Naked from Sin: The Ordeal of Sami and Nahla Al-Arian
Feb. 25, 2002
By Alex Lynch
There were no streetlights down the long back-road; the arms of the yellow gates were left open just enough for a car to fit through. The darkness of the hidden stretch of road left the Muslim community center of north Tampa secluded from the outside world.
In the parking lot, a photographer was politely asked to leave until she said she had an appointment with one of the sisters. Effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Muslim communities in America have been powerful. Many Americans reach out in understanding; others have sought retribution through vandalism and intimidation.
The children didn't seem to notice anything had changed. A dozen of them ran from the playground past the Mosque and through the courtyard squeaking and sweating on a humid January night under the floodlights. Nahla Al-Arian walked quickly out of the community center for greetings and offered tea for comfort. A number of women dressed from head to toe in finely detailed cloth chatted to one another in Arabic and offered to watch Nahla's youngest daughter while she spoke with the reporter.
Being an Arabic woman in the United States has proved trying since Sept. 11, being a Palestinian is another matter entirely. Once, while at a local mall, Nahla offered to help a woman with her baby carriage down an escalator. The woman gasped and pulled the carriage away from Nahla as if she were "going to kidnap the child," Nahla said. Because she wears a hijab (Islamic head-covering) she has often been looked at in trepidation and mistrust and when she and her kids visited her homeland in 1998, now occupied by Israel, they felt they were looked at like "animals and terrorists".
Nahla's older brother Mazen, spent 3 years of his life in federal custody without being charged for a crime, 1,307 days from 1997-2000. The secret evidence the government had held against him proved not to be so incriminating according to an Immigration and Naturalization Services judge.
Nahla spent those three years fighting for his release and lobbying to end the use of secret evidence.
In November of last year, while doing laundry, Mazen was again detained after Attorney General John Ashcroft received powers given to him by Congress to round up those he felt were a risk to national security. Two months earlier in late September, her husband was put on 'paid leave' from his job as a tenured professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida for an appearance he made on the conservative talk show The O'Reilly Factor. O'Reilly claimed Al-Arian had ties to terrorists and pointed to an earlier speech he made when a comment was translated in English to "Death to Israel". Al-Arian said the producer deceived him by saying he was to speak for the Muslim community in the U.S. to educate viewers and avoid unwarranted attacks on American-Arabs.
In December, when Sami's student and faculty supporters were gone, the university's board of trustees, a group of local conservative business leaders hand-picked by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, recommended to university President Judy Genshaft that Al-Arian be fired. Nahla's husband of 23 years has been the center of attention in local news and has received quite a bit of national news as well. He's been called a terrorist link in the United States by some pundits in the media, but has also been a rallying point for civil libertarians and academicians.
Their eldest son Abdullah, a Duke University undergrad and intern to Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., was asked to leave the White House without explanation while attending a briefing with members of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The incident caused all other groups participating to walk out in protest.
The FBI has shown up unannounced, searched her home and confiscated some of the family's possessions. There have been death threats on her husband and the media have humiliated her family. Since Sept. 11 she and her family have been treated with suspicion, harassed and yet her voice remains soft and centered, her movements are gentle and direct.
"She is such an inspiration," Jodi Nettleton, co-president of Graduate Assistants United at USF and a campus activist said. "She is so strong and has such courage to stand up during these times. And she's just such a sweet woman."
Although she's been through a lot before and after Sept. 11, she is a woman who says she can't complain. Talking to a reporter seems like too much attention, but she does offer some insight. "You know, sometimes I wake up at five in the morning and I start thinking about all of this and can't get back to sleep," she said staring at her thin fingers through her hijab. "I feel very scared for my family and I feel insecure."
"This is stuff she's had to go through her whole life," Laila Al-Arian, Nahla's daughter said. "She's a Palestinian refugee. She's very strong in her convictions even though she's soft spoken."
