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Star Spangled Banter
Amer Zahr
by Amer Zahr
January 13th, 2012 (5 Comments)
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About a month ago, I attended the annual banquet of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Dearborn, Michigan.  Over 1000 people from all faiths, ethnicities, and walks of life attended.  Politicians came to stomp, and, as you can imagine, members of our community got dressed up for the occasion.  There’s no need to go to Paris or New York… just come to an Arab banquet if you want to see the hottest fashions… of 1996.

To kick off the event, a young Arab-American girl from the community sang the national anthem.  Yes, Bill O’Reilly, the United States national anthem.  They asked everyone to stand up.  So I stood up.

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light

I thought to myself, “I hope these immigrants don’t mistake that for the call to dawn prayer.”

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming

Then I thought, “Wait a minute, why are we all singing the national anthem? Is there about to be a baseball game I don’t know about?”

Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming

Me: “OK, there’s no way that 90% of these people even know what ‘perilous,’ ‘ramparts,’ or ‘gallantly’ mean.  They can’t even pronounce ‘perilous,’ ‘ramparts,’ or ‘gallantly.’ But everyone is singing along! Maybe it was part of the citizenship exam.”

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air

Me: “Maybe a roomful of Arabs shouldn’t all be saying ‘bombs’ at the same time.  I actually see a few white people looking around.”

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there

Me: “Wait, I don’t want to be singing this song right now! This is what they sing at the beginning of every Republican debate!”

Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And then it was over.  Everyone clapped and cheered.  I had a sick feeling in my stomach.

We Arabs and Muslims in America live a weird existence.  We walk on eggshells, making sure to seem “extra” American whenever we can.  Some of us even change our names so we don’t seem too scary.  It never works.  I don’t think white people are fooled when an olive-skinned hairy guy who sounds like Jafar from Aladdin says, “Hi, my name is Mike.”

But it’s hard to blame Mike.  After all, who wants to be an Arab in America?  If I were Italian, people might tell me, “Hey, were you on ‘The Sopranos’?”  If I were Greek, people might tell me, “Hey, were you on ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’?”  But I’m an Arab, so they say, “Hey, were you on Fox News last night?”

I don’t think anyone would trade places with an Arab guy.  No one wants to be one of us.  Sure, the stuffed grape leaves are great, but the strip searches are an acquired taste.

So that song is not for me.  I’m not standing up for it.  At least not for a while.

Maybe I’ll stand up for the anthem again when bashing Palestinians is not cool anymore.  Newt Gingrich called us “invented.”  Eric Cantor said we were “full of resentment and hate.”  Bashing Palestinians has become all too fashionable, and it occurs without anyone getting too riled up about it.  So I’ll stay seated for now.

Maybe I’ll stand up for the anthem again when celebrating the deaths of Arabs and Muslims stops.  Just yesterday, footage emerged of some U.S military personnel urinating over the dead bodies of Taliban fighters.  Last year, when an American drone assassinated Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki (a pretty bad guy), news outlets called it a “victory.”  Republican candidates are scoring points by saying their first act as president will be to bomb Iran.  So I’ll stay seated for now.

Maybe I’ll stand up for the anthem again when white people stop asking me, “So, what did you think of 9/11?” Or when they stop saying, “Yeah, I know you said you’re from Philadelphia, but where are you from-from?”  Or when they stop saying, “So are you with us or with the terrorists?”  Or, “Why do you eat leaves?”  Or, “So, where does the beard stop and the chest begin?”  But I’ll stay seated for now.

Our presence here seems almost paradoxical.  Our parents and grandparents came to this country to enjoy the very freedoms that the American military has been bombing our ancestral countries to “protect.”   Since 9/11, we Arabs and Muslims in America have struggled to re-define ourselves and our rightful place here.  How we do exist in a country that sees us as enemy number one?  How do we succeed in a country that tells us that we are foreign?  How do we show our patriotism in a country that makes us apologize whenever a crazy person who says he's one of us does something crazy?  I’ll tell you how…  We sing the national anthem as much as we can.

Today, hearing the anthem reminds me of something.  When Osama bin Laden was killed in May, thousands congregated in New York and Washington, DC, where they were dancing at Ground Zero and the White House.  I was actually glad he was dead.  Then I saw my fellow Americans break out into a choir of unified voices.  Guess what they were singing...

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Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of “The Civil Arab.”

Comments (5)
  1. I find the singing of the national anthem at the ADC particularly unsettling. Spineless is the word that comes to mind.

  2. hi Amer, I think you’ll really like the book “on identity” by Amin Maalouf. He says modern people are not meant to belong to just one country, especially if they travel. We all have multiple cultural influences in our lives, and governments need to catch on to that. Instead they still use outdated categories like “immigrant” and “native”. Maalouf also says that if we’re really integrated in a new society, and welcome there, then we should feel welcome to criticize it. That’s when an immigrant becomes equal to a native. If more Arab-Americans knew that, they wouldn’t feel shy to criticize the US, or feel the need to pander to the US!

  3. Solovey Razboynik ... January 14th, 2012 - 07:55

    Very intriguing interpretation of the Star-Spangled Banner, what with the bombs and Arabs business! But what goes around comes around. The poem was written in 1814 by the 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Today, the British and the Yanks could not be better friends. So all the attendant discomfort that Arabs might experience when hearing this anthem will one day be a distant memory of a murky past.
    By the way, the poem was set to the tune of a popular British song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London. Anacreon was a Greek poet famous for his verses about drinking lots of wine, so you can imagine what the various lyrics to the tune were about–lots of wine! The tune was already popular in the colonies, er, the United States, so all it needed was a new set of warlike lines, a far cry from the jolly drinking song of merry old England.

  4. I enjoy reading your blog, it keeps me connected to Dearborn and your interpretation of the Arab-American experience. While I too find it discomforting that playing up the patriotism is a disturbing display, born from pressures of appearance, the national anthem should be worth the simple gesture of standing. Your myopic view of the Arab struggle might be blinding you to the struggle of so many other Americans that might not feel the love from the divide-and-conquer far right-wing. Their good at making people seem like the “other.” But don’t let what America stand for be defined by those assholes. If they define America for us, then they win, and we’ve lost the pursuit of what America was originally intended to be: Home of the brave, no religious persecution, inalienable rights, etc.

    Before you sit down in protest of those guys, remember this country ought not be defined by them. It’s up to us to point out their false-patriotism, self-serving power-hungry, incapable of introspect behavior. Who will step up and be the face of America? Maybe we can rally behind a guy with the middle name Hussein.

    • The song was written about a battle a long time ago. It has nothing to do with being anti-Arab. Americans are just happy to be here and free. My grandparents were immigrants from different countries but they moved here and became American because they wanted better than their situation that they came from. Not all Americans act the way you describe. There are ignorant people everywhere. If you don’t want to sing the song, fine but don’t disrespect people who do. If you are unhappy here, perhaps you should relocate to another country that you respect more.


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