I'm Afraid To Speak Arabic On Southwest Airlines

Like many people suspended thousands of feet in the air, often my first act after getting comfortable in my seat on a plane is to utter a brief prayer, asking God for protection on my journey. This prayer happens to be in Arabic
04/19/2016 01:55 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2017
A Southwest Airlines jet comes in to land at Lindbergh Field in San Diego, California February 25, 2015. Southwest Airlines C
A Southwest Airlines jet comes in to land at Lindbergh Field in San Diego, California February 25, 2015. Southwest Airlines Co said it pulled 128 aircraft out of service on Tuesday after it discovered that they were overdue for a required check of the standby hydraulic system that serves as a backup to the planes' primary systems. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)

Southwest Airlines seems to have embraced an unspoken policy that sees Arabic as a terrorist threat.

Virtually every time I travel, aside from international trips, I fly Southwest Airlines. As a loyal customer, I appreciate their low prices, flexible cancellation policies, and who could forget the alluring lack of a baggage fee?

Like many people suspended thousands of feet in the air, often my first act after getting comfortable in my seat on a plane is to utter a brief prayer, asking God for protection on my journey. This prayer happens to be in Arabic, and following an incident of blatant Islamophobia on April 6th when Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, an Iraqi UC Berkeley student was removed from a Southwest Airlines plane for speaking in Arabic on his phone -- hardly the first time the airline has done such a thing -- I will think twice about reciting my prayer aloud.

However, I would be lying if I said I never considered the possibility of this scenario unfolding for me before this occurrence. After all, even if I didn't "sound" Muslim to a potential Islamophobe sitting within earshot, I definitely "look" Muslim, clad in my headscarf. In reality, for me, there is no escaping the ire of a paranoid, xenophobic individual.

Most recently, my husband and I were on a full flight to New York, and a man sat down next to us. Although his looks did not give him away as an Arab to me, my hijab lead him to ask us where we were from. He was an Iraqi American, a physician, who ended up talking to my husband, who is also a physician, the entire flight about their hectic schedules, the ups and downs of their specialities and the challenges of working in small-town hospitals versus urban areas. They commiserated over their lack of sleep and horrid hours.

They also conducted much of their discussion in Arabic, especially when sharing the commonalities of their experiences--he as an Iraqi refugee, and my husband as a Palestinian refugee.

I distinctly remember writhing in my seat, wondering who might comment, cautiously eyeing the people next to us to see if anyone was watching. I also remember chastising myself thinking I, too, was paranoid and should not think ill of those around me. There was nothing wrong with speaking in Arabic and I had no reason to feel there was.

But my misgivings have been validated.

As I read various pieces on the experience of Makhzoomi, I asked, why has Arabic been erroneously transformed into the language of terror?


Why has Arabic been erroneously transformed into the language of terror?

Why and how has this rich, profound language with centuries-old deep historical, scientific and religious significance become associated with, and reduced to, a reflection of perverse contemporary geopolitical dynamics? Why does its aural presence elicit a Pavlovian response in some to alienate, exclude and report?

Sadly, like other symbols sacred to myself and millions of others, including but not limited to hijab (headscarf), niqab (face veil), or a non-hipster beard, Arabic as means of expression and component of a complex identity, has fallen into the arsenal of the Islamophobe. One more item to target, one more cause for suspicion, one more element to fuel misunderstanding.

Phrases like inshaAllah (God-willing), alhamdulillah (All praise is due to God), or words like shahid, which can mean martyr or witness, and jihad, which can generally refer to any type of struggle, have been covered with the pall of ignorance. The Arabic language has fallen prey to the semiotics of Islamophobia.

When Makhzoomi ended his phone call on that Southwest flight with inshaAllah, a phrase which rolls off the tongue of Arabs and Muslims so easily that they often use the phrase unwittingly in conversation with non-Arabic speakers, I'm sure he didn't think much of it--initially.

Is my connection to the Arabic language another piece of my fragmented identity that I now must be exceedingly aware and cautious of?

As a Muslim, Arabic is the language of revelation; sacred, yet sometimes abstruse and esoteric, fascinatingly timeless at others. In my belief, it is the vehicle through which the words of God were communicated to mankind. It is ancient, yet functions in contemporary society to connect me with my religious heritage. Contrary to popular belief, it is the language of prayer and worship for non-Muslim Arabs as well.