Only Mazen, the eldest, was born in Gaza in a country once called Palestine. Nahla was born in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 75 miles northeast of the holy city of Mecca. Her father was an Arabic teacher there and supported the family, which eventually grew to seven children. Nahla was a shy young girl who didn't speak much, remained dedicated to religion and studied meticulously at school. Nahla's father knew the value of education especially for stateless Palestinians. He made it a priority for all of his seven children and made countless sacrifices to ensure that they were given a higher education in college. "My father always used to say, 'education is a Palestinian's only weapon,'" Nahla said.
When Nahla was very young, her father brought the family to the occupied Palestinian territories (Nahla still refers to it as Palestine) every year for vacation to keep the old homeland close to his children's heart. Nahla remembers a little family that lived in Gaza whom was close to her family when they vacationed during those long hot summer days in the early 1960s. She remembers the family was not rich, but didn't struggle, most of all though, she remembers how happy and humble they were. Speaking of that little family brings a smile to Nahla's face.
In the beginning of the summer of 1967, Nahla's father again prepared his family for a vacation in Palestine. Days before departure on June 5, the news came through her father's little transistor radio in Jeddah. The Israeli army had attacked and bombed the Egyptian air force that lay idle. The Six Day War had begun.
"My father literally fainted and fell on the floor right in front of everybody when he heard the news on the radio," Nahla said. "It was devastating." At the end the Six Day War, Israel, armed by the Americans, humiliated the Arab world. Israel now occupied Syria's Golan Heights, Egypt's Sinai as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in Palestine. The biggest embarrassment though, was the loss of Jerusalem.
Gamal Abd-Al Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian socialist president who tried so hard to unite the Arab world in a Pan-Arab political alliance, offered to resign afterwards.
By 1971 the political environment in the Arab world had changed. The Saudi Arabian leaders had begun a closer relationship with the West, and Palestinians, already immigrants there, were finding it more difficult to stay. It wasn't long before Nahla's father began having trouble with the Saudi government.
"The whole situation was very similar to Mazen's many years later," Nahla said. "There was a lot of secrecy involved."
Nahla's mother was crushed.
"She cried as if somebody died, she was very scared about what the future held for us," Nahla's brother Mohamed said.
The family was again displaced and unsure of what to do. In a moment of clarity, or necessity, Nahla's father decided on Cairo.
Contrasting her mother, 11 year-old Nahla was very excited to move from Saudi Arabia to the cultural center of the Arab world. Cairo was a place of modern buildings, the arts and excellent education and was the center of the Arab world for women's freedom. She would no longer be forced to wear a hijab, she would have a choice in Cairo. "Saudi Arabia was much more strict, especially for women. Segregation was everywhere. In Cairo, women had choices. I was very happy to leave Saudi Arabia even though my mother was upset."
At 12 years-old in October 1973 Egyptian president Anwar Sadat earned the respect of his countrymen when he invaded the Sinai on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Eventually the Israelis countered and sped toward Cairo where Nahla was introduced to war. Living in Eastern Cairo with Israeli planes flying above, the family got up in the middle of the night to break the Ramadan fast but wasn't allowed to turn the lights on for fear of Israeli bombs. The young family was left in the dark and if someone accidentally turned on a light in the house, neighbors would scream at them to turn it off for fear of being targeted.
"That was the worst thing, I don't ever want to experience anything like that again." Nahla said. At 14 years old Nahla was devastated when she witnessed the death of a close girlfriend who was run over by a street trolley right next to her. The difficulty in watching a close friend die stayed with her for many years.
During those years in Cairo, there was a cultural revolution. Cairo was being heavily influenced by the West, Sadat was liberalizing the economy and the Americanization of Cairo was in full swing. Like many girls in Cairo, Nahla stopped wearing her hijab. She went to the movies, public parks and enjoyed the open society.
But when she reached the age of 15, she began to have deep questions about life and faith and drew inspiration from a close friend who was a devout Muslim. Unlike most girls her age, Nahla began wearing her hijab again and started taking religion seriously.
She was ridiculed by some men in Cairo for wearing it in a time of social change. There were very small Islamic youth movements beginning though. Cairo was starting to show the ugly side of Westernization such as greed, disparities in wealth and sexual promiscuity. Mosques began to reach out to those in need, a place where the increasing amount of poor people could go for free schooling, food and medical attention which outlines the traditional sense of Islamic charity in the Arab world.
