On Tuesday I became a citizen of the United States. Almost ten years ago, I was granted permanent residency. Between my green card and my naturalization certificate lies the seemingly endless decade of the “war on terror.”
I was in New York on September 11, 2001, but back then I was neither a resident nor a citizen. And if you weren’t a citizen, and you had a Muslim name, you couldn’t help but think that your life was about to change for the worse. I was already teaching at Brooklyn College, on a work visa. I had come to New York in 1990 from Canada to attend graduate school at Columbia University and, when I got the job at Brooklyn College, I transferred my student visa into a work visa and applied for a green card. My immigration attorney worked in lower Manhattan, a block away from the towers, and he was among the first people I called to make sure he was fine. He was, thankfully. He was shaken up to be sure, and there was ash all over his building, he told me, but he was okay. His voice was breaking with emotion over the phone.
I remember many things about September 11, the solemnity mixing with the acrid smells in the air in particular, but also the tremulous anxiety surrounding Arabs and Muslims in the city in those days. The sweep arrests that John Ashcroft regularly announced on the airwaves in the first weeks following the attacks sent shudders through all the Arabs and Muslims I knew in the city. We would meet up regularly to trade FBI stories, which was weirdly consoling. There came a point when I realized that every Arab person I knew in New York had either been visited or knew someone who had been visited by the FBI. At that point, I was waiting for my green card to arrive, and when it did, on October 15, I felt my own personal sigh of national security relief. A green card may not carry the protections of citizenship, but it’s a far less vulnerable condition than a work visa.
So much has happened in these ten years: the war in Afghanistan, the drumbeat to war in Iraq, the massive worldwide demonstrations in February and March 2003 to stop the war in Iraq, and the war itself. I remember the night it began, because I called my parents in Canada and surprised myself by crying into the receiver. There is the Guantánamo Bay, the sordid revelations of torture and abuse, and the program of “Special Registration,” which required non-immigrant males from a select group of mostly Muslim countries to register their whereabouts with the governments, and which sent shockwaves through Arab and Muslim communities across the country. A friend of mine who has lived more of his life here than in the Arab world told me that he never felt more Arab than when he had to register with the government.
There’s more of course: the Bali terror attacks, the Madrid terror attacks, the London attacks, all completely horrific, immoral, and nihilistic. I remember the disgust my friends and I felt whenever Osama bin Laden’s face appeared on a screen, claiming to speak for the Muslim umma and the frustration we felt at being forced to feel that our only options were between Bin Laden’s fascism and Bush’s imperialism. Then there was the populist rage that was growing louder against Muslims (who remembers the Dubai Ports World fiasco today?). I never felt more alienated from this country and depressed by its prospects than when I observed the demonstration last September opposed to the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Thousands of people on the streets screaming “No Mosque! No Mosque” was the last thing I thought I would see in New York. It felt like a window was closing on Muslims in the United States.