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‘Allahu Akbar’: A Muslim family in suburban New Jersey responds to the Paris attacks

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“Allahu Akbar.”

It is a man’s voice, low and sombre. My eyes drift down the hall that leads off from the snug kitchen where I sit. In the milky light of the November sunset, I see Musa, a wiry middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard, prostrated in prayer. “Allahu Akbar,” he repeats, sitting up. Beside him, his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Nuna, follows his cue, her bent head enwrapped in a scarf of delicate floral print.

I glance across the table at Miriam, Nuna’s mother. Her small shoulders are slumping, her eyes distant despite the weak smile she’s pasted to her face. Quiet fills the room as the last light drains from the windows. It is November 14, a Saturday, and this weekend I am the guest of Nuna and her normally-effusive Egyptian family. It was in this devout Muslim household in a New York City suburb that I first heard the news of the Paris attacks.

* * *

I had been looking forward to my visit to Nuna’s New Jersey home for several weeks. I’d recently relocated to New York City from Amman, Jordan, where I’d spent a year working with a UN relief agency. Nuna and I first met in college and had maintained our friendship over years and distance. When her family learned that my new address was just an hour from their town they began sending me regular invitations to come “home.” I was happy to accept.

Nuna met me on the frigid sidewalk outside Manhattan’s Port Authority on Friday, November 13. As we boarded a Jersey-bound bus, she insisted on paying my fare. “You’re the guest, habibti!” My own family on my father’s side is Arab—so I knew better than to argue with her generosity.

It was dark by the time we reached Nuna’s sleepy suburban block. Across the Atlantic, Paris was reeling, hundreds mowed down by bullets of blind hate—but we were yet unaware.  We hugged Nuna’s mother, Miriam, a petite woman who wore her soft scarf in a casual, bandana-like twist. After embracing me—and fretting over my cold hands—Miriam scurried off to arrange our dinner and Nuna led me to her room.

Nuna’s room is small and neat. I admired a picture of her graduating class from the Islamic high school she attended in a neighboring New Jersey town. In the frame, fourteen beaming teenagers in coordinated colors pose on a lush, green lawn. A moment later, my eyes strayed to my phone, and I noticed several bulletins illuminated the screen. A blur of unsettling words leap towards me, and I swing around towards Nuna. “Uh—Is something happening in Paris?” “What?…Oh no.” I flipped open a newsfeed to read aloud— “coordinated attacks… kalashnikovs…over one hundred dead…” our horror cut deeper with every word.

“Mama!” Nuna’s eyes were wide and white.

Miriam filed into the room, her small face drawn and grey.

“Girls…”

“Mama…”

“I know.”

For a moment we were silent, each of us bent over our phones, fingers tapping and scrolling with urgent dread. We murmured headlines to one another –”Paris on lockdown.” “five attacks?” “Seven?” “Blood on the streets,” “Open fire…” Nuna slipped away; I heard a door click shut. When she returned, her dark eyelashes were slick.

The rest of the evening we’d struggle to break the surface of our silence, our words like useless swats against a darkness bigger than language.

With the rest of the watching world, we’d feel both resonance and irreducible distance with each horrific update, our bones flash-frozen by the unaskable questions. We’d sit in the living room amidst photos framing ordinary, precious scenes — grandparents, games, graduations — and we’d mourn for all the families that would never be whole again.

And then, just as the pace of the death toll began to relent, journalists began reporting a new detail—and the secret fears of Nuna and Miriam leapt to life.

“A witness reports hearing “Allahu Akbar” shouted as the terrorists opened fire.”

Nuna’s eyes were wet again, dark and glistening against her flushing face. Miriam’s head moved slowly from side to side. “Here we go again.” Under their breath, both Nuna and Miriam began to pray, reflexive, weary prayers.

****

That night I lay in Nuna’s darkened room–she was stretched on the floor in the next room, heavy-minded under blankets, insisting I take her bed. The blackness behind my eyelids was tinged with wild, wailing red. A chorus of unnatural truths filled my head—I thought of the hundreds of lives ruptured in Paris and thousands of cold, wasted bodies in the Middle East. I recalled the voice of my friend Mohammad, calling me from Aleppo, Syria last week—“I say goodbye to my children every morning, just in case.” I thought of Nuna’s eyes, crowded with competing worries, as the name of her God was once again implicated in the most unholy of acts.