"People turned to God for justice. Going back to God was a revolt against mass consumerism and wearing the head-covering was a revolt against being treated as sex objects for young woman," Nahla said. "It was liberating to wear the hijab again."
An Islamic Marriage It was about this time that Nahla's older brother Mazen began hanging around with another Palestinian. His name was Sami Al-Arian. Nahla never paid any attention to Sami, he was just another guy to Nahla. Yet the friendship between the young Palestinian boys in Cairo was a very special and intellectual one. They went to lectures, spent their money on books and conversed for hours at a time on philosophy, religion and politics.
"My parents used to get mad at Mazen for spending all of his allowance on books," Nahla said proudly. "Mazen is a walking encyclopedia, he really has a photographic memory."
Nahla's grades were excellent, even better than Sami's. When it was time for college she chose to study English Literature even though she was accepted to study medicine. She studied Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and Blake and was enjoying college life.
Every once in a while she would sneak into Mazen's room and read letters that were written to him from Sami who had moved to America and was studying engineering at the University of Illinois. Sami was very active in America, he organized Islamic groups, gave speeches on awareness of Islam and even went to prisons to speak to Muslim inmates.
"I learned a lot about him through his letters," Nahla said. "I loved reading those letters and I learned a lot about his personality. I was impressed."
In 1979, after earning an undergraduate degree in engineering, Sami came back to Egypt to look for a wife. When Mazen said his younger sister was available Sami jumped at the opportunity, as he had already been attracted to her for some time. And thus began the four steps of an Islamic marriage.
First, Sami's mother came to visit Nahla and although they never once spoke of Sami, Nahla was quickly given approval. "My mother and grandmother fell in love with her," Sami said. Second, the future bride and groom sat down together to make sure there was a mental and mutual agreement.
"After one visit we felt we were ready to accept an engagement," Nahla said. Third, the men of Sami's family gathered with the men of Nahla's family for a formal marriage proposal. Nahla's father traveled from south Yemen and didn't accept Sami's proposal until he got the word from Nahla that she was sure. Nahla's father had only one stipulation, after starting a family Sami had to promise that he would see to it that Nahla would finish her education, of which Sami agreed.
The fourth step is the signing of the marriage contract finalizing the union. Nahla is quick to point out where she comes from marriage is important and not taken lightly. "In our culture, a man enters through the front door, not the window," Nahla said. "To go to the family of the woman to ask for her hand shows that he is willing to commit. Marriage is not just between a man and a woman, but between two families," Nahla said.
Sami said he had been attracted to her years before he proposed but never said anything and after reading Sami's letters to Mazen, Nahla felt attracted to him from a distance as well. "I had proposals from other men who were much richer than Sami. But because he was religious and I felt I we were connected, I chose him."
By then, Sami had been accepted in a graduate program in computer engineering at North Carolina University. As an English Literature student in Cairo, Nahla thought she would be able to understand English when she arrived in North Carolina. "Wow was I surprised, I didn't understand a single word, it was nothing like what I had studied," she said.
In order to learn, she started watching Star Trek re-runs over and over until she improved.
By 1981 she had given birth to Abdullah and Laila. Abdullah now is a senior at Duke University majoring in political science and history, a columnist for The Chronicle, a campus newspaper. Laila is an undergrad at Georgetown University and was recently elected to the editorial board of La Hoya, also a campus newspaper.
After Leena was born in 1985, Sami fulfilled his promise to his father-in-law and Nahla went back to college after a six-year hiatus earning a degree in religious studies from USF and has had two of her papers published in nationally recognized periodicals.
For many years she lived the American dream. She was free to teach Islam in the Muslim community where she now has 270 students from many different countries and races. After graduating from North Carolina University, both Sami and Mazen were offered doctoral degrees from USF and afterwards were given jobs as professors at the Tampa university. Both Sami and Mazen organized groups centered around Arab and Palestinian causes. The World and Islam Studies Enterprise and the Islamic Concern Project.
