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The Long Ride

After the London bombings, an Arab New Yorker encounters fear and suspicion on his daily subway commutes.
 
 
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Even before Omar passed his yellow MetroCard through the turnstile and stepped onto the platform at his local subway station in Queens, he knew it was going to be a difficult ride. It was the day after the London train bombings and in the back of his mind, Omar, like many other New Yorkers, was worried about a possible "copycat" bombing attack.

But while the remote possibility of such a strike lingered in the back of his thoughts, he was more preoccupied with another kind of threat that was not as brutal, but more immediate. More than the fear of a terrorist attack, Omar dreaded the suspicion from fellow riders that was bound to be as thick as the crush of daily commuters packed into the New York subway cars. He also worried about what he believed was certain to be yet another "inevitable backlash" against Muslims and Arabs in America and Western countries.

Omar, who spoke on the condition that his real name not be used, describes himself as "obviously" Middle Eastern. In his early 30s, he has a plume of black hair, a thick but trimmed mustache, olive skin and, as he puts it, "an Arab nose."

His looks, combined with his accent, make his heritage "a dead giveaway," he says. And he knows from experience the downside of what that can mean.

Omar was already living in New York City when the planes struck the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks, he remembers the anger and animosity directed at him, "as if I was personally responsible for the terrorists," he says. People would yell at him from across the street and many days no one would sit next to him on the subway.

Not many, he said, were interested in seeing the man behind the stereotype. Omar, like about 60 percent of Arabs in America, is a Christian. As a gay man, Omar came to the United States primarily to seek the kind of freedom he would never have in his home country. Omar's family, and even the government of his native country, have been fighting religious fundamentalism for years, even decades, long before Americans knew or cared about its rise and power in the Middle East.

Omar says he loves this country, and his greatest hope is to one day become an American citizen.

Yet, on the street, and particularly after attacks, he is seen as the enemy. Omar says he understands such emotions, and in many ways he seems resigned to them. "Americans are very patriotic people," he says. "I know how much they love their country."

As a foreigner here, he is all too aware that he does not have the same kind of rights -- including freedom of speech -- that Americans enjoy. Since September 11, he has seen immigration rules tightened with what he believes is the clear aim of minimizing immigration from Arab and Muslim countries. And, most painfully for him, he says he has found it difficult to discuss terrorism and Middle East politics with reason.

"There are no shades of gray here," he says, exasperated. "Everything is black and white, and red, white and blue." As an Arab, no matter how much he denounces and abhors terrorism, if he criticizes American foreign policy, he becomes the next worst thing: "A sympathizer."

As a gay Christian, Omar points out out that he is hardly a candidate for love and warmth from the terrorists. "I'm sure they want me dead," he says with a chilly matter-of-factness. None of that, however, stops the fear and suspicion he worries he will likely encounter in the wake of the London bombings.

In the coming weeks, he says he'll keep as low a profile as he can manage. He'll take cabs when he can afford it, or long walks in Manhattan, rather than the subway cars. And he'll pray, to his Christian God and for his Muslim friends, "that somehow all this madness ends."