NEW YORK CITY — In the days after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct.7, 2023, an infographic circulating on people’s Instagram stories proclaimed that “A leader of Hamas just called Muslims around the world to embrace a day of global jihad this Friday the 13th. If you live in a major city in America or Europe, I’d recommend avoiding crowded/highly public places on Friday. Please be safe.”
My heart sank reading this.
I did a routine Google search and found the article that I believed had contributed to the rapid misinformation. The gist of it: former Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal was calling for protests across the Muslim world on Oct. 13 in support of the Palestinians and for people of neighboring countries to join the fight against Israel.
The speech did not indicate or encourage any “terrorism” in New York City — or elsewhere, for that matter.
I felt personally attacked by this misinformation. It was disheartening to see how quickly people resorted to Islamophobic tropes and stereotypes. Being an Arab in the United States has always been uncomfortable, and I’m one of the lucky ones. Between Lebanon and the US, I’ve always been able to camouflage myself and make myself palatable to Americans when I needed to be. This time, I couldn’t — and still can’t — bring myself to put on a different face for people. I no longer want to.
I believed I had experienced all the grief I could after living through the financial crisis that enveloped Lebanon. I was in Beirut during the port explosion that killed more than 200 people, injured and displaced thousands, and destroyed priceless historic architecture. I lived through the 2006 war with Israel, I heard the stories of the 1948 Nakba survivors, time and time again throughout my childhood. I thought that I knew heartbreak.
But then I began speaking to other members of the Arab diaspora living in the United States and Europe. I wanted to hear their perspectives on living through what many people now refer to as the 2023 Nakba.
For me, it was a form of catharsis.
Tara,* who works for a US-based non-profit, described to me her experience of living through today’s trauma in one word, through a shaking voice: “Heartbreaking.” Tara also happens to be my childhood friend. She went on:
“It’s been a very difficult experience being here while all of this is happening, mainly because we’re in a country that is aiding and abetting the genocide of our people, people that look like us, people that talk like us. Our people.”
After the Hamas attacks, I knew there would be many deaths of Palestinians in retaliation by the ruthless Israeli war machine, that children would die with their mouths frozen mid-scream as weapons of mass destruction tore through their insides. I knew that many Palestinian mothers would lose the children they had lovingly, patiently, fiercely grown in their wombs for nine months. I knew that men would lose their entire families in a single breath, in the time that it takes someone to inhale and exhale.
What I didn’t expect was how many people would be indifferent to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people: nearing 20,000 deaths at last count, with the number rising each day. Among them are people submerged in rubble, people dying of starvation or from disease.
I myself was born and spent part of my childhood in the US before moving with my mother to Lebanon, where her father’s family comes from a village in the south. Today, three years back in the US, and I wasn’t prepared for the profound loneliness I would feel watching the killing in Gaza and southern Lebanon from afar.
Palestinian-American Ronda, who only visited Palestine for the first time with her family this past summer, summarized the feeling to me in writing:
“It hurts to see the terrible Islamophobic and racist sentiment my peers share without shame. Although I have dealt with that sentiment my entire life as an Arab Muslim living in the US, it is still shocking to see every time. People I considered to be close friends with have directly made comments to me that justify genocide. In a way, it has really unmasked people’s true selves.”
Ronda’s family was forcibly displaced from Akka, Palestine in the 1948 Nakba to Lebanon and then Syria, only to be displaced again during the start of the Syrian war in 2011. Her family is scattered across the globe. She wrote on:
“Until more recently, I had always been a little bit uncomfortable sharing that I was Palestinian. Not because I am ashamed of my identity, but because my identity and existence alone as a Palestinian is controversial. I would fear making people uncomfortable, and instead just say that I am Arab or just Syrian.”
The month of October went by in a daze. I don’t remember much of it except for the pit in my stomach that has grown bigger with each day and death that goes by. Two months later, I still haven’t slept through the night without waking up in cold sweats.