A reckless chain of tragedy and hate—lying in the dark, I could not see the end of the loop. I wondered if there is a chance that the scales might ever be tipped towards justice, towards peace.

Nuna is someone who believes there is. Against all odds, she believes in God, and perhaps more miraculously, in mankind. At least she tries, but it’s harder these days with so much desecration. Like me, she wonders about God as cities like Paris, Beirut, and Homs fall to pieces. She is often stopped dead in her tracks by the pain of the world. Still, she says there is a faith that grips her deeper than doubt and she couldn’t shed it if she wanted to. 

But neither can she avoid the way that human pain curdles into hate and falls like sulphur rain.

By the next morning the media is saturated with speculations, many including nefarious suggestions about “Muslim-sounding” names. Nuna resigns herself to the private hell this brings and says today she’ll stay off Facebook. “I don’t think I can take it right now.” Her fury is manifold. She rages against the barbaric imposters of Islam, and she bristles at all the ways she’s felt obligated to apologize for them. I look at my own feed and find it full of condolences for Parisian victims, but also peppered with scathing anger towards Arabs, towards Islam.

This vitriol feeds a subliminal fear that pulses through Nuna’s family in the wake of every terrorist attack—one of the countless ripples of the first crime. It is this fear that makes Nuna’s father glance twice as we leave for our walk Saturday morning. “Be extra careful,” he admonishes. Nuna chose a yellow scarf this morning, and it glows against the misty morning. We pause for one weary beat before opening the front door.

* * *

The rumored shout of “Allahu Akbar” begins to appear in every news update. It floats obscurely, attributed to no one but a nameless set of ears. Two words, foreign and monstrous in their attachment to so much murder. “God is great,” is the translation, and for Nuna, it should be a precious creed. Instead, she shakes a weary head at the appalling irony.

For breakfast, Nuna and I make pumpkin pancakes for her parents and younger sister. In the kitchen we brush elbows as we stir eggs and fry batter, our conversation a ragged zig-zag of levity and lament. We swap college memories; we wincingly check Twitter. I set the table; Nuna recounts the backlash she faced after Charlie Hebdo: “at least no one physically assaulted me.” Nuna has ceased praying in public too. “It doesn’t feel safe. I hate missing my prayers, but, you know, God is forgiving…”

I ask Nuna if she ever feels shame—not her own, but the kind that can be forced upon a person by the sheer force of collective ignorance. “I don’t feel shame at all,” she says, her dimpled jaw set strong.”This is as far from the real Islam as possible, I feel sorrow for what I know my faith teaches.” She resents that people expect her to explain or apologize for extremists, “I am sick of having to prove my worth.” She’s quiet for a moment, then resumes, smacking her spatula against the pan for emphasis: 

“I had nothing to do with the attacks. My sisters–my dad–my mosque–It’s not us! I. Had. NOTHING. To. Do. With. Them.”

Her voice cracks more than once. She knows she’s mostly shouting into the wind.

The truth is, Nuna is a target for ISIS too. She’s innocent, upstanding, educated, and moderate—and ISIS doesn’t want coexistence for people like her. Her deepening isolation and the mushrooming fear between the so-called “West” and “Islam” are two critical goals of the terrorists. Across Europe and America, the sounds of war drums and slamming doors could very well be music to ISIS ears.

Nuna knows her grief is of a different kind and degree than the families of victims. And different too, from the thousands of war-torn drifters who are bracing against the anti-immigrant backlash.  “Immigrant today, terrorist tomorrow,” shrieks one corner of Twitter, “I told you so,” croaks Trump.

****

Muslims must pray each evening at sunset. Nuna and her father withdraw a few minutes before dusk, leaving Miriam and me in the kitchen where we make careful, neutral small talk. When Musa’s first incantation reaches our ears, we fall silent.

“Allahu Akbar.”

I wonder if he believes it, in this moment.

“God is great.”

Tonight in Paris, the bells of Notre Dame will ring for the dead.

“Allahu Akbar.”

Nuna’s family once tried moving “back” to Egypt–but it didn’t last.  America is their home, they say.

“Ameeen.”

Silence falls. I glance back to the living room. Nuna and Musa stand in a motionless embrace, their figures dark and still against the fading light. 

