On wind he walks, and in wind / he knows himself. / There is no ceiling for the wind, / no home for the wind. / Wind is the compass / of the stranger’s North. / He says: I am from there, I am from here, / but I am neither there nor here./
By traveling freely across cultures / those in search of the human essense may find a space for all to sit.. / Here a margin advances. / Or a centre retreats. / Where East is not strictly east, / and West is not strictly west, / where identity is open to plurality, not a fort or a trench./
– Mahmoud Darwish (excerpts from his elegy poem to Edward Said)
I’ve felt so many things following the Boston Marathon bombings; it is impossible for me to narrow it down to a single sentiment. Events that touch on identity are challenging for me to process, as I’m often left in a schizophrenic daze. Throughout this ordeal, I felt myself shift from one side of my Self to the other, and from one emotion to the next. So, I won’t try to simplify what is inherently complex. I will simply present and reflect, and nothing more. No fancy theorizing, no overarching message. This post is only meant to be a glimpse at personal identity – that wild thing which one cannot pin down.
• HEARING THE NEWS
I heard about the Boston bombings first from a group of Saudi, Arab-Nationalist friends. I was driving to class at the time, and felt my chest tighten as I read the news on my phone. My first question was: “did a Saudi do it?” I thought again, “did an Arab and/or Muslim do it?”.
The media was quickly saturated with the event, and everyone was talking about it. This kind of intense coverage is typically accompanied by a flow of criticism that goes something like: “only an American life lost matters, whereas lives in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq are forgotten”. Among my group of friends, this sentiment was present. It was quickly shushed, however, when one of them said their brother in Boston was possibly affected by the bombing. She said that he was not answering his phone, and their entire family was worried.
I was angry that it took a personal connection for them to have some empathy for the situation in Boston. I was angry that they had dismissed it at first as “not a big deal, only a few deaths, nothing in comparison to the many deaths of Arabs”. I know three people is a small casualty count when compared to the millions of victims of various wars, I understand the resentment toward the imbalanced news coverage. But I detest the idea that asserting Arabs’ right to have grievances and to be heard means that it’s morally appropriate to taunt any grievance heard from their American counterparts. I don’t often identify with local American events, but at that moment I had felt for “my people” in Boston. And why shouldn’t I? The bombings were a horrible event, and it wasn’t their fault if news coverage emphasized their lives more than others.
• THE ACCUSATION
Well, that shift didn’t last for too long. I soon felt for “my people” in Saudi, since the New York Post began to point fingers at them, irresponsibly releasing an article stating: “Investigators have a suspect — a Saudi Arabian national — in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings”.
Anxiety had displaced sympathy; I was worried he was the culprit. I was worried about the possible subsequent “fallout” of his involvement, as political analysts emptily call it.
It’s a selfish emotion, isn’t it? To be so worried that half of your identity will be tarnished by a crime, that you have no time to sympathize with the effects that crime inflicted on your other half.
• INITIAL SAUDI REACTION TO ACCUSATION
It turned out, however, that the Saudi student, named Abdulrahman Ali al-Harbi, was not a “suspect”, as clarified by the Boston Police: “Honestly, I don’t know where they [NY Post] are getting their information from, but it didn’t come from us”. And in a later press conference repeated, “Those reports are not true, there is no suspect in custody”.
But the damage had already been done. Ironically, it was some Saudis that were all too ready to accept the title of “suspect”. Twitter lit up – Saudi liberals began blaming all Shaiks for ruining young minds with extremism, Saudi self-Orientalists went on to complain how the “backwards” Arabs will never “progress” since all they do is bomb people, and so on.
Arab media outlets were also among the most eager to spread the news. Equally irresponsible Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera were all over the story, and began circulating the thinly-sourced claim against the Saudi student. Only to later back out of it in cowardly fashion, arguing that they were only repeating what they had heard from NY Post. Basically admitting that their credibility was equal to that of hearsay.
