Saturday, September 10, 2016

Being Middle Eastern

There's a level of irony that I've somehow arrived at this particular topic on the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. 9/11 for a Middle Eastern-American marks the end of our presumed innocence in this society. Before 9/11, the term 'terrorist' was still synonymous with Middle Easterners. However, it was after that day when those Middle Eastern terrorists were no longer just denizens of a faraway land. The yellow journalism machine and the Bush administration saw to it that all Middle Easterners domestically would be considered terrorists. 

It was after that day that neighbors stopped being neighbors, students stopped being students, and citizens stopped being citizens. It was after that day that we all became suspects.

I am Middle Eastern and I am a punk.

For a long time, those two statements existed separately from each other, but they both always served to remind me that I was somehow different from everyone else. It's only been in the last few years however that I've seen a lot of discussions about different races being made to feel included in the punk scene and that this is a white club. Being a Middle Eastern, I always resented that sentiment a little bit. Black people could look toward the Bad Brains and bands like Burn and Absolution for inspiration and representation. Latinos had bands like Los Crudos here in the USA and their compatriots in Latin America. Asians could look toward Japan and see one of the greatest scenes in the world. What about Middle Easterners? We've never had that kind of representation in the punk scene. Sure, we had people like Armand Majidi (Sick of It All / Rest In Pieces), Faiza Kracheni (Hatred Surge / Body Pressure), Amir Mamori (Fearless Iranians From Hell) and other scattered individuals representing the region but their participation was never vaunted for their background much in the way other groups would receive acclaim for it. As an ethnic group in the scene, we simply existed in the shadows while being largely ignored. Most of the time people would think we're something else, from Italian to Mexican. An Egyptian punk friend of mine once remarked that "being a Middle Eastern in punk is a lonely existence".

Then along came New York City's Haram.

Haram, fronted by Nader Hamam (whose ethnic background is Lebanese), became the first punk band to feature vocals and lyrics entirely in Arabic. The very meaning of the word Haram is a sin or a violation of Islamic law. What Haram meant for the Middle Eastern community in the punk scene is that someone finally took a step forward out of the shadows and planted a declarative foot down for our people. The most beautiful aspect of Haram is that they are the beginning of our voice as a people in the punk scene. Before them, we existed as mere mutes. We were there, but never as Middle Eastern.

When I first met Nader, I honestly wasn't quite sure what to expect. We got to chatting outside of a show, smoked a few cigarettes, and we started riffing about Middle Eastern politics. We talked about how dangerous radical Islam and Wahhabism are. He asked me a lot of questions about Kemalism and how he too lamented the death of secularism in Turkey under the Erdogan regime. He agreed with my explanation about why the Assad government is Syria's best hope for a future (a markedly anti-ISIS/anti-Al Qaeda position). We talked and talked and it was clear from the outset that we understood each other. We never had discord as much as we were able to take in a clearer perspective of where we come from as a people through our dialogues. Along the way, he's become a person that I have accumulated an immeasurable amount of admiration and respect for.

This past Wednesday night, I was at a show when, in between songs, I heard the band's vocalist say "this goes out to my friend Nader for beating the FBI". I honestly thought it was a joke when I heard it. Do you know how many times a Middle Eastern person will hear in their life that they've been investigated by the Feds? Growing up, it was something me and my cousins used to say to each other as a joke if we did anything 'too Middle Eastern'. The next day on Facebook, I started seeing posts about Nader and the FBI. I realized then, it wasn't a joke.

Before I could even think about reacting, I noticed my eyes were burning the way they usually do when my anger gives way to tears. I had just learned that someone I feel privileged to call my friend, who fronts a band that literally exists to challenge radical Islam, and is someone that I've had many conversations with denouncing ISIS and scheming ways to destroy them had just been under local and federal investigation for being a suspected ISIS loyalist. All I could think to myself was "Nader is 100% the opposite of an ISIS loyalist. If they got it wrong about him after all that, it means that they'll never get it right about any of us."

