My First Incident With Islamophobia
In no way is my experience significant or major as what we hear in the news and social media about racism or Islamophobia in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, this incident left me speechless for a while, and it made me think if I should stop speaking my own language in public.
I used to live in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates before I moved to Europe for college. In Dubai, I lived in a pleasant environment, and I had not a single interaction with racism or discrimination towards me.
In Summer 2002, we went for a vacation to the United States. It was the summer right after 9/11, and I was afraid to speak in public in general. I didn’t want to speak English or Arabic outside of our hotel home, because I was fearful of people’s reaction. Nothing happened during the vacation — my fear was just irrational.
After a week or so, I managed to lose my fear, and I started talking normally. People were pleasant, and nobody judged me for my accent.
Fast forward to 2003. I moved to Germany for my college education — it was terrific. Exploring a new country as a youngster is a fantastic experience. Going out every day, meeting new people, learning new stuff outside of my comfort zone was excellent.
My physical appearance can be mistaken for southern Italian. Therefore, People thought I was European all the time. That’s why I’ve never been a victim of racism based on my physical appearance.
My language school started, Yes, I still had to learn German, and I started having a very active social life. My friend’s circle was large from people from all over the world.
One day we were all in a local bar, and I was walking to a friend of mine, who happened to be Arab as well.
I guess we were loud because others around us noticed we were speaking Arabic. All of a sudden, this older guy walked towards us and sat down with us on the table.
He greeted us and whispered to us: “I noticed you are Arabs. If you are interested, I can teach you how to fly a plane into buildings” — referencing the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
My friend and I were shocked. We didn’t know how to react or what to do — we were both very new to Germany and didn’t know if this was considered a normal behaviour or not. We didn’t want any trouble, so we just left the bar and walked towards our dorms.
For the next month or so, I wasn’t able to dine out or go to bars. After my classes, I just went to my room and watched any DVD I had lying around.
I kept thinking about the incident, and whether it would define the next chapter of my life, after all, I had just moved to Germany to study, and I would stay in the country for the next 4–6 years at least.
To be honest, I think the intentions of this guy weren’t bad. I think he wanted to be friendly, but it was a bad insensitive joke. A joke that shocked me and defined my first year in Europe.
After a while, I started going out again, but I was either speaking English, or my new acquired Germany outside of the dormitory. It took me two to three months to feel comfortable again to speak Arabic.
Seventeen laters and I’m still thinking about that incident. I don’t hold prejudice towards that person, but I sometimes still rethink my actions in public, so that I don’t face a similar situation. For example, every time I’m in a crowded area with my son, I’ll start automatically speaking German to him out of fear that someone might say such a remark in front of him.
There is no moral to this story. I still rethink that situation over and over again. If I want to share anything with you — the reader — is that words can be very hurtful and shape and change one’s behaviour even years in the future.
So just consider what you tell to others, even if you intend to be friendly.