After the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 was connected to a previous speaker for WISE both Mazen and Sami were targeted by the U.S. government for whom they were associated. Later, another speaker ended up becoming the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group connected to terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.
The links prompted an FBI to investigate and brought unwanted attention to USF. Both Sami and Mazen were placed on paid leave in 1995 pending the FBI investigation, and an inquiry by William Reece Smith, an attorney hired by the university to conduct an inquiry on his own. Lama, the youngest in the family, had a nightmare about one of the FBI agents that searched Nahla's home.
Sami was eventually given his job back but in 1997, Mazen was detained by federal agents without being charged for a crime. The Secret Evidence Act allowed the government to hold illegal aliens it deemed a threat to national security.
The detention became a national issue and catapulted Sami into the national spotlight in his stance against the use of secret evidence. But Sami was not alone Nahla and many other Muslim women gave speeches in New York, Washington D.C., Georgia and Michigan.
"It was the Muslim women that stood up for Mazen the most. Many of the men were themselves scared of secret evidence.. For myself, I had to learn to push my shyness to the side to be able to speak in public but I had no other choice," Nahla said showing off smiling pictures of George W. Bush on his 2000 campaign trail holding her youngest daughter Lama in his arm.
On a nationally televised debate, after three years of working the legal system for Mazen's release, Republican nominee for president Bush spoke out against the use of secret evidence.
"Millions of people were listening to him when he said that," Sami said. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. At that moment, he had every American Muslim on his side."
By October 2000, Judge R. Kevin McHugh, after viewing the government's secret evidence against Mazen, released a scathing review of the government's mistreatment of Mazen and proclaimed that "WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center and the ICP was highly regarded. Not one excerpt of the composite depicted (Al-Najjar) engaging in fundraising for any (terrorist) organization."
The government then appealed to Attorney General Janet Reno to review the case on behalf of the government to which she denied. In November, Mazen was finally released, but the government had been embarrassed.
When the tragedies of Sept. 11 occurred, Sami, Mazen, Nahla and the Muslim community of north Tampa immediately released a statement distancing and denouncing them as acts of cold-blooded murderers. But the USA Patriot Act was pushed through by a landslide and in a perplexing move, the government suddenly linked Mazen to terrorists again in a statement released through the Department of Justice even after Judge McHugh thoroughly denied the government on every front less than a year earlier.
On Sept. 26, Sami was asked to appear on The O'Reilly Factor where, according to Sami, he was to speak for Muslim Americans in the U.S. Sami was then questioned by host Bill O'Reilly about ties to terrorists and then mentioned that if he were the FBI, he'd be following Sami everywhere he went. Over the next few days, threats were sent to USF where he was a professor of computer science. The administration immediately put Sami on paid leave until an investigation of the threats was undertaken and the campus calmed.
On Nov. 13, 2001, an Atlanta appeals court ordered Mazen deported, yet, no country was willing to take him since he had been considered a terrorist threat in America. Add to that the fact that he is a stateless Palestinian and he has absolutely nowhere to go.
Yet 15 INS agents took him by surprise and pushed him to the pavement in his apartment complex while he was doing laundry and didn't identify themselves until after he was
"He thought he was being kidnapped," Nahla said. "He had no idea who they were." Mazen's daughters were still in the apartment and when the agents finally told him who they were, he struggled to let his daughters know what was going on. Mazen was then manhandled by the agents as was apparent by the bruises and scratches on his arms and hands. His daughters didn't know until over an hour later what had happened and for a week the family and his lawyers had no idea where he was taken.
Since that day in November last year, Mazen has been under 23-hour solitary confinement in Coleman Federal Correctional Facility about 75 miles north of Tampa. He is only allowed one phone call per week for 10 minutes, three-hour visitation on weekends only and is strip-searched twice a day. "They even check behind his ears for weapons," Nahla said. "If it was already held in an open hearing that he is not a threat, why detain him again in a high security correctional facility?" Martin Schwartz, a Tampa attorney defending Al-Najjar said.
Three days after Mazen was detained, Nahla and Sami appeared on a live local television show, The Cathy Fountain Show. A neighbor in Mazen's apartment complex, who witnessed Mazen's detention, called the show and described how Mazen was treated "like a dog" and went on to explain that it reminded him of how blacks were treated during the civil rights era.
