Thursday, April 21, 2005

Neighbor or terrorist?

A story received by Email:

Neighbor or Terrorist?

My family and I live in an established neighborhood which is much like a small town: when a neighbor needs help, the others of us pitch in. Also, there is not much turnover here, so when a house goes on the market, we watch closely to see who will be moving in and joining our community.

The house across the street from us stood empty for several months when the original purchasers divorced in the early 90’s. When the new neighbors Mohammed and his wife Isabel moved in, I walked over and introduced myself. I learned right away that Mohammed was the son of a former ambassador from a Middle Eastern country and had been reared right here in the DC area; Isabel was a second-generation Hispanic American. The couple had been married for several years and had moved to our neighborhood because they were ready to start their family.

Over a period of several years, all of us became friends. We did petsitting for each other, organized yard sales together, borrowed each other’s lawn tools, and shoveled snow in the Blizzard of ’96, when the plows didn’t come and we had to dig ourselves all the way out to the main road.

When Isabel started having children, I offered to babysit from time to time so that she and Mohammed could occasionally have a night out. It was at that time that I saw an interesting photograph of Mohammed, in what appeared to be traditional Arab garb. This came as a surprise to me because I had always seen him dress in modern Western clothes. When I later asked Isabel, “Is Mohammed a sheikh?” she told me that he was. I thought nothing more about it, other than we had some pretty exotic neighbors in our little community.

In the late 90’s, Mohammad began making regular trips to the Middle East. One morning, around 4:00, I went outside to get the newspaper and saw Mohammed just arriving home. I smiled to myself, called out to him, and said, “What are you doing, coming in so late?” He walked over to me, and that’s when I discovered that he was quite intoxicated. He slurred, “I’ve been to Vegas.” I said, “I thought that Moslems didn’t drink.” Mohammed morosely replied, “Maybe I’m just not a good Moslem.” His answers surprised me—never had I known Mohammed to drink or to speak about his beliefs, religious or political.

A short time later, Mohammed informed me that they were moving back to his home in the Middle East in order to conduct new business ventures there. In early 1998, he sold his business here in the DC area, and the entire family departed for an extended time. Both Mohammed and Isabel told me, “We’ll never sell this house. We’re coming back.” We continued to keep in touch by e-mail and every time they returned to the States, visited each other.

For a while, the house remained empty because Isabel planned to come back to the States for extended visits with her family. In the summer of 1999, I was preparing to teach a world literature course and approached Mohammed to get some advice about Middle Eastern literature. He told me that what I was planning to use, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, were mere fairy tales and that his culture didn’t have literature as such. Then he said something I’ll never forget: "You want to know how a Middle Eastener thinks? It's me and my brother against my cousin. And when we finish my cousin off, it's me and my brother against each other. We are Semites—Jew and Arab. We're the most treacherous people you've ever known.” He launched into a diatribe against American foreign policy, specifically mentioning his disapproval of Israel and of Madeline Albright, “a Jewess as Secretary of State.” He concluded by stating that he supported Saddam Hussein. My impression at the time was one of “He’s trying to explain the world situation to me.” I did not feel particularly threatened or alarmed but, as odd as this now sounds, was grateful to learn about the Arab position from someone whom I considered my friend.

Until the summer 2001, we kept in touch through e-mail. They sent photos of their children and asked about the tenants now living in the house. Since 9/11, those e-mails have never resumed, nor have Mohammed or Isabel ever returned to our neighborhood. According to the tax records, their house was sold to a man in Miami; this man had an Arab surname. The house has now been resold—to the last tenants.

My post-9/11 research—at first through books available at the public library and more recently through the Internet—makes me wonder who Mohammed really is. I’ve learned that Islamists accept no literature other than the Koran. I’ve learned that the jihadists who attacked us on 9/11 made trips to Las Vegas. I’ve learned that there could be sleeper cells here in the United States and that when the call comes, they will answer.

And, yet, those years that he lived next door to us, I thought Mohammed was such a good neighbor! Now, every time pictures of wanted terrorists are released, my family and I scrutinize those pictures. Will Mohammed’s photo appear one day?

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