A Taxi Straight to the Heart of Islamophobia

A Lebanese taxi driver. Beirut, Lebanon June 1, 2017 Photo courtesy of Alex Gazley

A Lebanese taxi driver. Beirut, Lebanon June 1, 2017 Photo courtesy of Alex Gazley

I found myself standing on a busy street in Beirut trying to catch a taxi. I had the name of the area I needed to go to, but no idea of exactly where it was. This situation happened my first week of moving to Beirut – so I had not a single world of Arabic or a general understanding of anything Beirut. First, I was waved by taxis to go across the street, apparently, I was standing on the wrong side to catch a taxi. After what seemed an eternity standing on that street with everyone watching me (when in actuality it was only 10 minutes), I finally got into a taxi or “service,” the French word the Lebanese use for taxi. 

I was shoved into the back. The “service” driver kept stopping for others on the street to fill up his car. Prayer beads hung from the rear-view mirror, swinging to and fro, as he darted in and out of traffic, Arabic music wafted in the air, the driver’s cigarette smoke filled the compacted car and my lungs, and loud unintelligible Arabic conversations rang in my ears. All my senses were on overload. 

Not only did he fill up his car with other passengers, he also emptied them to their destinations -- except me. 

I became increasingly uncomfortable and troubled that I was not where I needed to be and still stuffed in the back of this beat-up 60’s Mercedes service. It seemed like we were delving deeper and deeper into the bowels of Beirut -- bullet-riddled buildings, back alleys, lawlessness with regard to traffic, congestion, and big posters of political leaders and martyrs. I’ve learned this just to be Beirut, like “normal” Beirut. As the driver picked up another customer, I tried to communicate with him about where he was taking me to no avail -- I had no Arabic, he had no English. It was at this point my imagination got the best of me. 

Maybe it was too many American movies about Arab terrorists or maybe all the news reports on Lebanese Civil War in the 80s I saw as a teenager or how Lebanon was famous for car bombs and kidnapping Americans, but I wondered if something nefarious was in the works. I imagined a bag over my head, my picture splattered across CNN and a ransom being issued. I was angry that I couldn’t even last a week in Beirut without being kidnapped and wondered who would pay a ransom for me. 

I must have been visibly upset because the front seat passenger turned around and asked me in broken English if I was lost and if I knew where I was going. On the verge of tears, I shook my head no and handed him the piece of paper I had scribbled the name of the area I needed to go. 

“Don’t worry. We help you.”

 He then said something to driver. The service driver continually stopped along the street asking Beirutis if they spoke English, he didn’t stop until he found one. Between the four of us, including the on-the-street interpreter, we finally all understood where I needed to go. He took me directly there. When he dropped me off, he refused to charge me, and said with a broad smile, “Weeeeeelllllllccccooooooommme.”

Now, while this might be a funny story to tell, it’s super embarrassing for me. Within one week of being in Beirut, I was coming face to face with my own biases, my own racism, my own American programming. I want to make it clear, I moved to Beirut of my own free will. I was passionate about it, I felt it was my calling, and I fell in love with it, all of it. It was out of a deep desire of my heart to serve Palestinian refugees. And yet, I still had stereotypes and biases against Arabs, Muslims, and my new home of Beirut. It seemed that I was not immune, and, in that moment, I found myself staring straight down the barrel of Islamophobia in my own heart. 

Sitting here looking back at that incident 13 years ago, I actually think the “service” driver was trying to take care of me by picking me up and getting me off the street. He didn’t understand what I needed but he knew eventually he would get me where I needed to be. He was showing me, an American, a foreigner, hospitality.  

I am thankful this happened so early upon my arrival. Because it taught me to look at my own heart and that maybe, possibly, everything I thought I knew about the people of the Middle East was seen through a carefully crafted filter – that in fact, it was a flat-out lie. I knew I needed an education. 

May I suggest that if I’m not immune to it, maybe you aren’t either. It doesn’t matter your bent – liberal, conservative, Protestant or Catholic or Jewish or Buddhist. You are not immune to bias or racism or flat-out ignorance. Or at the very least, an unhelpful filter. Even to the people you profess to help. 

Why is it important what you think of Arabs or Muslims? Because the policies of our country affect people in the Middle East, in many cases adversely. Particularly, Palestinians and a “peace” deal with Israel. Did you know Palestinian leadership is not part of the current negotiations the U.S. is leading for the so-called Deal of the Century?   

Instead of moving to Beirut and using Lebanese public transportation to learn more about your heart, because trust me the darkest areas will emerge after haggling with a few Lebanese taxi drivers, I have two simple suggestions for you. And you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home. One of our board members, Faseeha, wrote a beautiful post on what it means to her to celebrate Ramadan – one of the five pillars of Islam. You can find it here. And Hulu is streaming a documentary called Soufra (feast in Arabic) about a group of Palestinian refugee women trying to start a food truck in Beirut.

Learning about Muslims from Muslims is the first step to our freedom — ours and theirs.

Suzann MollnerComment