It was important to me that I found someone else in the scene who understood what being Middle Eastern in punk feels like. If someone called a black person a hard R at a show or party, that person would likely get beat up. I can't say the same would happen if someone called a Middle Eastern person a sand nigger or a camel jockey or a dune coon or a fucking terrorist. If you're offended by reading those slurs, I'm offended that I had to be called them. I've been called those slurs so many times over the years and it was always met with causal snickers as if somehow racially abusing a Middle Eastern was different from any other group. We're not considered worthy to mainstream American society. At best, we're convenience store employees. At worst, we're terrorists. It's one thing to be a marginalized group. It's another to be marginalized and ignored.

I see a lot of kids in the punk scene today talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and the status of Latinos in the Southwestern USA. What about what Middle Easterners endure in this society? The conservative zeitgeist on the Middle East and its people range from putting all of us in interment camps to deporting us to ensuring none of us can enter the USA to out and out flattening the region with bombs. Even in punk, the RAC scene (Rock Against Communism; modern Nazi punk banner) has been re-branded in the last decade to say Rock Against Islam and Rock Against Terrorism. We are branded enemies with no allies coming to our aid. I'm not saying any of this to diminish the plight of other peoples of color, I'm simply asking why does our plight have to be ignored? We're not surrealist Tolstoy characters nor are we casualties of a tragic and often unfortunate culture. Everyone is racing to demonize and patronize while the race for understanding is at a virtual standstill.

What happened to Nader is not an outlier. It happens every day in this country to all Middle Easterners. We're attacked because a lot of us are immigrants or even first generation Americans borne to immigrant parents. We're marked as different by everyone. By the conservatives who want to nuke us and the liberals who want to coddle us by trying to justify the faith's worst aspects under the veil of Islamophobia. There's no call for inclusion, only arguments to remind everyone that we're different. Race relations as a whole are broken in this society but somehow considerations for the plight of Middle Easterners have fallen entirely by the wayside.

To close, I'm going to share a story I haven't told anyone in my adult life until I talked to Nader last night about all of this. It's important that Middle Easterners feel strong enough to talk about when they've been socially abused in the name of a society that they're being accused of hating. Only in a society where Donald Trump is on the presidential ticket would such backwards logic make sense.

When I was 15 years old and I was in 10th grade attending high school near Dallas, Texas, I had a fascination with gun culture, militias, and right wing literature. I was enamored by the libertarian politics that they espoused and the overall taboo subject matter as much of what I was getting into would 'get you put on a watch list'. In February 2002 (five months after 9/11), I was in fourth period Spanish reading The Turner Diaries (the book that was used as the blueprint for the OKC bombing perpetrated by Caucasian Timothy McVeigh) when I got called into the assistant principal's office. I automatically thought that someone had reported me for reading a book with racist content and that I would be asked about it. I sat down, anticipating the questions, and the AP curves me with the opening question "James, do you know what a weapon of mass destruction is?" I respond "yes sir, it is a biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon and it can also be something like a truck bomb." He responds, "do you know where someone could get a weapon of mass destruction?" I answer "no sir, I'm 15 years old." Before he could ask another question, I cut to the chase, "sir, can you please tell me what this is all about?" The AP tells me "a teacher claims they saw you meeting with a group of Arab men in the parking lot of the school talking about unleashing a weapon of mass destruction on the school." I immediately burst out laughing. I fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard. It was at that point the AP realized how foolish he looked and that he had been sent on a wild goose chase. He ended his inquiry with "so you deny the accusation?" I responded "I'm 15 years old, sir".

I went home and told my mom what happened while still chuckling about it. My mother blew up and called the school screaming at literally any person she could get on the phone. The word "lawsuit" was thrown around, a lot. My mom later told me how hard her (a Turkish secularist) and my father (whose family fled Iran as the secular Shah's regime fell to Islamist militants) worked very hard to make sure that my brother and I would never be abused about where we come from. My mom went on to tell me that's part of how I ended up with the name James. She told me "you already had a Persian last name, you were going to be different enough, I was trying to make it easier for you". The point of this story is that even while I was doing something I recognized as wrong like reading a book on white nationalism, the only thing anyone's mind could conclude about me was "he's a Muslim terrorist".

It never stops and, after talking to Nader, it seems like it will never change meaning it will never end. I wish I could say something like "Middle Easterners matter" but the fact is people need to first recognize Middle Easterners exist before they can say we matter.