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Sweep Away Palestinian Stereotypes: Part One

While taking a walk on Dec. 24, 2007, just before we were to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace and Love, the unprovoked verbal assault There goes a terrorist was hurled. We belonged to the same Sunday school class; we’d been colleagues for 34 years; our sons were public school and college classmates; my wife taught his son, and his wife taught mine. I was shocked, baffled and aghast.

Not wishing to ruin the Christmas spirit, I kept the incident to myself for two weeks lest the Christmas festivities (including our 37th wedding anniversary) be marred for my wife and two sons, one of whom traveled all the way from Washington, D.C. To shelter my sons from xenophobia, anger and shame, I never mentioned the matter to them.

On a spring Sunday morning in 2003, my wife (a native Arkansan) and I were about to enter the church building through a side door and were accosted by a deacon ”a colleague I’d known for some 14 years, and, by all standards, a denominational leader. Leather-bound Bible in both hands, he raised the Bible to his forehead and swung it in perverse fashion.

It was not what he did that smarted so badly. Praises be to Allah, he glibly uttered. I was so stunned, I said not a word throughout Sunday school and church service. On our way out of church, I turned to my wife and muttered, Rach, I am sorry you have to put up with this. I secluded myself for the rest of the day, trying to work through the anger, frustration and humiliation to which my wife and children are sometimes subjected ”only because of my Palestinian background. I’d learned to be tough-skinned when it came to such matters, but involving my wife and two sons is entirely different. I often grapple with guilt and shame for having my very own subjected to such comments.

At an academic orientation in August 1989, and in front of a large crowd of incoming freshmen and their parents, a university official introduced me thusly: This is Raouf Halaby, he is a professor of English, he is a Christian Palestinian from Jerusalem, but he is not a terrorist.

In all fairness to these decent people, not only did they make amends by expressing genuine contrition for their lapses in judgment, but our friendship is also better for my having made them aware of the error of their ways. And, for the record, I can unequivocally assert that my contacts with scores of colleagues and thousands of people in my community and throughout the state and the United States have been, and continue to be, cordial, meaningful, rewarding and lasting.

The purpose of this essay, therefore, is not to air a laundry list of serious errors in judgment infracted by some over the years. Rather, it is intended to help shed light on and perhaps assist in sweeping away some of the cobwebs and pre-conceived notions most Americans have about Palestinians ”egregious notions and stereotypes reinforced and propagated by the media, Hollywood, events in the Near East, politicians, pundits and preachers, especially in the Bible Belt.

Asked about why I came to the United States, most of the questions posed to me between 1965 and 1970 ran the gamut: Did I live in a tent? Was my father married to four wives? Did I ride a camel to school? When did I convert to Christianity? Did I hate Jews? Why did I come to the United States?

To which I would respond that: the closest I came to a camel was at the Little Rock Zoo; my family was Christian before America was discovered (at one time well over 25 percent of Palestine’s population was Christian); that I did not hate, but had great dislike for Israeli policy (the first 14 years of my life were spent under Israeli occupation, and I have firsthand experience of the brutal nature of the occupation, and to this day the epithet Aravi meluhlah ( dirty, parasitic Arab ) rings in my ear; and, as an ethnically cleansed and stateless Palestinian, like millions of immigrants before me, I came to the United States because of the lure and promise of the beacon on the hill.

Over the years I’ve noticed that administrators would often introduce me as a Christian Palestinian, yet colleagues from foreign countries were merely introduced as nationals of their respective countries of origin. I’ve often wondered whether this adjectival appellation was intended to ameliorate any negative associations with my Palestinian roots.

Because of the tremendous hatred towards Arabs and Palestinians in general ”and Muslims in particular ”that came about in the aftermath of the dastardly 9/11 attacks, upon meeting someone for the first time and in an attempt to preempt any embarrassment to others and to me, I find myself using the label Christian Palestinian in my introductory conversations and in some professional biographical listings.

In short, certain comments made in jest or teasing often have unintended consequences, and it is wise to refrain from such use not because it is the politically correct thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do.

A native of Jerusalem, Palestine, Raouf J. Halaby is a naturalized U.S. citizen. A member of First Baptist Church in Arkadelphia, Halaby teaches English and art at Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.