One shattering event, two families
By Patrick T. Reardon, The Chicago Tribune, 18 September 2001
Zakaria Maaitah's 6-year-old son, Mohammed, could not understand what he had seen on television.

"Were two pilots racing?" the boy asked as he sat with his father in the living room of their apartment on the Far Northwest Side. "Did they want to go to the same building and got into an accident?"

No, Maaitah answered, the men flying the planes weren't racing. They were trying to hurt people.

"Why?" Mohammed asked.

Because there is a war, his father responded.

The boy had more questions about the commercial airliners hijacked last Tuesday and flown into both towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. But, for the moment, Maaitah had run out of answers. He didn't know what to say to help his son make sense of the incomprehensible acts. He changed the subject.

Like millions of other Americans last week, Zakaria Maaitah wrestled with his feelings of outrage and horror at the terrorist attacks on the nation's capital and its most populous city. He and his wife, Ferdous, groped for ways to shield their three young sons from the gruesome images and heart-breaking stories.

But, amid their sadness and anxiety over the terror, the couple had an additional fear: a backlash of anger and, in some cases, violence directed against Arab-Americans -- by fellow U.S. citizens -- simply because of their ancestry.

Maaitah said that, while such harassment is understandable, those behind it are misguided and misinformed.

"I'm mad, too, like them -- but they don't know it," he said.

Maaitah, who traces his ancestry back to Saladin, the Islamic general who recaptured Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders in 1187, was born in Jordan 40 years ago. He came to the U.S. in 1983 for college, expecting to stay four years and return with a degree in engineering.

But, after earning a two-year associate degree in pre-engineering from Chicago's Wright College, he found he had to give up hopes for further education to make money to support himself and his family back home.

Soon, in a re-enactment of the experience of millions of immigrants before him, Maaitah had put down roots and was ready to marry. So he sent word to Jordan, and, in the traditional manner, his family arranged for him to wed Ferdous, the daughter of another large clan. The marriage took place in Jordan on Aug. 17, 1994. Once back in the U.S., the couple's sons came in quick succession: Mohammed; Noor, now 4; and Mohned, now 3.

Like Maaitah, who was naturalized in 1991, the three boys are American citizens. Ferdous, who has a permanent resident visa, isn't yet ready to take the test.

Last Tuesday, Maaitah left for work as usual a little before 9 a.m. The owner of three small businesses -- a body shop, a car dealership and a phone card store -- Maaitah was on his way to take Mohammed to the nearby public grade school where the boy is in 1st grade. And, as they usually do, the father and son walked to the car, praying together to Allah to bless their day.

A short time later, as Maaitah was saying other morning prayers in his car on the way to the phone card store in Logan Square, his cell phone rang.

"It was my wife," he recalled. "She said an airplane went through the [World Trade] building."

`My heart was pounding'

Maaitah turned on the television coverage of the tragedy as soon as he reached his store. And, like many Americans, he initially believed -- or, maybe, just hoped -- that the crash was an accident. Once he realized the second tower had been hit, he knew better.

"I hit the table in front of me so hard with my hand. I started using bad words. I was calling, `No! No!'" he said. "It really shocked me. My heart was pounding so fast, seeing that horror. It was unbelievable."

At home, Ferdous, 29, responded with fear to the terror storm she was seeing on television. "I was scared," she said in Arabic as her husband translated. "It could be anywhere, not only those buildings."

Mohammed was seeing some of the news coverage at school with his 1st-grade classmates. But, at home, Ferdous made sure that Noor and Mohned were distracted by a steady stream of cartoons.

The television sets in the Maaitah apartment and at the phone card store are served by satellite dishes that pick up signals from a wide range of stations around the globe, including 13 in the Middle East. But the often bloody images of news reports from their home region had been giving the boys nightmares in recent months, so the couple had become vigilant at keeping their sons' exposure to such news to a minimum.

With last week's attacks, Zakaria and Ferdous redoubled their efforts.

`Hoping it's not us'

"Seeing a plane going through a building -- it's not easy to see that, as a human being," Maaitah said. "You would not want that to happen to your enemy, much less the people you live with, your fellow Americans."