Sarah Aziza
About Sarah Aziza

Sarah Aziza is a Palestinian American writer and activist born in Chicago, IL. She has worked with refugee populations in Algeria, Jordan, South Africa, and the West Bank. She recently relocated from Amman where she spent a year as a Fulbright fellow at UNRWA. In addition to pursuing graduate studies at NYU, Sarah works in education and advocacy among immigrant and undocumented communities in New York City. Her twitter is @SarahAziza1

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26 Responses

  1. Les
    Les on November 18, 2015, 4:00 pm

    Would a single US media outlet dare to report that the chief victims by far of ISIS are Muslims?

    • annie
      annie on November 18, 2015, 4:14 pm

      would a single US mainstream media outlet dare to publish this brilliant wrenching essay?

      • Citizen
        Citizen on November 18, 2015, 4:38 pm

        No. All we get is John Bolton, Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Schumer, Blitzer, et al

  2. annie
    annie on November 18, 2015, 4:16 pm

    my favorite part is Nuna “smacking her spatula against the pan for emphasis”, i can just feel her frustration.

    thank you sarah, once again.

    • Citizen
      Citizen on November 18, 2015, 4:41 pm

      Yes, she captured the moment, the angst, the frustration, the loss of hope, the fear–very informative & wish I could send it as a memo to Congress–maybe Charlie Rangle would read it on the House floor, carried by CSPAN….

    • talknic
      talknic on November 19, 2015, 6:36 am

      Lucky it was only a spatula.

      Mooser has a dachshund !!!

      • Mooser
        Mooser on November 19, 2015, 10:26 am

        “Mooser has a dachshund !!!”

        But there’s no weaseling being done here. Fritz liked the article a lot, as did I.

      • annie
        annie on November 20, 2015, 4:11 pm

        lol talknic

    • Philphil
      Philphil on November 20, 2015, 1:40 pm

      It is a beautiful essay, but my favorite line is “. . . our words like useless swats against a darkness bigger than language.”

      • annie
        annie on November 20, 2015, 4:02 pm

        useless swats against a darkness bigger than language

        yep

  3. Kay24
    Kay24 on November 18, 2015, 4:49 pm

    Unfortunately, the media does not cover this in a fair and honest way. To hear it, all Muslims are evil, dangerous, and trouble. Why are they adamant that innocent refugees from Syria should not be allowed in here? John Kerry made a statement that people are afraid of grandmothers with their grandchildren. I think we are also responsible for what is happening in Syria, we made matters worse by training and arming those rebels, and look at the chaos over there.

    I also agree that it is the Muslims who are suffering MOST from ISIS violence. They are being killed in larger numbers in Iraq and Syria. Let us not add insult to injury and treat all Muslims badly, because of what some extremists are doing. The media covers this in the most discriminate way. If these were Jewish refugees today, how would Congress, the media, and
    other pro zionists supporters handled it? Wouldn’t the Israeli lobbies work overtime, demanding they be give save refuge?

  4. KM363
    KM363 on November 19, 2015, 6:59 am

    Wonderful writing. One imagines the pain someone genuinely devout must feel when having to deal with the constant repetition by the media: the killers shouted “Allahu Akbar”.

    But did those psychotic thugs who clearly lacked an ounce of genuine religiosity actually shout at all, much less shout “Allahu Akbar”?

    The only named source in the media reports regarding what the Bataclan killers said, Julien Pearce who is described as a radio reporter, makes it clear they said nothing at all.

    “I heard nothing, just the yelling and the screaming of the people. They didn’t shout anything, they didn’t say anything, not Allahu Akbar or something like this. They said nothing. They just shot, they were just shooting into people.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/live/paris-attacks-live-updates/silent-gunmen-executed-people-in-the-bataclan-club-witness-says/

    One wonders what is the source for the claim that someone shouted “Allahu Akbar”? I realize this is not the most earth-shaking thing to be worrying about these days. But I find it fascinating how the media is easily manipulated in such tense and anguished moments as we experienced last Friday evening.

    I can’t prove it but I suspect that someone deliberately planted the story that the Bataclan killers shouted “Allahu Akbar”. In fact I think I may have seen it happen, as I was watching the coverage on Friday. Whatever network I was watching, I don’t remember which one, might have been FOX, had a video clip of some radio talk show guy getting a call from someone claiming to have been at the Bataclan. He said he had been there with his mother. Speaking in English, this person repeated several times the “Allahu Akbar” claim. He sounded very distraught, but the emotion in his voice just sounded fake to me, like very bad acting. I’m not sure but this episode could be the one and only source for the “Allahu Akbar” claim.