• LATER SAUDI REACTION TO ACCUSATION
The Saudi was later declared a “person of interest”, rather than “suspect”. It was anyone’s guess what that meant, really. But, at this point, all Saudis began to feel like “persons of interest”. I say this because it was around this time that a steady flow of condemnation began to emerge from Saudis abroad via social media, particularly those in Boston. Unlike 9/11, this wasn’t just an event in the distant West. Many Saudi students are in Boston, it hit very close to home (away from home) for them and their relatives. Some were even at the Marathon and began recounting the experience on Twitter and in local Saudi media like Arab News. Others decided to donate their blood to help victims of the bombings and shared their intent to do so online.
This didn’t go unnoticed by other Saudis. Some tantalized them, likening them to cowards who only expressed empathy for Boston because they were intimidated by the US government. Others dismissed them as ungenuine, claiming instead that the empathy expressed was out of self-concern for their own fellow Saudis in Boston. This is what happens when emotions enter the political realm. Once they are made public, they instantly become subject to suspicion and power-play. They inevitably fall into political narratives and personal agendas.
I was going to object to these critiques launched at the empathetic Saudis, but after careful thought, I decided there might be at least a grain of truth there. I realized there were two possible motivations behind the empathy for Bostonians and condemnations of the bombings. One was pure sympathy. The other was fear of blame.
It’s frustrating to see that some Saudis felt compelled to condemn the Boston Bombings publically, whether out of sympathy or fear, or both, knowing that keeping such emotions private, though private is where they remain most genuine, will only leave them looking like “persons of interest”. It’s sad. No one should feel compelled of expected to show anything private to anyone publicly.
It seemed as though they were operating within the Other framework, rather than against it. I understand, however, why pragmatic methods of “outreach” like this are often used. Saudis, and Arabs more generally, remember being synonymous with terrorism following 9/11. They remember racial profiling, just as Muslims of all ethnicities remember Islamophobia. It’s not so easy to operate against an Other construct when you feel it being so intensely framed around you.
I was reminded of this when I came across a news article on the Boston Bombing that had a picture showing the 15 Saudis involved in the 9/11 attacks. It was so disturbing to see – what was its purpose there, placed so loosely next to an article on the Saudi “person of interest”? I felt like writing the editors: is that the only picture you could find to associate with Saudis? Is that the only way you figured you could jog the memory of your readers’ minds as to who Saudis are? Were those 15 faces supposed to stand in substitution for and as a reduction of who I am as a Saudi, and more broadly as an Arab? The answer is likely an indifferent, “yes”.
Around this time, my Saudi friend had told me that she finally heard back from her brother in Boston. He was okay; he had just left the marathon before the bombs went off. It turned out that cell phone service had been briefly turned off afterwards, which is why calls to his phone hadn’t been going through. Like her brother, my friend was also studying abroad, and their mother was a wreck with worry. The family Skyped, just happy to see each other safe, like many other victims of the bombings. My friend told me how she had never been particularly close to her brother; she didn’t know she cared as much as she did before then. I was saddened by what she said next. It turns out, she had been worried that he would be suspected in the bombing because he looked Arab… and he had a beard. Which, as my Saudi friend knew all too well, might classify him as “scary”.
• BEING CLEARED OF ACCUSATION
Eventually the Saudi student was fully cleared of his “person of interest” status. However, that was not before his apartment was searched and his roommate was harassed by the media to the point where he had to tell them, “dude, just let me go to school”. The student was then named a cooperative witness and a victim of the bombings, as he had acquired burn-related injuries.
I was relieved.
I suppose I feared the consequences of the case being “foreign”. When a foreigner is linked to an attack, an outward patriotism begins and it is a tool for revenge, rather than healing. It turns ugly, and that is typically when xenophobia and bigotry make their entrance.
This relief comes with guilt, of course. As a half-American, one might ask: why would I want one of “my people” to have been the culprit of an offense against themselves?
While thinking through this, I came across an article by David Sirota. He argued, “regardless of your particular party affiliation, if you care about everything from stopping war to reducing the defense budget to protecting civil liberties to passing immigration reform, you should hope the bomber was a white domestic terrorist. Why? Because… white privilege will work to not only insulate whites from collective blame, but also to insulate the political debate from any fallout from the attack… If the bomber ends up being a Muslim and/or a foreigner from the developing world… As we know from our own history, when those kind of individuals break laws in such a high-profile way, America often cites them as both proof that entire demographic groups must be targeted, and that therefore a more systemic response is warranted”.