Yet, he also knew that, in the aftermath of the trauma, he and the more than one million other Arab-Americans would be viewed with suspicion and even hate.

That's what happened in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War.

"I was called `stupid Iraqi' and `------- Iraqi,'" he said. And the tension didn't subside until the U.S. and allied forces began the military campaign to retake Kuwait and punish Iraq. "Everything cooled down then," he said.

On Tuesday, when it was clear that the disasters were the result of terrorism, Maaitah went through, in his mind, a list of other countries where there was strong anger against the U.S. for one reason or another, such as China, Japan and Serbia. He even considered whether the Colombian drug lords might have been behind the attacks.

"I was hoping it's not us, hoping it's not Arabs, hoping it's not Muslims," he said.

But, as the day and week went on, it became clear that, as Maaitah had feared, the killers were from the Middle East.

Last Thursday night, the three Maaitah boys were stretched out on their stomachs on the living room carpet, watching "Toy Story 2," chuckling with deep glee at particularly witty exchanges between Buzz Lightyear and Woody.

Working-class neighbors

The family lives in a neighborhood of blank-faced, 1950s-era apartment buildings, just east of O'Hare Airport, populated by a wide mix of working-class people, including many immigrants from Poland, Russia, Albania, Asia and the Middle East.

And, as the boys giggled, their father sat nearby, talking about the week's scattered acts of anti-Arab violence that had occurred in Chicago and around the nation, as well as the threat such harassment posed to his family.

"I thought about buying a gun to give to my wife for protection, or leaving the store and just sitting down here and watching them," Maaitah said. "Everytime the phone rings [at work], I pick it up on the first ring. I'm afraid of what the news is."

Ferdous, who speaks little English, wears a hejab, a traditional shawl that covers much of the head, neck and shoulders. In the afternoons, like other mothers in the neighborhood, she walks the two blocks to school to get Mohammed. "Yesterday, they were smiling at me. But, today, they just looked at me," she said through her husband.

Her Arab-American girlfriends were afraid to even go out. Indeed, most stayed inside their homes through the weekend.

Mohammed, whose friends at school include two boys he knows as Christopher B. and Christopher Z., hasn't had any problems as far as his parents know.

Nonetheless, Maaitah took the opportunity last week to repeat a lesson with him: "I told Mohammed, `Baba, don't worry. If somebody pushes you, just tell the teacher. Don't push him back.'"

`Help every human'

Maaitah was one of approximately 800 Muslims, as well as another 100 Christians and Jews, who joined together at the Muslim Community Center at 4380 N. Elston Ave. on Friday afternoon to pray for the victims of the carnage in New York and Washington.

Although the anti-American terrorists suspected of the attacks are described as religious fundamentalists, Maaitah contended that their version of the Muslim faith is a perverted one.

"As a Muslim," he said, "I have a duty to help every human being on this earth."

What that means for soldiers is that they can't take life indiscriminately, as a terrorist does, Maaitah said.

"It's stated in the Koran that, even if you're in a war, you're commanded not to do certain things -- killing a woman, killing an innocent, killing a child, killing a tree, demolishing a building," he said. "If a soldier puts down his weapon, you have to give him peace. If you kill him, it's like killing your own brother. That's the word of God."

Many Westerners, and even some Muslims, misunderstand the Islamic concept of jihad, or holy war, according to Maaitah.

"It's a fight, army to army -- to defend, not to invade. That's a big difference," he said.

Like other American boys and girls, Maaitah's sons like to play video games, many of them violent in nature. So, in the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington, Maaitah decided to take the games away, at least for a while.

On Friday, he discovered that there were a couple he'd missed. So he confiscated those as well.

And, from time to time, during the week and into the weekend, Maaitah talked again with Mohammed about the attacks and how the boy was dealing with them.

At one point, Mohammed said the planes hitting the World Trade Center buildings reminded him of an attack by Zapdos, a giant bird of lightning, in the "Pokemon 2000" movie.

But Mohammed said he knew the images he'd seen on television last week weren't make-believe -- the planes, the explosions, the devastation.

"People died in that building," the boy said.

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