Boston: Why Arabs Like Me Are Horrified

Yesterday afternoon while we were on our way to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, my husband (a Scot) drove by a restaurant in England where we are at the moment that reminded him of the September 11 attacks on the United States. He had dinner at that restaurant shortly after the attacks. Someone he worked with called him on the phone earlier that day and told him what was happening. His initial reaction was, “What? What do you mean? What does this mean?” He describes another work colleague’s reaction being, “I really need to eat Chinese food.” So they both got up and went out for Chinese. It was only later, my husband explained, that they both realized the severity of the attacks and the massive death toll that ensued.

“Where were you on September 11?” my husband asked me. And I proceeded to tell him a story I do not like to tell and have rarely told. But it is the true story of so many Arabs that day, even if they won’t admit it.

I was at our sporting club in Cairo on the afternoon of September 11 with my children, my ex-husband, and my father-in-law. My father-in-law worked in television and suddenly got a phone call. His reactions to what was being said on the other end of the line were odd. “What happened??” I asked. “Planes are attacking the United States,” he responded. “What?? That doesn’t make sense. What do you mean planes are attacking the United States??” He had no further explanation other than saying that it seemed someone was waging war against America.

Together with everyone at the sporting club – the news was spreading like wildfire – we all headed towards the nearest television set at the club. Crowds were gathering. We saw images of airplanes flying into tall skyscrapers. People were incredulous but almost everyone had a smile on their face. As did I. My initial thoughts were, “Finally someone is teaching the U.S. a lesson. Finally they are getting a taste of their own medicine.”

For years I had been very angry at U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East; so angry that I renounced my U.S. citizenship to protest the U.S. bombings of Iraq during Bill Clinton’s administration.

When I got home, however, my initial reaction to the September 11 attacks changed. I realized that thousands of innocent civilians were dying as a result of these attacks. And I realized that the lives of hundreds of thousands more civilians were being changed forever. I realized what was happening was horrific. It was wrong. It was not deserved.

Some four hours after my husband and I had this conversation recalling the September 11 attacks, we turned on the TV to learn that explosions at the Boston Marathon had just claimed lives and limbs. My husband is a marathon runner. I aspire to be one some day. We were both in a state of shock. This time, as was the case in many other instances since September 11, my initial and remaining reaction was one of dread. I followed the news updates with an intensity, waiting for the news I feared most: that these attacks were perhaps performed by someone claiming to belong to an Islamist group again. Up until the writing of these words, the source of the explosions are yet to be revealed. I continue to await the news with dread.

I’ve been flipping through my social media feeds and they are flooded with Arabs and Muslims sending their condolences to the people of Boston. The reaction is almost defensive. It’s as if we’re saying, “We don’t support this even if it is one of us who did it.”

The reaction, I would venture to say, is not only one of horror at the loss of life at a sporting event. It is that, of course. But it is also one of deep-seated frustration. We have had to endure years and years of explosions, killings, thuggery, and foreign invasions in our part of the world. So many lives have been lost. So many other lives affected. In a few countries, the people managed to reach a state of previously unknown euphoria after deposing decades-long dictators. We were at a turning point, we all thought. Change is on the way, we were almost certain. Our children will have a brighter future, was the general sentiment. But two years after our revolutions, the situation is dire. The economy in my country Egypt is in a strait, the security situation on the ground is lousy, and our politicians seem to be in a rabid power frenzy. We watch the situation in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq with a certain numbness. My social media feed receives pictures of dead children from some posters almost on a daily basis. It’s gruesome. I scroll past these pictures the way I would scroll past a picture of a penis; the pictures are distasteful, is all I really think.

My people endure not only all of the above, but we have endured, most of all, years of illiteracy and ignorance. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have a decent education, those of us who have been even more fortunate to be exposed to knowledge and thought and culture, are deeply frustrated with the ignorant, often fanatic thinking we are exposed to almost on a daily basis. On one level, we blame ourselves: we have not done enough to combat illiteracy, ignorance, and fanaticism. On another level we understand its roots: decades, if not more, of oppression by dictatorships, which, oddly enough, were supported and encouraged by world democracies. And decades, if not more, of foreign interventions that have bred hate and disdain among even the educated amongst us.