    • Bumblebye
      Bumblebye on November 19, 2015, 3:36 pm

      In this 26minute interview with a survivor of the Bataclan massacre I don’t recall him saying that. He did say that one shooter spoke French like a native while the other had a strong Arabic accent:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0383wgl

      It’s well worth a listen.

  5. eljay
    eljay on November 19, 2015, 7:20 am

    God is nothing more than what we choose it to be. Unfortunately, too many people choose injustice and immorality – avarice, intolerance, hate, supremacism, violence, devastation – to be their god.

  6. Mayhem
    Mayhem on November 21, 2015, 7:27 pm

    Nuna’s father glances twice as we leave for our walk Saturday morning. “Be extra careful,” he admonishes.

    Does anybody here care about REAL assaults by Muslims against Jews rather than the possibility or perceptions of Islamophobia.
    Check out Anti-Semitic Violence Erupts in New York as Muslim Taxi Driver Attacks and Robs Jewish Passenger

    • oldgeezer
      oldgeezer on November 21, 2015, 9:40 pm

      What is not to care about? I care about any assault. No need for your qualifiers although I have never seen you disparage a single Jewish assault upon a Muslim even though dozens are reported every week at this page.

      There are questions about this assault. I don’t directly question the veracity as there is no other source of information but there are gaps in the story if Indig grabbed his stuff and ran away while chasing the cabbie while holding onto the cab. It may just be a terrible job of reporting.

      So for now we merely have a real accusation of assault and not a real assault of any sort.

      Odds are the NYPD will do a proper investigation unlike the idf or Israeli police in the case of Israeli assaults on Palestinians. And the NY government will lay charges if appropriate unlike the GoI in the case where Palestinians have been burnt tondeath.

      • tree
        tree on November 21, 2015, 11:12 pm

        Actually, oldgeezer, there are some glaring inconsistencies in Mr. Indig’s version of events as reported.

        He apparently entered the taxi wearing his kippah on his head (later torn off in the altercation), but claims that the taxi driver didn’t know that he was Jewish until he started talking on the taxi driver’s cellphone in Hebrew. (I find it extremely hard to believe a NYC cab driver doesn’t know what a kippah is, or who wears one.)

        He claims the taxi driver only got upset when he heard him speaking Hebrew. At that point Mr. Indig said he was afraid for his life and yet he remained in the cab until he arrived at his planned destination.Then the taxi driver let him out and supposedly started stalking and then attacking him. Mr. Indig claims he was worried that the taxi driver had a knife and wanted to kill him, and yet after his kippah and cellphone(!) was taken, he chased after this crazed “terrorist”.

        I found a slightly different version of events from a NY Jewish publication called jp udates :

        It still carries Mr. Indig’s version of events but carries some important elements that are different, or missing, from the other coverage. First off, the altercation started as a dispute in the taxi over the bill when Indig refused to pay an additional $40 over what Indig claims was agreed as the fare.

        It got physical when he exited the taxi without paying. In the NY version, the physical altercation took place right outside of the taxi, with the cab driver taking $20 from Indig’s pocket and then driving off, whereas in Indig’s later retelling it happened away from the taxi, after the driver ran toward him, and ended when the driver “ran away” with his kippah and cellphone. In Mayhem’s link there is no mention of the $20 taken from his pocket. The NY news story also mentions that Indig was an Israeli tourist, who said he asked to use the taxi driver’s phone which was “graciously” loaned to him to talk to “my doctor”, because he couldn’t get good service on his own cellphone. Of course none of these versions tell the accused assailant’s side of the story. The inconsistencies are all in Indig’s version of events. And the inconsistencies play up the “crazed Muslim” slant of the story in the Israeli publications.

        My reasonable guess as to what actually happened after reading these two versions? Mr. Indig, the Israeli, used the NY taxi driver’s phone to call his doctor, in Israel, speaking to him in Hebrew. The taxi driver was upset because his cellphone was just used to make an overseas call to Israel. Whatever words were exchanged, who knows. At the end of the ride the taxi driver wanted additional money to pay for the overseas call, Mr Indig refused and then ensued a physical altercation. Or perhaps it was just a dispute over what the agreed fare was. Was it an assault by the cab driver? Probably. Was it an “anti-semitic hate crime”? Doubtful. Sounds like a dispute over money gone bad to me, played up by Mr. Indig and the Israeli publications to promote the usual racism towards Muslims.

