Sherien Sultan

Surviving the War Zone on the R Train

"IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. If you see a suspicious package or activity on the platform or train, don't keep it to yourself ... call the Terrorism Hotline at 1-888-NYC-Safe." The words stare at me as I sit on the R train, making my way home to Queens from the Financial District. I turn my gaze only to feel their weight bear heavily on me and I start to fidget in my seat. There should be no reason for me to be so uncomfortable. But as I sit there the only emotion I do feel is absolute terror.

I am an Arab-American Muslim woman residing in New York City and spend approximately twenty hours a week riding the subway. For the past couple of months I have been negotiating my existence on a daily basis. It has become almost mandatory for me to do this. If not, I take the risk of becoming absorbed in the current climate of public hysteria where people applaud the American government for its use of violence and clandestine behavior. My "war zone" does not consist of tanks or stealth bombers. There are no soldiers breaking down my door, no land mines threatening to blow me up. My war zone instead consists of symbols that bring comfort to so many others around me. The American flag, which once represented freedom and liberty to me now stands for tyranny and repression. No one knows about the battles I fight and no one will welcome my victories. Regardless, my war zone is quite real and I am in battle everyday.

Shortly after Bush declared his intention that "Saddam must go," New York City straphangers who never really read newspapers that often during their commute suddenly were in possession of either The New York Post or The Daily News. I had never seen so many newspapers, so many eager readers. I was bombarded daily with outrageous headlines that provoked hostility towards Arabs and Muslims and gradually found myself feeling out of place. Physically, I began to occupy less space by crossing my arms or legs. I did not want to share a space with the burgeoning readership of The New York Post. I grew more and more frustrated as each day passed and as each headline became more blatantly racist.

I remember the day I took out the Koran from my bag in order to read it on the way to work. It was, I am ashamed to admit, my first and last day. It took only a couple of stops for someone to make a comment: "You're making people uncomfortable". I turned to find a man scowling and a couple of people staring blankly at me. I asked the owner of the voice what exactly I was doing that was making people uncomfortable and he told me straight out that it was the Arabic "shit" I was reading and that I should put it away. Anything written in Arabic has to be a threat, of course. I did not quite know how to respond to him. I looked around and saw the clutter of newspapers declaring war on innocent Iraqis (is there even such a thing?). I saw women reading their bibles in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Polish. Were the other commuters going to put away the newspapers that make me as an Arab uncomfortable? Were the women around me going to put away their bibles, symbols of the Christian fundamentalist thought that only a holy crusade would save America from the evil of the Arabs?

I was told by friends and family not to read the Koran in public any more. "No sense in provoking people," they said. And as I mentioned before, I am very ashamed to admit that I have not read it in the subway since that day. I have developed a certain kind of self-censorship that I am not proud of and try to fight daily. My war zone scares me because I do not know what I am fighting against. I do not having anything tangible to battle and do not even have allies. How can I protect myself against something I cannot grasp? How can I reclaim my space?

I am scared. I will not deny it. A couple of weeks after the incident with my Koran, I found myself on the subway again with another book. This time it was in English and I hesitated to make it public because the title, "Classical Islam," was guaranteed to draw attention. I managed to find the strength to start reading, however, only to have a fellow commuter ask me what I was reading. I froze. I showed him the title and he asked if I was reading it for school. I froze again. Do I legitimize it? Do I give him a valid reason for my reading this book instead of simply claiming that I am interested in learning more about my culture? I cannot quite remember the answer I gave him, but I do know that I tried to give the book some kind of academic credibility by rambling on about how the author was a foremost scholar on religious texts. The gentleman left at his stop and I was left feeling shame once again.

What one considers a simple subway ride I have begun to consider a daily struggle. I struggle to maintain my identity, struggle to find the strength to stop hiding. I do not want to live in a war zone. I do not want to feel terror. Every moment I spend on the subway, I spend fighting for my existence. I have not taken out my Koran; I have not been able to be quite that defiant yet. Not too long ago when Iraqi casualties were being announced on CNN, Torie Clarke impatiently directed this statement at journalists: "This is a war zone, what do you expect to happen in a war zone?"

I cannot expect not to feel fear in this time of turbulent historical change, where diplomacy gives way to war and death is tolerable if it means getting your way (except of course if this death includes Westerners). Although I do feel shame in monitoring my actions, I understand that it will take time for me to build up my determination and defiance. I will continue doing this every day as I ride the subway. And one day I will no longer look at the NYC terror hotline ad and feel fear because, if I have my way, one day it will no longer need to be there.

Sherien Sultan has worked as a research assistant with the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at CUNY, conducting interviews with Arab-Americans about their experiences following the events of September 11, 2001. This essay was one of the winners out of a pool of 290 entries in a recent writing contest sponsored by Women's WORLD, the Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation designed to bring women's ideas on war and terror to wider public attention. The prizewinning essays and some others are online at the Women's WORLD website.

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