The thing that hits me most is that my reaction, and clearly the reaction of so many other Arabs, towards the bombings of the Boston Marathon, was one of shock and attention. My reaction towards the deaths of people in my own country and those happening in neighboring countries has been one of numbness. The only explanation I can think of for this disparity is that I realize we have a long and difficult road ahead of us in the Arab and Muslim worlds until we fix our problems. These horrible things will happen in our part of the world until we, as a people, are able to unite in creating the change that we need. But as so many of us are working hard at creating this change, if ever so slowly, our problems spill over into other parts of the world. This spillage then has terrible repercussions on our efforts. We face more intolerance, we become the targets of anger, and frequently there is more foreign intervention. So for every small step of positive change that we create, we get thrown back a thousand more steps.

My sympathies go to the people of Boston. My continued numbness shields me from the immense pains in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And dread fills me as we wait to hear who did it this time and thus learn how far behind we will fall yet again.


  1. There are so many good people scattered around our world. So many whose only focus is making a good life for their children, being a good friend, being a good person. We all carry the weight of deep concern for the world as violence and anger spill over onto the innocent. We hope and pray for better from ourselves individually and collectively.

    Our continuing encouragement through these difficult days is the people we’ve been blessed to know; good folks, all of them, in Kenya and Nigeria, Djibouti, Egypt and Benin. Muslims and Arabs, Christians, Africans from across the continent, so many good-hearted folks. They seem to be the normal world, and we’re heartened by their grace to us here in the west. In such good people, perhaps, is the seed of change.

  2. Thanks for this. This expresses so succinctly the huge range of emotions and reactions that are particular to Muslims/Arabs during events like this. There’s that triple frustration – first that there even are such mentally ill people out there, who would destroy the lives, families, and property of innocent people, yet their act is only attributed to mental illness if their religion/political ideaology is NOT Islamic (if it is, then of course he acted out of cold-blooded, fundamentalism, not mental illness -_-); second that the dozens killed by explosions in Iraq yesterday, the dozens killed by airstrikes in Syria yesterday, the four + killed by American drones in Pakistan yesterday, the Palestinian families of the 170 killed last Nov. who found out yesterday that Israel would not give them justice, but condoned the act instead, all of these didn’t share equal media coverage with the three killed in Boston; and third that the media has already – with or without the potential help of this new event – so successfully linked Islam with terrorism in people’s minds.

    The speed with which people jumped on the bandwagon after the NY Post’s phony report about a “Saudi national in custody”, with sarcastic comments of “big shocker there”, “knew it’d be one of those dune coons”, and most disturbingly, a Fox News contributor’s tweet “Everybody do the National Security Ankle Grab! Let’s bring more Saudis in without screening them! C’mon!” followed by his recommendation for the extermination of all Muslims when his tasteless tweet was brought into question – all of that saddens and worries and frustrates me. I was on the same street as the explosion not 48 hours earlier, and I dread to think what kind of reactions I’ll start seeing when I’m out and about, as a niqabi who lives less than an hour away from Boston, if the accused turns out to be some so-called Muslim. I cling to the many who stood up for Muslims, and urged people not to jump to conclusions, and not to paint all of us with one brush if the culprit does end up using our beautiful religion as revolting justification for his horrific acts, but to remember that this can only be the product of a sick mind, and we must all stand together for humanity, and for peace.

  3. You express the tensions about this event so beautifully. I am an American but I have spent a good proportion of my life living in Northern Nigeria. I was in New York on September 11, and two weeks later arrived in Jos, Nigeria, where there had been a huge political/ethnic/religious crisis during the same time (September 7-14) where at least 2000 people had also been killed. A few months after I arrived, the US cultural affairs section came to Jos with a photo display of photos by a New Yorker photographer of Ground Zero and the cleanup effort. I went because I missed my city and I wanted to see it healing. But as I walked around the exhibition with Nigerian friends, watching them shake their heads and hearing them say “how terrible” when they had just been through a crisis where many loved ones were also killed and missing and buried in mass graves, I began to feel very uneasy. The world grieved those lost in New York, but very few had even heard of Jos, where nearly as many people had been killed. I was very young at the time and I think that was one of the first moments when I began to really think about the inequality of the world media and the power structures of political leadership. I began to understand how America throws its weight around the world and covers over so many other stories of suffering (many of them caused directly by its international policies) with fog-horned mourning on CNN et al.

