"I hate A-rabs,” said the young man next to me, in a southern accent. “I’ve just got out of the US Navy, and I can tell you, we Americans hate A-rabs. We still ain’t forgotten September 11. We don’t like Middle Eastern people."
My flight to New York last week was... telling. Spotting a star of David on my ring, my neighbour felt comfortable enough to vocalise his fear of Islam — after snacks had been handed out and pleasantries exchanged between the two of us.
His open polemic and refusal to whisper, despite me often pressing my forefinger to my lip, was surprising. The sites of Ground Zero and the Boston Marathon bombings were clearly etched in his mind — he seemed to associate all Muslims with Islamist terrorists, and there was no way to dissuade him. “We all feel it,” he matter-of-factly shrugged.
My queue to the US security booth was equally thought-provoking. The crumpled-nosed security officer looked at my surname, and wasn’t to know that I was a British girl born to Iraqi-Jewish parents.
“Rashty, why are you in the States, Rashty? Put your finger there, Rashty. Okay, Rashty. Now, Rashty, look into the eye-scanner, Rashty.” He continued to repeat my surname — not preceded by “Miss” or any form of politeness — whenever a pause provided opportunity.
Why are you in the States, Rashty? said the officer
As he continued to repeat my surname, spoken like a swearword, I realised that I had fallen victim to Islamophobia.
But then he sent me on my way with a smile upon flicking through my British passport — laden with Israeli stamps. I was no longer a threat, it seemed. “Have fun,” he cooed.
And I did. On my trip around New York I stopped by the traditional commercial sites, from Macy’s to Bloomingdales and Central Park.
But on turning to the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero, I realised that the US security situation was closer to Israel than it was the UK — often assumed to be its natural socio-political cousin across the pond.
The heightened security at Ground Zero, the presence of personnel guarding the site of almost 3,000 fallen victims, fuelled fears of an imminent terrorist attack — if the necessary procedures were not in place. Each location boasted bold signs telling visitors to prepare for the “airport-style security”. I can’t recall the number of times I took off and put on my coat, woollen layers, ear-muffs, scarf and high boots.
The need for top security in the US — where Homeland episodes are replicated in real-life homegrown terrorism, from the Boston bomb brothers to American-born jihadist Terry Loewen — is clear.
But my concern stems from the growing fear of the “other”, the racial profiling, resentment and hate embodied by citizens of the great “land of the free”. The sentiment, closely mirrored in the antisemitism of the 1930s, the anti-black backlash in the 60s and the anti-Irish bigotry of the 80s, is reflected in some Islamophobic responses I experienced in the States.
Instead of watching a Clint Eastwood film with my US Navy neighbour for the rest of the flight, I should have said his xenophobia struck a fear in me. It struck a fear that one day he would say “I hate Israelis”. Another day he would say “I hate Jews”. On the final day he would hate me. It was an uncomfortable feeling — an uncomfortable journey.