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Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9-11 Injustice

posted on: Sep 12, 2011

Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9-11 Injustice

BY: Suzanne Manneh/Contributing Writer

Alia Malek is a Syrian-American journalist and author of “A Country Called Amreeka,” published in 2009, which is the story of the last forty-plus years of American history, told through the eyes of Arab Americans. She spoke with New America Media about her recently released book, “Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9-11 Injustice,” which is a project of the Voice of Witness series.
New America Media: Where were you on September 11, 2001, and what immediately came to your mind?

Alia Malek: I was walking to work, walking past the IMF and the World Bank [in Washington] and when I saw that we were under attack, the first thing I thought was I hope no one I know is hurt, I hope all my friends are okay, and I hope it’s not Arabs [responsible for the attacks].

But Arabs were responsible.

Yes. It was heartbreaking. I knew what was going to come next. I knew rights would be violated.

You transitioned to a career of writing and journalism from the Department of Justice, where you were an attorney in the Civil Rights Division. What motivated that?

We tried to do good things in the Civil Rights division, we knew people’s rights would be violated, but no matter how much we would do, there was more bad going on in the name of the DOJ and the U.S. government, and the final madness was when we invaded Iraq.

I left the DOJ on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003 to live and work in Lebanon. I wrote for the Daily Star in Beirut. One day I Googled one of my reports and I saw how many other sites reposted it. I thought, I guess, writing does have an impact. I came back to the U.S. in September 2004 to work on the Voter Protection and Election Monitoring Committee for the 2004 Presidential elections.

Then I applied to Columbia University’s Journalism School, and got in in 2005. I felt that there was not enough work addressing the roots of racism, we needed more films and books to present that. At the end of the day, it’s more gratifying to be writing about these issues than litigating.

“Patriot Acts” provides in-depth portraits of 19 Americans, from across the country, ranging ethnically from Arab, South East Asian, to Latino, and religiously from Muslim, Sikh, to Christian, who were drastically affected by the 9/11 backlash. What was the process of obtaining these stories?

I was approached by Dave Eggers and the Voice of Witness project in April of 2010 and it was completed in April 2011. I had the help of Voice of Witness, some former classmates from Columbia, and colleagues. I wanted this book to reflect the diversity of the impact 9/11 had on communities. I also wanted a diversity of gender. That’s important because even when direct victims were men, women were also indirect victims, they were the wives, mothers, and daughters.

I wrote to community groups, advocacy groups, asking if anyone was stopped by the TSA, also asking if there were paradigms we should be aware of as we’re writing this book. It was emotional. It’s not that I had never heard these stories before, I had, but of course, I was emotionally impacted. In the case of Adama Bah, (now 23, whose father was taken from their home by FBI agents in March of 2005 and deported to Guinea shortly after) she lost her father, the bread-winner. She’s had to quit school and work to support the family. It makes me angry, it makes me sad.

In interviews regarding your previous work, you’ve said that “storytelling is one of the best ways to humanize people.’ Why is it important to humanize the stories of these profiled individuals, and communities such as Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs, in the wake of 9/11?

There is no counter-representation. There is only negative representation. It’s important to show the totality of who we are. It’s not fair that Americans don’t know who their fellow Americans are.

And yet since 9/11, some Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs have expressed resentment at having to defend themselves to dispel any preconceived notions or stereotypes.

It’s not defending. It’s having a more complete history of who we are. The more visible we are [as individuals] the more we get the benefit of individuality we haven’t had yet. We’re still so non-visible, it’s easier to see us as a collective. Timothy McVeigh, for example, we can see that he was acting as an individual.

But 9/11, as outlined in one of the portraits, also had impacts on other immigrant groups, like the Latino community.

It was really important to me, to show the limiting and defining of who is an American. 9/11 was being used to abuse the immigration system. There’s an idea that if people get caught up in it, they deserve it. And some people aren’t aware of how 9/11 backlash affected different communities. The story of Farid Rodriguez, (a 73-year-old Colombian permanent legal immigrant with U.S. born children detained for almost a year in 2004) is a great way to bring that home.

In the book he says, “It became clear that after the terrorist attacks the government was allowing law enforcement to find undocumented people…” But this is also important for some in the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities to see this intersection, to see that there are other communities sharing their concerns and this might broaden their horizons.

What has changed in the past decade for these affected communities and what do you anticipate will change in the next decade?

I think people are getting more empowered and less passive. You see that now people can advocate for themselves, they don’t suffer in silence any longer, and there are avenues, socially, legally, politically to address violation of their rights or dignity. As for the future, I am hopeful. We have a history of scapegoating in this country, but we also have a history of incorporating diverse communities who then flourish.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I want them to hear a perspective they haven’t heard before, a voice they wouldn’t have access to. I would hope that people know what community they’re in, become active and understand what kind of government governs them.