        Three versions, the first is Mayhem’s link, the last one is from the NY source:

        Anti-Semitic Violence Erupts in New York as Muslim Taxi Driver Attacks and Robs Jewish Passenger
        Read more at https://www.breakingisraelnews.com/54027/in-disturbing-hate-crime-muslim-taxi-driver-attacks-jewish-passenger-in-new-york-city-jewish-world/#tAS5mYgkO715TRS4.99

        Muslim NYC cabbie attacks Jewish passenger
        http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/203416#.VlE5SFUVikp

        Israeli Tourist Robbed by Taxi Driver in Brooklyn
        http://jpupdates.com/2015/11/17/israeli-tourist-robbed-by-taxi-driver-in-brooklyn/

        Even the headlines point out the differences in the slant.

      • annie
        annie on November 21, 2015, 11:59 pm

        ;) you’re so smart tree

      • tree
        tree on November 21, 2015, 11:52 pm

        And then there’s this shocking instance of an anti-Russian hate crime from 2014:

        http://nypost.com/2014/06/21/tourist-assaulted-in-nyc-after-refusing-to-pay-2-per-foot-for-cab-ride/

        Or maybe its just another illegal NYC cab driver trying to rip off a tourist.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on November 22, 2015, 3:08 pm

        Does anybody here care about REAL assaults by Muslims against Jews – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/11/suburban-responds-attacks/comment-page-1#comment-811704

        “Dabakr” seems to be unaware that in America, everybody has the right to be mugged, regardless of the religion of mugger or muggee.

      • annie
        annie on November 23, 2015, 4:45 pm

        And then there’s this shocking instance of an anti-Russian hate crime from 2014 …. Or maybe its just another illegal NYC cab driver trying to rip off a tourist.

        omg, call the ADL! if Zakharov is jewish maybe it was actually anti semitism!!!

    • eljay
      eljay on November 21, 2015, 9:49 pm

      || Mayhem: … Does anybody here care about REAL assaults by Muslims against Jews rather than the possibility or perceptions of Islamophobia. ||

      I do. Assaults – Muslim against Jew, Jew against Muslim, etc. – are to be condemned. I condemn them.

      I wish Zio-supremacists cared about the REAL acts of injustice and immorality they and their co-collectivists have been committing against non-Jews for almost 70 years – and counting – rather than the possibility or perceptions of anti-Semitism.

      I wish everyone – including Zio-supremacists – cared about justice, accountability and equality, universally and consistently applied.

    • oldgeezer
      oldgeezer on November 21, 2015, 9:54 pm

      I will stand by my comment but the story now reads differently at least on my cell phone than it did on the tablet. The inconsistencies are no longer there.

      The main point being that in NY they will prosecute. In Israel the iof would protect the guilty.

    • amigo
      amigo on November 22, 2015, 7:46 am

      Check out ,

      Hypothetical case.

      Jewish man trips over obstacle , apparently left in error by city workers.The “victim ” is suing the city and is claiming a city worker left the obstacle there deliberately because he knew the Jewish guy walks that route every day , (as do hundreds of others) and wanted to harm him.Clearly this was an act of antisemitism .

      Sure, what else could it be.

      Paranoia on steroids.

      Btw , the Judge , who has an Arab background dismissed the case.Clearly another act of antisemitism.

  7. on November 22, 2015, 9:59 pm

    It was reported in the NY Times today that Donald Trump said that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating after 9/11. In fact the NY Times had reported at the time that it was group of Israelis who were seen celebrating; they were arrested by local police and eventually sent back to Israel. These reports got widespread international publicity at the time also implying that the group may have had advance knowledge of the event. Did Donald get confused ?

    http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/11/22/donald-trump-again-insists-he-saw-celebrations-in-new-jersey-on-sept-11/

    http://whatreallyhappened.com/WRHARTICLES/fiveisraelis.html

  8. on November 23, 2015, 3:54 pm

    Here is the ABC News report of the people in New Jersey celebrating after 9/11 – it is interesting that the MSM are not mentioning this today.

    http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=123885&page=1

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