Two decades after 9/11, Arabs have stood up to be counted

Despite wrestling with tough questions, people have not let others control the narrative about them

What does it mean to be an Arab? At the beginning of the 21st century, this question took on a new urgency after the horror of the September 11, 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre.

Even now, the loss of life and the shock that it even happened create a feeling of bewilderment. It was a moment to leave one bereft of hope. Before then, as a society we had not ever conceived of such an act. After it, a repeat became one of our worst fears.

The world has experienced other tragedies since, some on a far larger scale. However, society’s response and the need to protect ourselves from another 9/11 did change our lives. That isn’t hyperbole for those too young or not born yet. Even for those who remember, it is hard to conceive of how differently we lived before then.

For Arabs in particular, that day marked a watershed. The question of identity and what it meant to be Arab suddenly became everyone’s concern.

Akram Abdelaziz at Mike's Food Store in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY

At the time, I was a 25-year-old British-Iraqi man living in London. All 19 of the 9/11 plane hijackers were male Arabs of a similar age. This was a frightening fact.

I felt the paranoia in the days and weeks after the attack. Both my own and of those I encountered in my daily life. At work. On the tube. In restaurants and pubs.

Other Arabs had similar or worse experiences. Some were victims of discrimination and violence. Non-Arabs had already embarked on their own narrative about Arabs. It was a highly charged atmosphere. Nuance was low on the list of priorities. For the international mainstream media it was a nadir.

When this period passed and the initial anxiety settled and everyone else seemed to move on, Arabs were still left to ponder important questions.

Is there even such a thing as an Arab in reality? Are we not too disparate a collection of countless tribes and conflicting loyalties so as to tender the idea of a singular homogeneous group? Isn't that naive and, perhaps, dangerous?

FCNRPP TURKEY ASIA:Ottoman Empire.Battles.Syria Iraq Palestine Levant.Smyrna, 1893 map. Image shot 1893. Exact date unknown.

In my grandfather’s time, questions of Arab identity were discussed in the context of the struggle for independence from the Ottomans and then the British and the French. This resulted in the emergence of the competing ideologies of the pan-Arabists and political Islamists. Both ended in failure.

Later, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict often defined the parameters of Arab identity. Other conflicts, including the Lebanese Civil War and the 1991 Gulf War, fuelled emigration and diasporas around the world.

By 2001, this had all added up to the feeling that we were farther than ever as people agreeing on what constituted "Arabness". Not that that has ever been an articulated objective.

Until 9/11, most among the Arab diaspora largely avoided being active in politics, and focused instead on other aspects such as education, food, culture and business. Our mercantile and artistic traditions combined with a respect for learning allowed for each to develop their own personal sense of what it meant to be an Arab.

Then the World Trade Centre attacks happened and we were all being told that Arabs were either terrorists or potential terrorists until proven otherwise.

EACH IMAGE MUST BE CREDITED AS FOLLOWS: © STEVE MCCURRY. IMAGE COURTESY OF BEETLES + HUXLEY.

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Al Ahmadi, Kuwait, 1991, KUWAIT-10001.

Camel and Oil Fields

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Sandwiched between blackened sand and sky, camels search for untainted shrubs and water in the burning oil fields of southern Kuwait. Their desperate foraging reflects the environmental plight of a region ravaged by the gulf war. Canby, Thomas Y. (August 1991)

"The first Gulf War taught us a new lesson in unconventional conflict. Saddam Hussain's army filled the skies of southern Kuwait with black poignant smoke from the burning oil lines. It was a powerful, debilitating symbol. And there was another. McCurry, who was covering the war, saw camels running in terror from the fires. Both images -whether of the fires or of the animals- were powerful representations of the chaos of that time. Central to McCurry's reputation as a journalist is his discipline to wait, and to search, and then to recognize the most telling image. The juxtaposition of the fire and smoke and camels running amok creates an icon of that war." - Phaidon 55

National Geographic, Vol. 180, No. 2, pgs. 2-3, August 1991, The Persian Gulf: After the Storm

Magnum Photos, NYC107607, MCS1991003K213.

Phaidon, 55, Iconic Images, final book_iconic, final print_milan, iconic photographs

As his army retreated from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein ordered the ignition of the oil fields that scatter the country. The effect was an ecological disaster of unimaginable scale. These camels are running from the fires. It is a futile effort: soon they will covered in oil that rains down from the sky.

Struggling camels silhouetted against the oil-fire, al-Ahmadi oil field, Kuwait, 1991. Pg 88,89, Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs

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In the years leading up to then, Arabs, like all people, could cling to the convenient illusion that we were all children of globalisation. This was reinforced by the emergence of the world wide web. Cell phone technology was liberating us all from previous limitations. Air travel was cheaper and more convenient, making the world closer, and all cultures became more accessible.

Arabs were largely accepted like anyone else in the US and Europe as tourists, investors, students and residents.

While we all know now that globalisation was never a sustainable strategy, its infrastructure did mean that when the historic flow of capital and talent from the Arab world to the West stalled in the aftermath of the attacks, there was a benefit to the economies of the Middle East region that received them instead.

That period coincided with the rise of Gulf states, such as the UAE, which has helped to redefine the idea of a successful Arab society.

We found that we had new answers to the questions we asked ourselves.

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Even as we continue to wrestle with tough questions, Arabs did not let others control the narrative about them

These included not just aspects of an economic boom but also a resurgence of art and creativity. Often the response of Arab talent to the question of identity was to work hard and succeed.

This process hasn’t been wholly positive. Arguably, the uprisings of a decade ago in the region were inevitable given 9/11 and the impact it had on Arabs, not just in terms of the war on terror and conflicts but also their own expectations that they deserved the same opportunities as might be found anywhere else in the world. The crimes of ISIS in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere have also been a grim reminder of the problems that continue to plague us.

There have though been wonderful individual moments for Arabs everywhere.

Two years ago, an Arab went to space again. We remember every single one of Liverpool football club superstar Mohamed Salah’s 99 Premier League goals (Arabs who are Manchester United fans may object). Culture, including film and TV, has flourished. Arab startups and entrepreneurs are legion.

Two decades after 9/11 and Arabs have stood up and been counted.

Even as we continue to wrestle with tough questions, Arabs did not let others control the narrative about them. Perhaps, there will never be a definitive answer to identity, but complexity can be a good thing too.

Twenty years on from those attacks, the world is still terrified. Perhaps it is progress that it isn’t Arabs that it is chiefly afraid of anymore.

Published: September 8th 2021, 2:00 PM
Mustafa Alrawi

Mustafa Alrawi

Mustafa is an assistant editor in chief at The National, and an accomplished journalist and broadcaster, with over 18-years' experience working in the UK, the UAE and the wider Middle East.