But I’m not really comfortable wishing blame on a people to clear another, frankly. I’m not a consequentialist, either. I won’t sit here and calculate the amount of harm that will be caused to Arabs/Muslims and thus find it morally permissible to use Americans as a means to my end. And so, I was able to work out my feeling of guilt in this way: it wasn’t so much that I wanted the case to be domestic as that I wanted so much for it to not be foreign. I do believe there is a difference there.
• SEEING THE SUSPECTS
On Friday, April 18th, the FBI held a press conference and released photos of the suspects. Supposedly they had footage of one of them placing the bag with a bomb in it down, and a photo soon surfaced of him walking away from the site. In the same photo was the little boy who lost his life as a result of that man’s act. It’s chilling to see a picture capture a moment in time that held both the ideologue and his ‘collateral damage’ in the same frame.
These images came as a refutation to CNN’s so-called “exclusive” information regarding the “dark-skinned” suspect, which basically implicated all “brown people” as being behind the bombings. It also refuted NY Post’s “bag men” cover story, which specifically incriminated two young men, one who was identified first on Reddit as a Morrocan-American high schooler.
CNN reporters began to analyze how surprisingly “American” the suspects looked in these photos released by the FBI, but that foreign links could still exist. The “experts” were then brought on to discuss how pressure cooker bombs are mentioned in Jihadist magazines, followed by a quick mumble on how The Anarchist Cookbook also mentions the same type of bomb.
Journalism was dying, I thought. Rather than working from the facts, leads, and inside sources, toward the “truth” – reporters were working from assumptions, prejudices, and phobias, toward the “speculative truth”. It was yellow journalism at its finest.
Now, a critique might be made that this is natural, since Muslims/Arabs have been the culprits of crimes before. I agree, they have been, but so have others. To firstly focus on one group, ideology, or religion, rather than others, is to expose your bias. Precedence does not excuse prejudice. Unless there is concrete evidence, I don’t want to hear any “speculative analysis” on official news outlets. It’s important to watch words used, especially in image-creating professions like journalism. They can rouse emotions, and smear a people.
An example of this is a story posted first by the New York Post that a Bangladeshi had been beaten for looking like “a f**kin’ Arab”. I cannot comprehend the gall that the NY Post has. After twice implicated people of Arab descent, they were the first to report of a crime that resulted after such fear-mongering and Otherizing. And yet no apology for their false reporting has been made, not even an edit or correction was added to clear up their false accusations.
• THE CHASE OF THE SUSPECT
Then, a break in the case occurred – the suspects were identified. They were of Chechen in descent and Muslim in faith.
A police officer was shot at MIT and a carjacking happened in Cambridge by the suspects. And the chase began, complete with grenades, mini-explosives, and approximately 200 rounds of bullets. The entire city of Boston was on lockdown.
At this point, I realized a dear American friend of mine might be in Cambridge, as she currently is studying at Harvard. She’s a former writing teacher of mine and has meant a lot to me throughout recent years.
I grew worried and contacted her to make sure she was okay. I was then glued to my laptop screen, watching a local Boston news channel (since CNN was absolutely failing at any sense of coherency in reporting by this time). I refreshed her social media pages every few minutes, waiting for any updates.
My worry was exasperated when, on Twitter, a Bostonian posted a picture of a stray bullet that had shot through his window, chair, and hit his wall.
Moments later, I noticed another picture on my Twitter timeline. It was of a group of Syrians holding a sign that read, “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our Condolences”. Under the horrible circumstances in Syria, it’s no wonder that such sentiments exist among its people.
But the commentary on Twitter around the image is what I did not care for. It was that of emotional blackmail. From what was being said, it was as though my sympathy for Boston, and those I cared for in it, was somehow a betrayal of Arab causes. And it was as if Americans owed something to Syria, they hadn’t “saved” it, and for failing to do so, they were experiencing a form of retribution.
