9-11. Trying to Fit In.

My ass burns from the rectangular heater I’m sitting on as a troop of boys from across the hill crowds in from the outside. I laugh with my dormmate as the cold evening air follows them. They’re all dressed up with khakis and blazers. There’s fifteen minutes to spare for us early birds, so we gather into small groups. Three of the boys smile in our direction and settle in to spots along the wall and an empty space in front.

The conversation continues seamlessly, but my anxiousness to feel a part of their brotherhood heightens. I work to impress them with jokes and smiles mixed in among the attempt of others to feel included and important.

At one point I say, “You know my father is from Iraq.” Proud and excited to tell these boys about the kind, successful and unusual man that is my father. I let the first statement sink in.

“Really!?” One of them asks, but a strange look runs across his faces, that I’m unable to discern.

“Yeah,” I reply, “He grew up in Baghdad.”

“Woah! We better be careful or your Dad is gonna bomb us!” Another says, causing a chorus of laughter to rise up.

Shocked and confused, I try to collect my composure and control over the conversation.

“He’s Jewish too.” I say, but as soon as the words tumble, I sense my words are a reaction to the bombing comment. Better to be an Israeli Jew than an Iraqi terrorist.

Confusion comes up again. The thing is I am not Israeli. Although some of my family is, my father never was, and either way, they’re Iraqi too. I start to think… maybe I can turn this fear to my advantage. Isn’t that how boys work?

So I join in with a light giggle and say “Yeah. You better be careful not to mess with me or my Dad might bomb you!” The words tumble out of my mouth like daggers and deep shame boils up. Your racist against your own father – I tell myself.

Flashbacks of only a few weeks earlier enter my mind. The tragic events of September 11th. I was in my first class of the day, when an administrator enters, calling me out of class. She takes me to the registrar’s office where I am told there was a terrorist attack in New York City, and that I should use the office phone to call my family. Fear immediately manifests itself as a large ball obstructing my breathing and putting pressure behind my eyes. I stand in line with other students, trying to control my body’s convulsions. No one speaks except when someone at the phone becomes frantic because they cannot get through. Moving in rotation, some crying and most silent. I make my way to the phone – calling my Mom first and then my Dad. I reach both without difficulty and breathe a sigh of relief at the sound of their voice. As I exit the office I relax but continue to fear for those still waiting. I move to the auditorium where the school is gathering.

Starting to feel hot on top of the heater, I stare at the faces of my classmates. I mark the same box on forms as they do – Caucasian, but there was something different about me, about my family – or at least half of it.

In one moment,  my father with flat nose and brown skin became transformed into something other, something evil, a terrorist just like those who caused the twin towers to fall. Pictures from that day – fire, dust, rubble, and breathable fear – cloud my mind. I find myself afraid of my father and when I look down at my own hands, afraid of myself. In a single moment, my skin and the history and culture that come with it, becomes something to fear, to hate, to reject; It becomes something separating me from these boys. Something I do not want.

The cackling laughter bores holes into my skull allowing contaminants inside. These voices tell me I can’t be my father.  So instead I cling to what makes my father and I acceptable – American and scientifically intelligent. It’s how he survived, why shouldn’t I?

Even though I saw pieces of my father in my own reflection, the clues were invisible to those around me, and since friends rarely met my father they had nothing to refute assumptions. This gives me a light bulb opportunity to escape the terrorist fate. I would maintain my invisibility – simply American and simply “white” as it was commonly understood. If I spoke of my heritage, of my father, I would make caveats to place our experience in the past where it was unthreatening and, in modern day, irrelevant. I would remind myself and anyone else that my Dad was in fact American, and oh ya – Jewish. All this made him victimized, superior, Israeli, and definitely not like those Arab terrorists and not connected to that culture. Keeping our image and heritage pristine, safe from stereotypes of backwardness and hate.

Smiling and completely lost in thought as I sit on the heater, I build up walls. Once made, immediately forgotten. A choice separated from my new segregated psyche – determined not to let anyone see me as an Iraqi man, an Arab man, not even myself.

“Everyone’s heading inside.” One of the boys says, snapping me awake. I stand up to follow, as my skin bleaches to a purer white and my father’s idolization weakens.

In the eight years since that day, I have spoken of my father and our heritage during only rare moments of safety, unless I am in the confines of his presence. When these small attempts to claim a piece of my heritage happen, the shouting accusations begin – You are exoticizing your own father! Tokenizing! You’re a fake! You don’t belong with Iraq – the Jews are gone! They’re terrorists anyway! Enemies now! You just want to be special!

This self policing continues to grow stronger and more powerful. My mind shouts louder – white woman, white woman, white woman – into the mirror. The deformed picture of self following my waking eyes as I wander the halls and fields of teenage and college years, perfect and confident, hiding my secret desires and history that would threaten my status and inclusion.

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