"I just started crying," Nahla said. "I was shocked to hear the description of how my brother was arrested because until that day, we hadn't heard from him. Then (Cathy Fountain) asks me what I thought of it while we were on live television."
"It seems heartless and inhumane to detain him now," David Cole, a constitutional law expert at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington said (in November).
Unfortunately, Mazen's health is deteriorating. He was detained during the holy month of Ramadan where Muslims fast and one of his attorney's, Joe Hohenstein said he and Mazen's family were "worried that he may not be receiving proper treatment for his diabetes."
"Nothing is helping my brother," Nahla said. "He is suffering terribly from the 23-hour solitary confinement."
On one of the family's weekend visitations recently, Lama was complaining about school and Mazen began crying. "He cries for anything," Nahla said. "He even cries when he prays. "
Life went from bad to worse for Nahla when USF's board of trustees called for an emergency meeting to discuss what to do about Sami who was still on paid leave. The board recommended to university president Judy Genshaft in a 12-1 vote that Sami be fired, the single vote coming from the only academic on the board. University Provost David Stamps immediately sent Sami a letter of intent to termiate.
By the time school had come back in session, controversy split the campus in two and a national debate has since ensued. On Jan. 9, 2002, the USF Faculty Senate voted not to support Genshaft's intent to fire because of the lack of due process at the clandestinely held emergency meeting in December. Afterward, the state and national faculty union, the ACLU and numerous civil libertarian groups followed suit as well as scathing editorials from the local St. Petersburg Times to the New York Times and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) also sent words of discouragement to Genshaft.
The student government voted to support Genshaft although 14 of the 36 senators abstained because they said the student body hadn't been properly polled to represent them. The Coalition of Progressive Student Coalitions, which includes 15 campus groups, decided unanimously not to support Genshaft and so did the graduate assistants union.
Although most people don't agree with Sami's views of the Middle East with statements such as 'Death to Israel,' what is at issue with the firing of Sami is academic freedom, especially for a tenured professor as he is. "Sami didn't mean death to any particular person or peoples when he said that," Nahla said of the English translation 'death to Israel.' "He only means death to the occupation. The Palestinian people are treated like dogs and it just such a horrible injustice."
Many people have also questioned Sami why he even went on O'Reilly's show in the first place and find it hard to believe he is gullible enough to get duped by the show's producers. "It's true, he always thinks positively of people," Nahla said. "We have to treat all people with positive assumptions until they prove otherwise. As Muslims, we believe in the goodness of human nature and that people are not evil."
Nahla smiles proudly and shows the remnants of her old shyness when she speaks of her husband and in a passing tone mentions that the word "Arian," Sami's last name and the name she adopted when she married him, actually means 'naked from sins' in Arabic. Although she has grasped the courage to overcome her shyness to speak in public and has avoided becoming cynical, the effects of having her husband and brother arrested, treated like second-class citizens and admonished in the media are beginning to show.
"She's definitely been affected by all of this," her brother Mohamed said. "She is not the same person as she was before Mazen was first taken in 1997. She was much stronger and happier then."
"I felt at home here until Sept. 11," Nahla said. "After that I've felt like I'm living in a nightmare. I don't know what will happen to my husband and my brother or my kids.
"I have a lot of sleepless nights because of these worries," she said. "I feel better after reading the Quran. When I put my sacrifice in place of other Palestinian women, I feel grateful that (Mazen and Sami) are still alive. Then I think I'm not suffering enough. God gives me patience and makes me feel guilty if I complain."
The media has been a quandary for Nahla. At once it has been extremely helpful, cruelly invasive and inflammatory. Bill O'Reilly of The O'Reilly Factor first created the problem for Sami by digging up speeches he made 12 years earlier and later took a stand against the USF administration's intent to fire, while calling for the head of President Genshaft.
"I have anxiety when I watch American television, especially talk shows that are sometimes very aggressive toward Muslims in general," Nahla said. "I feel tormented by the media how it portrays that American people are against us."