Phrases like inshaAllah...alhamdulillah or words like shahid and jihad have been covered with the pall of ignorance.

The language is complicated and calculated, based a system of morphology that never ceases to astound me. It encompasses a vast literary tradition, from the orally transmitted poetry of the 6th century to the romantic poetry of the 7th century, Layla wa Majnun, Antara and Ablah, to the saga of Alf layla wa layla (One Thousand and One Nights).

It has adapted to modernity, with authors such as Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, poet Mahmoud Darwish, and novelist and playwright Elias Khoury.

It is scientific and has preserved ancient Greek texts and fostered the Scientific Revolution of the 16th-17th centuries. "The history of Arabic is deep and closely tied to the evolution of intellectual thought, the birth of math and science, etc," says William Cotter, a joint PhD student in Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Arizona studying language change in the Middle East as a result of political conflict and long-term violence.

"The academic in me finds [Arabic] both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Although I think it would be safe to say that all language is very much tied to the history, politics, and context of the community that speaks it, Arabic, at least in my mind, has perhaps a more intimate connection with forms of politics and social change given the history of the Arabic-speaking world and its relationship to Western colonialism."

As a person of Arab descent, Arabic is the language of my culture. It is unique and the dialect I speak makes me readily identifiable as a Palestinian from the West Bank. My Arabic is imperfect and at times a source of both pride and anxiety. I am proud of my ability to communicate in the language of a homeland I know primarily through the diaspora; I am proud that I am able to preserve a part of my identity as a Palestinian, a fragment of my identity that has been questioned, denied, attacked and politicized. I am anxious about my weaknesses when it comes to this language; I must struggle for the appropriate word at times and consciously remind myself that I need to prove my ability when it comes to adeptness in conversation. I involuntarily reveal my American roots when communicating with native speakers. I dissect my word usage and mull over my pronunciation.

I come from here, and I am neither here nor there. I have two names that come together but pull apart. I have two languages, but I have forgotten which is the language of my dreams. I have the English language with its accommodating vocabulary to write in. And another tongue drawn from celestial conversations with Jerusalem. It has a silvery resonance, but rebels against my imagination (Mahmoud Darwish).

Writer for GOOD Magazine Tasbeeh Herwees articulates similar sentiments. "I rarely have long conversations in Arabic anymore, not even with with my parents, because English is my primary language. But it infiltrates my language regardless. It slips in when I'm trying to bring intimacy into a conversation I'm having with someone, like my family or a new Arabic-speaking friend. When I use inshaAllah or assalamu alaikum or habibti, I am attempting to invoke a shared heritage, to lay claim to a common history. These words also help me reaffirm my relationship to a homeland that I was never able to experience as a home."

Like my identity as a Muslim, my association with the Arabic language has been Otherized. And like people of color who have been mistaken for Muslims and suffered the slings and arrows of Islamophobia, non-Muslim Arabs and Arabic speakers will also now be Otherized, subject to the same scrutiny and mistrust as Muslims.


Like my identity as a Muslim, my association with the Arabic language has been Otherized.

Southwest Airlines has set a precedent with its action on that flight. It has validated the insidious paranoia that has become rampant in our society. It will unjustly lead Muslims and Arabic speakers to rethink their language of choice when boarding a plane. Muslims and people of color must reassess their appearance, clothing, language, topic of discussion, reading materials and probably just remain silent and inconspicuous in order to remain on a flight.

Laith Saud, the co-author of "An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century," says this is another instance of ethnic discrimination in action. "Imagine how many times you wanted off an elevator that was too crowded, but you wait or you get off. So the ability to have someone removed from a plane because they are speaking their native language is actually quite extreme," Saud says. "Islamophobes would argue no...with some trite argument like 'not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim,' which sounds right when you watch TV, but is simply statistically and factually false."

While some might echo the "safety supersedes cultural sensitivity" argument, for those of us who do not occupy positions of privilege in a situation where such a dilemma arises -- who are looked upon with suspicion because of our language, our clothes, or the color of our skin -- whether it be on a plane, or perhaps later in a shopping mall or classroom, it seems corporate entities like Southwest Airlines have simplified the formula we must abide by in order to fly under the radar: don't look Muslim; don't act Muslim; don't sound Muslim. Until this unspoken policy is publicly rescinded, Muslims will have to search for friendlier skies to fly.

Originally published on AlterNet as part of the Grayzone Project.