N.Y. neighbors rally around Arabs, Muslims

Middle Eastern merchants seen as big part of fabric of diverse Brooklyn area

Terrorism Strikes America

The Muslin Community

September 14, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BROOKLYN -- In the hours just after the World Trade Center attack, a man covered in soot trudged on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge and east along Atlantic Avenue, a street lined with Muslim-owned shops -- and stopped to spit on the sidewalk in front of Damascus Bread and Pastry.

"I don't blame him," said Gus Matli, the store's Lebanese-American manager. "In their minds, Arabs did it. ... Sometimes you can't control your anger, so as long as their anger is shown this way, we can accept it."

Then, yesterday, Australia-born lawyer Anna Cody walked into the same shop, bought bread and made a point of assuring Matli that he had her support.

"I think it must be really hard to be Arab-American at this moment," Cody, 34, said afterward. "I've heard about attacks against Arab-Americans ... and I think that's one of the worst effects of the attack on the World Trade Center."

Scattered violence

Anti-Arab violence has been reported in spots across the nation in the aftermath of Tuesday's attack, in which the prime suspect is terrorist Osama bin Laden.

In Palos Heights, Ill., the Associated Press reported, a man allegedly used the blunt end of a machete to attack a Moroccan gas station attendant, and in Huntington, N.Y., police said a 75-year-old man tried to run over a Pakistani woman in a shopping mall parking lot.

New York City has seen heightened security in some Arab and Muslim neighborhoods and scattered incidents of violence, death threats and slurs, including here on Atlantic Avenue.

Integrated community

But the story of Arab-Americans here is not as simple as a collection of disturbing anecdotes of racial slurs, beatings and other violence. Nor is it a story of Muslims uniformly paralyzed by fear of racist assaults.

In this diverse, gentrified area of Brooklyn, the Muslim-Arab shop owners are an integrated element in the community, more neighbors than targets.

"I'm from a Jewish family from Eastern Europe, and in the old country they used to call these pogroms when they attacked a minority," said Abram Megrete, a 46-year-old translator who had just walked out of Sahadi's, a Middle Eastern food store on Atlantic Avenue. "I've been shopping here for many years, and I'm not going to put up with anybody bothering my neighbors."

Pride in tolerance

Palestinians, Moroccans, Egyptians and Yemenites work here, and some live here, alongside Jews, Italians, Latinos, African-Americans and Irish. Many in the neighborhood pride themselves on tolerance, though there have been expressions of racism.

"I was driving [on Tuesday], and somebody, a man walking, said to me, `All the Muslims, they're going to go to hell," said Abdul Farharn, father of five and owner of Al-Aaqsaa, an Islamic and Moroccan clothing, books and gift store on Atlantic Avenue. "I didn't respond to him. I told him, `Thank you,' that's it. I went on my way."

Some believe that a drop in business for many of the Atlantic Avenue shops is a subtler example of racism.

On State Street in Brooklyn Heights, a young mother walking her baby in a stroller, asking that she not be quoted by name, confided that she hasn't shopped on Atlantic Avenue since the attacks, even though it's only a block away. She says she believes it's right to show acceptance of Arab-Americans but then asks in frustration why the Muslims don't show support for America, maybe by displaying a U.S. flag in front of a mosque.

Less than an hour later, on the same block, Marzuq Muhammad, a middle-age Arab-American, gives a small U.S. flag to police Officer John Horn, who is assigned to stand outside a mosque. Muhammad has been selling U.S. flags throughout the day. "Everybody's living in America, they should buy," he said.

Police officers such as Horn, 25, were stationed in front of mosques and Arab-American storefronts throughout this part of Brooklyn to deter hate crimes.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has strongly and repeatedly urged that Americans not lash out at Muslims or Arab-Americans in the aftermath of the attacks.

And inside some shops on Atlantic Avenue, Arab-Americans are trying to make sure people understand the distinction between themselves and those responsible for the attack.

Posted outside Al Qaraween's Islamic bookstore, next to a mosque on Atlantic Avenue, is a flier declaring, "The Muslim Community is outraged by these senseless acts of violence ... May Allah expose the wrongdoers and bring all of them to justice, no matter who they are."

One couple read the flier and spoke to the store's Morroco-born owner, Ahmad Rhandor.

"They said, `We know what you are going through. We are with you. You are our neighbors,'" Rhandor said. "And I told them, `We are suffering through the same thing.'"

"The people that are suspected are Arabs. ... It's painful," said Akram Abdulla, 27, who works at Sahadi's food store.

"So I feel bad for the people [who died], plus that. It's not an easy thing," Abdulla said.

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