post-9/11 world.

I admit I have fleetingly considered leaving America since that terrible Tuesday. All of three or four times, cumulatively for less than a minute. Every time I inevitably dismissed the notion as unthinkable. Palestine might be my homeland, but America is home. More importantly, for my children America is both.

I have traveled repeatedly from sea to shining sea over the past year, and not once been singled out because of my name or ethnic origin. Granted, others have fallen victim to profiling, but the story of the Arab-American pulled off a plane despite being a Secret Service agent on the presidential protection detail was offset by another, that of Israeli government officials denied their seats on flights because they were deemed a security risk.

Upon my return from a trip to the Middle East this summer a U.S. immigration officer scrutinized my American passport, saw the Arabic name, noted that I was born in Syria and welcomed me home. In 20 years of living and traveling in the Arab Middle East, no government official ever welcomed me home.

It is nearly a year since the monstrous crime against humanity visited upon us last September, and Americans still grapple with “Why do they hate us?”. Those of us who are also them are most qualified to answer.

The Arab in me has never hated America. The Arab in me admires and envies, in a non-malicious way, the freedoms that the American in me takes for granted. Freedom of thought, of movement, of expression, of religion and of choice. The Arab in me admires the fact that, by the law of the land in this nation of immigrants, no American is more American than any other. What the Arab in me hates — resents — are the hypocrisy and double standards of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

By my American ideals, the separation of church and state is the cornerstone of a true democracy. The Arab in me wonders why it isn’t made a prerequisite for any nation wishing to receive U.S. foreign aid. My Arab self wishes America would make its support for all corrupt and dictatorial regimes — Arab ones included — contingent on their implementation of democratic reforms. My Arab self decries our preparedness to go to war against an Arab country because it rejects one United Nations resolution, while we extend unconditional financial, military and diplomatic support for Israel even as it disdainfully ignores more than 60.

In my Arab-American dream we export not weapons, but gilded copies of the principles of equality and individual human rights enshrined in our Constitution. My worst nightmare intermixes another Osama bin Laden with John Ashcroft’s inane talk of internment camps.

Like other Arab-Americans past and present, most notably men like Gibran Khalil Gibran, Ralph Nader, Casey Kasem and Michael DeBakey, I am part of the heterogeneous fabric of this country. I will not leave. I will stay, contribute and pursue the dream in America. Precisely because I love it.

Tarif Abboushi lives in Houston, Texas. he can be reached at tabboushi@aol.com