My Arab friends across the US have felt much the same. Friendships have broken between those on opposing sides, and workplace conversations are extremely uncomfortable. I’ve cut off a few people who expressed neutral sentiments. Those who are studying at American universities suddenly find themselves at risk of being censored, having job offers rescinded, and being doxxed.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group based in the United States. The organization said it received an “unprecedented” 1,283 requests for help between Oct. 7 and Nov. 4, which marks a 216 percent increase over the previous year.
Palestinian child Wadea al Fayoume was stabbed 26 times for being Muslim by his family’s landlord in Plainfield Township, Illinois. Ex-State Department official Stuart Seldowitz harassed a Muslim Egyptian halal street cart vendor in Manhattan for two weeks, referring to him as a terrorist and asking if he cared that people used the Quran as toilet paper. Three Palestinian college students were shot in Burlington, Vermont wearing their kuffiyehs.
Tracy, a Lebanese writer in New York, told me that while she feels comfortable and safe expressing her Arab identity in the United States, she does not feel welcomed. And yet this has made her even more proud to be Arab.
“Everything about who I am is because I am an Arab raised in an Arab country. There are some people who see this as a fun party trick, but they're learning that it goes beyond just that — I'm no longer the token Arab so long as I keep my voice loud and stick to my principles.”
I do not wish to discredit the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have taken to the streets in protest, who have put their careers and lives on the line to support Palestinian liberation. But the fact remains that a great number of people in the Western world, including the United States, are indifferent to the war crimes committed against Palestinian people.
I find comfort in the Arab community, in the Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrian people scattered across the United States, a great number of them displaced, never to return home.
I marched in protests, mourned with people, cried, locked arms with comrades, chanted in fury at the US government for supporting the genocide of a people. I would stand alone in the crowd sometimes, allowing people’s bodies to sway me, hypnotized by the sight of people in kuffiyehs climbing lamp posts, swinging Palestinian flags above their heads. I’ve never seen such a display of Arab pride in the US.
My mother and I have spoken almost every day on the phone since the Israeli bombardment of Gaza began. I told her about how alone I felt, how people were going about their everyday lives around me as if Gaza wasn’t being razed to the ground, as if innocent Lebanese civilians in the south weren’t being shelled with white phosphorus.
One day, as I paced around the Lower East Side on the phone with her, she said something that struck me. “Well, after 9/11, why do you think we left America? It became unbearable.”
My mother got her doctorate at Harvard in the late 90’s when I was born, and took a position as an Arabic professor once she had completed her dissertation. But after 9/11, she never quite felt comfortable living in the US again. And so we left. In her own words to me:
“As I observed Americans responding in the first few days with panic and a profound sense of loss and despondency as they felt attacked on their soil, I realized that Americans felt very vulnerable for the first time. I looked at this act with utter incomprehensibility. Having grown up during the Lebanese Civil War and witnessing the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut, I always experienced the world as unstable, insecure, and chaotic.”
Would I now flee the US? Can I handle the hatred, the bigotry, the censorship — being made to feel as if my belief in the value of Palestinian life and a liberated Palestine makes me a radical terrorist who craves violence?
I’m not giving up the fight quite yet. At the same time, I’m returning home to Beirut for a short while to build back my strength and take in the blue of the Mediterranean, the only element of Beirut that remains unchanged through all its disasters.
Throughout the bloody and brutal Lebanese civil war, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut, the July 2006 war with Israel, and every crisis in between, my family has laid down unshakeable roots and refused to leave — at least not for long. Why should they go?
My grandmother was born and raised in Beirut and married a man from the south of Lebanon. I was raised in the same building that she grew up in Ras Beirut, as my mother was before me. My grandmother has never questioned her dedication to Lebanon. Sometimes I ask her: “If you had the chance to emigrate elsewhere, would you?” The answer she gives is no, every single time. And so I follow in her footsteps.
*Some of the interviewees in this article requested anonymity to protect their privacy.