I continued to watch the Boston’s local news channel; mentally reminding myself there is nothing wrong with caring for Boston and those in it, and that I was not becoming less Arab somehow for doing so. Nor was it a belittling of Syrians, Iraqis, or Afghanis.
For, just as I despised watching some demonize Muslims as a result of the suspect being one, I despised watching some demonize Americans as a result of their government’s foreign policy. It is important in such times to remember that the acts of a few are not the fault of the whole, and I refuse to spread blame so thin that those who rightfully should have it, do not, and those who rightfully should not, do. To blame all is to blame none, since fault comes apart with the loss of its prerequisite of specificity.
• AFTER THE SUSPECTS’ ARREST
Early Saturday morning came and the suspect was apprehended, while the other suspect had died Friday night. Boston was safe again. I was happy for this.
In the following days, as Boston is getting back to normal, the sensationalizing of all things related to the suspects now begins. Some media outlets are literally fishing for gossip-like information on the suspects. The Daily Mail released an article of the Boston bombing’s wife, that reportedly shows how she was “an all-American girl who was brainwashed” by her husband. Implying that, apparently, “all-American girl” is the symbol of “good” personified in her old yearbook pictures meant to show “the good ‘ol days”, before she turned “bad” and began wearing a hijab and called herself a Muslim. While The Daily Beast picked up a Tumblr entry written by Alyssa Kilzer who claims, “I got facials from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan’s mother for years”, and that “I became uncomfortable as I watched her religious zeal and offensive political views grow over time”. One may not agree with such a religion, or such political views, but, presented in such a bare manner, they ultimately don’t relate to the case at hand other than to sensationalize it.
And so it goes, I suppose. Demonization, from all sides, is here to stay.
Ultimately, I personally do not have a clear-cut “my people”. I only have this people, and that people. As Mahmoud Darwish phrased it, “I am from there, I am from here, but I am neither there nor here.” Politically, I may identify with Arab causes more, but I desire the Otherizing of neither side by either side. I find myself, “Where East is not strictly east, and West is not strictly west. Where identity is open to plurality, not a fort or a trench”.
And I don’t think it’s such a bleak observation to make that the Self-Other binary will always exist among us. I consider it in more of a matter-of-fact way, that’s just how humans understand each other. I’m not even sure we can fully identify our Self without first seeing an Other. Without others, we just ‘are’. Difference is almost needed, in a way, to meaningfully say what we define ‘is’.
But taking it that step further, to say Americans “deserved that harm”, because of past governmental acts, or that Arabs/Muslims “deserved that blame”, because of past individual or group acts by those who identify with either group, even when said out of anger at very real grievances from either side, is wrong. Blame must remain specific and proportionate.
Even the blame to be issued to the suspect that is still alive ought to be specifically to him: Dhokhar Tsarnaev – not Muslims, not Chechens, and not American immigrants. The consequence of that blame also ought to be proportionate to his murders: the death penalty, after due process. Not because he is a devil, but because he is a criminal. Not because he committed evil, but because he committed a wrong.
Why do I emphasize such distinctions? Because “evil” and “devil” are otherworldly. And, sadly, wrongdoing is very much of this world.
But, so is goodness.
My friend in Boston wrote, after finding out the suspect was in custody, and in reference to the factory explosion in Texas that occurred around the same time: “My brother reminded me today, [to be] grateful for all who run toward the danger to get everyone else out. The first responders in West were volunteer firemen, like him”.
Such great people do deserve the title of “heroes”, and it is good to be reminded that they exist following recent events. They remind us that heroism is not such a rarity; it is an expected response from some people.
So, let us also take comfort in remembering that, like extraordinary crimes we see committed by individuals, groups, or governments, the extraordinary courage of such people is natural, almost ordinary. We tend to treat altruistic actions almost as otherworldly as we treat “evil” acts. When, really, human nature has the capacity to do both great wrongs and great goods.
As was once told to me: humans are neither devils, nor angels. They’re just human.
I was asked by the director of the Saudi Student Organization at University of Evansville in Indiana to share their video for the Boston bombings victims and their families..