Driving north on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, past the state police barracks, whose entrance off the highway this day has been suddenly sealed off to any incoming traffic, a break in the trees to the east reveals a colossal plume of smoke 16 miles away, remnants of the nightmarish attack on the World Trade Center.
Just off exit 156 sits the city of Paterson, N.J. Once a thriving textile town, and today perhaps best known as the home of wrongfully imprisoned boxing legend Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Paterson in recent years has become home to one of the state’s largest Arab communities.
Home to nearly a dozen mosques and private Islamic learning centers, Paterson, and in particular the enclave of South Paterson, is home to thousands of Arab-Americans, mostly from Palestine, Syria and Jordan.
In recent years they have been flexing their political and social muscle in Paterson, registering thousands of voters at mosques, receiving public funding for a Saturday morning program that teaches students Arabic and even convincing the Paterson school system to close on two Muslim holidays, becoming one of the only schools in the country to do so.
On the day of the World Trade Center attack, though, with suspicion running high that Islamic terrorists may have been responsible, members of Paterson’s Arab community found along its Main Street hub were reluctant to talk about the tragedy, and fearful of what it means to Arab-Americans nationwide.
“You don’t know who did it,” stressed a man who identified himself as Fuad. “Why say we did it?” He did say, however, that whoever is to blame “should pay the price.”
Last fall, Paterson’s Palestinian-Americans held an angry rally off Main Street, denouncing the shooting death of Mohammed Jamal Aldura, a 12-year-old boy who was caught in Israeli sniper fire.
According to a newspaper account, tensions ran high that day:
“We won’t rest until all the Jews are dead,” said a burly young man. “Shame on America,” said another bitter-faced youth. “For helping Israel to kill Palestinians,” said a third.
In the wake of the WTC attacks, however, those brash sentiments were muted. As one man pointed out, “Our fight is for Jerusalem, not New York.”
Indeed, like every other tri-state community, Paterson on Tuesday was filled with anxious family members, trying to track down loved ones working in the city, or even at the WTC itself, and hoping they escaped the rubble. One of the reasons so many Arab-American immigrants call Paterson home is its close proximity to New York, where many work every day.
“I am sad for everybody. Everybody,” said Nadia, with her two children in tow.
Nationally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued security guidelines for Muslims, including not wearing traditional Islamic attire in public for the immediate future, requesting additional police patrols around mosques and documenting suspicious people or vehicles.
Even in a city like Paterson, Arab-Americans remain in the minority and must maintain good relations with their neighbors. But judging from a sampling of non-Arabs sitting by a downtown Paterson fountain, frustration and anger is running high. An American-born Black Muslim, Jamal, was visibly upset, and hoped Islamic terrorists were not responsible for the day’s carnage. “That,” he said, “is not what being a Muslim is about.”
Similar feelings ran high among Arab-Americans and Muslims closer to the devastation in Manhattan and nearby in Brooklyn. Mausama Abdelradi, who had been at his new job at a jewelry store on John Street and Broadway, when planes hit the World Trade Center just blocks away, stood in the street. His shoes were covered in dust.
“First we heard the crash and then we saw the fire. People were jumping from the 80th floor. We saw the next plane hit, I saw the building collapse. I was crying. I almost died today. ”
An Egyptian Muslim, Abdelradi says he has no doubt that the people behind the horror were terrorists. “Absolutely. It’s because of the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Israelis, Palestinians and the American domination of politics. This is not terrorism. This is war. But the United States never expects that there will be war inside.”
And as someone who to the average American looks Middle Eastern, Abdelradi has other concerns — for his own welfare and that of his community.
“This action will affect life everywhere. This will hurt everyone. Everyone has family here. And people will be offensive against Muslims. No one’s said anything to me so far, but in an area where someone’s family member was killed, they might react. But I’m not scared. I believe in God.”
At a bodega on First Avenue, Mike, who identified himself as a Muslim from Queens, said he felt confident that problems would not arise in his neighborhood. “I am a businessman. I need peace. I don’t like killing. But I don’t expect problems to arise here. Here people are friendly, not crazy.”
According to one New York policeman standing on the roped-off corner of Third Avenue and 21st Street, New Yorkers are angry, but ethnic tensions don’t seem apparent. “I haven’t even thought about ethnic tensions,” said the officer, who asked to not be identified. “The feeling I get is that most people are concerned about war. A lot of New Yorkers are getting ticked off. It’s hot. They’re on the street. But we haven’t had any big problems.”
Mr. Ivan Kushner, a principal at Asher Levy school in the East Village who had sent his children home for the day, also disparaged any ideas of ethnic tension.
“I’m not making any judgements and I don’t see why there would be any problems. We have a multicultural school and we get along nicely. The district will inform us of what we should do. I’m sure we will have counselors on hand to talk to the children. But we must wait for the district’s word.”
Over in Brooklyn, which is even more ethnically diverse than New York, the most unusual thing is the light. That and all the people. In Boreum Hill, about three miles southeast of the massive column of smoke, dust, and ash, you can still see scraps of paper hovering in the sky. The debris refracts the sun, touching everything on the street with a spooky, gray-gold patina. All along Atlantic Avenue, thousands of people walk home from work or school in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Some wear dust masks. Dozens gather on the street corners to gaze up at the sky.
One guy ran up the street, slamming parking meters and screaming something about Palestinians and how he was going to strap them with “C-4″ explosives. At least half of the Islamic markets and shops near Flatbush on Atlantic Avenue are closed. “We are Palestinian background,” said one man in a local real estate office who gestured toward another man and a woman seated near him. “We feel this sadness every day back home. And now, we see what’s happened here, and this is very sad also. Innocent people. It’s really sad. A shame.”
The man did not want his name used, he said, because most of his clients are Jewish, and he doesn’t think newspapers are fair to Palestinians. Asked if he was worried for his safety after news stations had speculated that Osama Bin Laden or other Islamic groups might be responsible, he said: “I don’t care what they say. One day the truth will show up, who did that, and they will be punished. I don’t care who was behind this, they must be punished. Whoever did this has to be crazy — out of his mind.”
“This is totally wrong,” said Frej Halim, looking out toward the smoke from behind the counter of Islamic Books and Tapes on Atlantic Avenue. “I’m talking according to my faith. I’m a practicing Muslim. Allah says in the Koran that anyone who kills an innocent is like someone who kills all of humanity.
” Until now, of course,” he added, “we don’t know who did this. It’s like Oklahoma. From the first day, the people start saying that it was Islamic fundamentalists. Whoever did this is a criminal. This is against innocents. If this act was done by a Muslim, according to Islam, this guy is not a Muslim, because a true Muslim will not kill or harm innocent people or civilians. Whoever did this, they have a personal purpose or a political goal and they hide behind the religion. The word Islam, in Arabic, means peace.”
Ibrahim Diallo works at the nearby Noor As-Sunnah bookstore. He says that media organizations are quick to blame Muslims and Arabs, which fuels common racism. “The people who handle the media are the enemy of Islam. You should not blame anybody without evidence. This is not the first time they put the blame on us. We don’t fear them, we just fear what’s happening. We don’t fear about what people think. No matter what they do to us, we don’t fear nothing. We just fear God. We don’t have the intention of doing anything bad to anybody.”