Beautiful article by Diana Abu-Jaber:

Published on Sunday, October 21, 2001 in the Washington Post

Ten days after the terrorist attacks, I was on campus preparing for the start of school when the clean-cut young man approached and handed me a flier. He looked me in the eye and nodded as if we’d conducted a business transaction. And then I looked at the flier; it called for, among other things, “a rounding up and questioning of all Arabs.” My first thought was to tell him he’d confused me with someone else. He hadn’t realized I was one of the ones he wanted rounded up. But after I climbed the four flights of stairs to my office, I found the same flier slipped under my office door — the same door that bears my very Arabic name. For some time, all I could do was stare out my office window at the tiny sliver of sky that shows through the skylight. I remembered that when we lived in Jordan and I was a little girl, there was a woman who used to take care of me who was from a place called Palestine. She used to say: In times of great calamity, clear your eyes and make your mind like a pond of water.

Years later, I read nearly verbatim the same words of advice in a novel by an American writer. It was like coming across a juncture of insight without culture, a moment of mutuality and recognition. I grew up with people always telling me who I was, based on such clues as the color of my skin or the sound of my name, but I often had the sense that they weren’t really looking.

Even now, I’m frequently told — sometimes insistently — that I don’t look Arab. I’m told that I look Russian or French or Irish or Greek or Italian. I don’t take it too personally, though I sometimes have the sense that people simply don’t want me to look Arab. Just the other day, while discussing the frightening fallout of the attacks, a good friend asked, “You don’t think of yourself as Arab, do you? I don’t!”

But sometimes things aren’t so clear. Even though I’ve spent most of my life in America, five years ago I was again living in Jordan. An American friend and I were driving through the open countryside and at one point we decided to explore the courtyard of one of the crumbling medieval castles scattered around Jordan. The place appeared to be utterly abandoned and desolate; there was a large rusted padlock on the door. The wind came ringing high over the desert plain, and for miles around the only movement seemed to come from a pack of yellow dogs trotting toward us from the far horizon. Their eyes were soft and their mouths hung open in natural smiles. But then we realized that a man was walking with them and this man had a powerful, rigid face, the aspect of someone who’s spent his nights watching the stars and animals, who hadn’t learned how to govern his internal state in order to please or comfort other humans.

He approached us with his pack of dogs and the closer he got the more thunderstruck his expression. He finally stopped, raised one hand and pointed at me. My pulse was leaping in my throat. Wind roaring in our ears, both my friend and I stood stock still, unsure if we were intruding. But then his expression seemed to break open and he quietly said, “Anissa?” My grandmother was named Anissa, but she had been dead for more than 30 years. We then learned this man had known her when she was a young woman living in Amman. No one in my family has ever told me I resembled my grandmother — a woman who died before I was born. But here, years later, and miles away from Amman, this stranger crossed an empty space, squinted through sand and wind, and recognized something.

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