Hating Hijabs or Badgering Blondes: What's the Difference?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 | Washington, DC, USA (map)

The scene of the crime: Dupont Circle by night, central Washington, DC
Last night around 9:00 PM, I was walking home in the dark from a function near my office. After a long day at work, I felt like a rubber band that had been stretched too many times.

I had just reached Dupont Circle, a small park in central Washington, DC, when a wild yell snapped me from my daze. Ahead of me, on one of the wide paths leading to the circle's central fountain, a small pack of teenagers were cackling and swerving menacingly around a man and woman. At a glance, I noticed two things: the couple looked to be around 60 years old, and the woman wore a long dress and hijab (the traditional Muslim head scarf).

In an instant, the largest teen uncapped a water bottle and sliced it through the air, sending a streak of water at the woman's face. Her husband tried to step in front of the next plume of water, and swung desperately at the kids. Another teen swung back with a messenger bag, hitting the
woman.

The man flailed harder, and the kids scattered, mostly in my direction. A fellow pedestrian nearby reached out to stop one teen, and I leveled an elbow hard into another's shoulder. He stumbled past me, but other witnesses soon stopped him and his friends. While I checked that the man and woman weren't hurt, the passerbys grabbed the kids and flagged down a pair of cops who happened to be driving by.

Speaking in Arabic, the man consoled his wife, then grabbed her hand and dragged her toward the police officers, who were cuffing two of the perpetrators. Still stunned, I watched from a distance as the cops took charge of the scene. Judging it to be under control, I slowly turned and made my way home, rattled.

* * *

For the past 24 hours, I have been turning the incident over in my mind.

First and foremost, I feel ashamed that such an attack could take place in my country. That it appears to have been motivated by bigotry and xenophobia is especially baffling given that it occurred in our (supposedly worldly) capital city. Did I imagine this? Or am I jumping to conclusions? Could the couple have somehow provoked this act? I didn't see the attack begin, but I can't imagine any context that would justify such unambiguous cruelty.

As I pondered it more, the irony loomed large. Throughout our many months in Morocco, Jacqueline and I suffered the rigors of the country's vicious street harassment (which luckily was mostly verbal). Try as we might, we could never adapt to it, ignore it, fight it, or—worst of all—understand it. But at least in the backs of our minds we knew it wasn't always going to be our problem. Someday we would leave Morocco, and leave the harassment behind to return to the land of the free, the land of the civilized.

Then last night I watched an Arab couple be humiliated and attacked in a public square in Washington, DC. Whatever forces drive these acts—ignorance? fear? poverty? prejudice? religion? envy? racism?—must be more universal than I had imagined. I still don't feel close to understanding them.

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