She then goes on to explain that the people she meets are not against her family and speaks of when she recently visited a friend at Tampa General Hospital. A white man who was walking by shook Sami's hand and wished him and his family good luck.
One particular media critic, NBC terrorism correspondent Steven Emerson, has gone after the family with a fervor and at a speech given locally in January mentioned he was very hopeful that Sami would be picked up by the FBI in the next coming days.
"I was crying everyday after that," Nahla said. "You know, they accuse us of being hateful after so much horrible injustice. I just can't understand it sometimes. The media doesn't look at us as if we're human beings sometimes."
The Muslim community where Sami is imam, or preacher, is a 15-acre piece of land that includes a mosque, school, playground, a center for picnics and offices. At their Muslim community, 20 percent of the board of directors are women and includes members of six different countries.
"Sami is the one who wanted to open the board for women," Nahla said. "Every member's vote weighs equally." Recently though, the most important aspect of the community to Nahla is the emotional support she gets from her friends. Especially now that her brother is back in jail and Sami is under fire.
"I am very lucky," Nahla said. "When I feel sad my friends surround me, without their help I wouldn't be able to make it. If I ever need help with my children they are there for me. They just want me to ask for help so they can reach out to me."
The parochial school in the community where Nahla is a teacher has over 270 students. "We teach tolerance," Nahla said. "We are proud of the fact that it has a wide curriculum. Above all, we emphasize tolerance and promote fairness."
Nahla is a religious woman and takes pride in the fact that Islam accepts other forms of religion. "God wanted people to be able to choose," Nahla said.
She explains that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are a very small group of extremists out of 1.2 billion faithful. "It is not fair to judge Islam by a small group of crackpots," Nahla said.
Yet, the community is isolated from the rest of Tampa, secluded down a long stretch of road. Muslims are still new to America and the adjustment to understand American culture has not been an easy one. Many times, Nahla's students tell her they are scared of the clash of cultures. They feel Americans don't want to understand their culture and ever since Sept. 11, they've become a source of hatred. One of the sisters spoke about how a man was following her in his car and how she took off her head covering to avoid him. Nahla said American women sometimes smile at her strangely.
In 1998, Nahla decided to take Abdullah, Laila and Leena to the Palestinian territories to get a sense of where they come from. They landed in Cairo where they took a six-hour cab ride to the Egyptian-Palestinian territory border where Israeli soldiers checked their American passports. They were made to wait almost half a day but eventually were allowed in. Nahla took them to meet relatives in Gaza and once again met up with the little family she knew as a child. "They remembered me from when I was a baby," Nahla said. "But their living conditions had deteriorated incredibly. They were despondent and living in absolute squalor."
In Gaza, where the vast majority of men are unemployed there is a saying that states 'Palestinian men can beat Israeli men in bed because they're always at home.'
In 1982, hundreds of Palestinians were massacred in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila when Ariel Sharon was defense minister for Israel. Back then Sharon lobbied to have Palestinian men sterilized, now Sharon is Prime Minister and has dashed any hopes the Palestinian's once had since Sept. 11. "The Palestinian people are completely despondent right now," Nahla said. "I see children killed for throwing stones, they are portrayed as animals." Nahla and family were able to roam freely in Israel and the Palestinian territories because of their American passports, a fact that others were jealous of, Nahla said. Palestinians have to put in a request weeks and even months in advance just to go to a movie or a lecture and more times than they are turned down.
They visited and attended mosques in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron but one particular occasion in a northern coastal city where a lot of Israeli tourists were vacationing hurt Nahla when her children said they felt like foreigners in Palestine.
"The tourists were looking at us like we were terrorists," Nahla said. "It was very sad for me to have my children looked at that way." "That was a bizarre experience." Laila said.
Throughout her life, Nahla has been treated like a second-class citizen without ever being able to call a country home. Her brother is suffering in solitary confinement and her husband ostracized. Even through this, she has decided to believe in the positive aspects of human nature and shield herself from becoming pessimistic, something that truly isolates her from American society.
"We have to understand the human side of suffering and humiliation," Nahla said. "I refuse to be cynical."