    Living in northern Nigeria again right now, I feel some of the same tensions when I hear about the Boston bombing. It’s terribly sad. But then, dozens of bombings and shootings have taken place in Nigeria over the last few years (I was only a block from one of them), hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been killed in violence by the terrorist group Boko Haram and their offshoots, and bombings and mass shootings hardly even make the front page of local newspapers anymore. I, too, have grown numb. I write a column in a Nigerian newspaper, Weekly Trust. For a while I wrote about the violence and peace efforts every week, and it became so exhausting and draining–it would take me days to write every week. Eventually, I just stopped, and went back to writing mostly about arts and culture and books and films–and if another bombing or attack happened maybe I would footnote it, maybe I wouldn’t. So, when something like this happens in Boston, I feel a kind of distant sadness, but it doesn’t really touch me–perhaps because I’m not close to it, perhaps more so because I have seen so much worse. (That seems like such a callous thing to say.)

    I thought your meditation was profound. I wonder if you would give me permission to reprint it in Weekly Trust this week, crediting you and your blog? This is my page on Weekly Trust:

    If not, no worries, but I thought readers in Northern Nigeria would find much to identify with in what you’ve written. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

  4. As always I was impressed by your bravery and frankness, speaking out what others would like to hide. In telling the truth you both irritated me and fuelled my respect for your courage to be honest about yourself.

    I wanted to reply here, for I felt the urge to comment, but it would have been too long, so I wrote my reply as a blogpost:

    “Boston: Where the Bombs Begin”

    You can find it here:

    And let there be no mistake – I truly admire you for this as for so many other posts, for you always write in the honest search for truth.

    Perhaps if we do it together, we could find it. It is worth looking for, on that I know we agree.

  5. It’s interesting that you are honest about your 9/11 attitude.

    I always wonder what Muslims expected foreigners to do in the Middle East. They decry intervention and say we should have done more in the same breath.

    Short of colonialism, we had a choice of dealing with nasty dictators or Muslim fanatics.

    I’m glad to see that they get worried when stuff like this happens. That tells you there there is deterrence, as in “if we let this stuff happen the Americans are going to bomb somebody and it may be us. So it’s in our best interest to try to stop this stuff”.

    You conveniently forget that the U.S. forced the British to give up their colonial hold on Egypt in 1956. A pro Soviet government took over and ruled until 1973. We had very little influence over them.

    Sadat took over in 73 and threw the Russians out. He fought the war against the Israelis in 73 and that led to the peace treaty. He was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the current rulers, for signing that peace treaty. Mubarak took over then.

    The U.S. dealt with Mubarak to keep the peace treaty in place, and to keep the Soviets out, but we did not put him in power. We dealt with him because he was the ruler. Like all diplomatic contacts.

    In retrospect the whole world may have been better off if we had supported a 25 year transition from colonialism to democracy. As it was the colonial powers just walked away from the Mid East and chaos ensued.

  6. Very brave and honest piece Nadia … and i think you were capable of communicating our thoughts, placing them in the right feelings and the right words.

    we have a long journey in the Arab world, and its extremely frustrating esp. when our nations incapable of realizing they are not victims and the change is within their hands – no one will give it to you -.

    i had the same feeling 2 weeks ago when the London woolwich attack happened, i found myself speechless from shame! with need to explain, apologies and defend my religion all over again.

    How Sad!

  7. Well Nadia I do understand that you would be horrified at Sept.11 and at Boston ,and any decent human being should be,but unless you are JUST as horrified what is DAILY happening in Palestine,Afghanistan,Iraq,Syria etc. you need to question your mind and heart as an Arab and as a decent human being.

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