Arab-Americans worry while businesses suffer

May 05, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Others were firebombed or harassed when Operation Desert Storm set off a backlash against Arab-Americans, but Majed Tayar was left alone. That's what's upsetting him.

The Syrian-born contractor saw his business drop off sharply when the war began, and he is still waiting for it to snap back.

"You think you're part of the plain old American public, then you learn otherwise," said Mr. Tayar, a garrulous man from Brooklyn. "You start feeling like the enemy is all around you. But you don't know which ones they are."

The hate crimes against Arab-Americans have subsided since the war ended, but many like Mr. Tayar are suffering from the lingering economic effects of the war. Although there is no organized boycott against them, the war made some customers hostile and many others so uncomfortable that they stay away.

"Arab-Americans in all kinds of business are suffering from this," said Albert Mokhiber, president of the American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee, which is holding its annual convention this weekend in Washington. "It's not organized, but it's all everywhere."

Some said they were managing to hold on largely because of continuing trade from longtime customers and contacts within the 3 million-person Arab-American community. Others said they conceal their ethnic ties to keep their businesses alive.

A Los Angeles car wash has tried to surmount the problem by posting a sign saying "Under New Management" -- even though the ownership hasn't changed, said Nazih Bayda, regional director in Southern California for the Arab-American group.

Some Arab-Americans have changed the names they use for business -- from Muhammed to Mike or from Hussan to Sam. Some said they were afraid to speak in Arabic while customers were around.

"It's pretty terrible when you're scared to speak a language," Mr. Bayda said.

Professionals report similar problems.

Iraqi-born A. Muhsin Al-Athari survived all sorts of difficult situations before he made it to the United States in 1980.

He lives in the Washington area, working as sole practitioner specializing in international and immigration law. Business has been "weak," he said, and he can understand why.

One of his clients is a Sudanese man whose son was born in Libya and whose wife is Lebanese. Mr. Al-Athari said he can appreciate why such a person would hesitate to complicate his life by hiring an Iraqi to represent him in this country.

"Consider the situation," said Mr. Al-Athari, who has opposed Hussein for years but strongly opposed U.S. involvement in the war because he feared it would destroy Iraq. "No one is trying to push me out of business. But this is terrible."

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