An open letter to the president-elect from a Middle Eastern immigrant who has become an American patriot.
I would like to share with you the story of my long and thorough Americanization. It does not fit your stereotype of the immigrant as the outsider who does not look like you, or the stranger who, if he is lucky enough to speak English well, does so with a heavy accent, and may have crossed the borders illegally — and to make matters worse, worships a deity with a strange name. As an undergraduate student, I shared apartments in low-income, crime-infested neighborhoods with such immigrants, and worked alongside them on assembly lines.
When people ask me why I decided to become an American, I say that my Americanization began well before my 1972 journey from Lebanon to study at Villanova University. From childhood, I was smitten with America’s soft power: As a poor teenager who had to drop out of school at age 11 following the death of my father, I found refuge in American cinema, from brooding film noir to the glorious westerns and their galloping vistas. American music has sustained me since my childhood, first the blues, the mother of almost all American music, then jazz, then rock and roll, and finally bluegrass. I always felt that life is not possible without American music.
I had even read Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck in Arabic before I read them in English. (I tried my luck at penetrating William Faulkner’s universe in Arabic but could not.)
Mr. Trump, my first years in America, as a university student in Philadelphia, were tough. Following a month-long crash course in English, I started working late shifts at a Zenith television factory until midnight, then struggled to remain awake in my regular morning classes. I discovered the possibilities and promises of America, but also the dark side of race tensions. The bitter feelings sparked by the violence of the late 1960s were still raw in the early 1970s.
But this foreign student, who did not intend to remain in the United States after earning a degree, was welcomed by nearly all the people I encountered. They were as curious about me and the world I left behind as I was interested in them and their world. This never-ending mutual discovery and rediscovery has been the hallmark of my American life. At Villanova, on the streets of Philadelphia, and most importantly at the Zenith assembly lines, I soon discovered that America comes with many colors and hues and endless accents. I saw this country as the huge, modern Babel that keeps humming, moving, plowing new territories, and incessantly creating — not in spite of, but because of its diversity.
I’m not saying my voyage was easy. I had my share of troubles and challenges trying to fit in, and I had to deal with homesickness and the inevitable cultural and social alienation. The workplace was at times a violent place, arising from job disputes, racial tensions, ethnic rivalries, or substance abuse issues. I was advised early on at one workstation to keep a steel rod next to me for protection, but only once came close to using it.
I would gladly introduce you, Mr. President-elect, to some immigrants and descendants of non-European immigrants who like me became thoroughly and irretrievably Americanized, and who much more than me enriched and improved America.Hisham Melhem
All my coworkers at that station were African-Americans, and initially they did not know how to relate to this Lebanese with a blondish moustache whose name tag said Richard Melhem (my given name), and “did not look much like an Arab,” to boot. I knew they had knives on them, and some had guns in their cars. But as always, music and cinema were my tickets to their world. The fact that I was familiar with the names of African-American leaders and had a rudimentary awareness of the civil rights movement eased the transition.
I soon realized that I could make America my home. After all, you are at home where you are free. What attracted me to America early on was the simple fact that you don’t have to be white, of European origin, or Christian to partake in American patriotism. There is no ethnic or religious litmus test. Patriotism supersedes, or should supersede, national and religious identities.
Mr. Trump, years later, after moving to Virginia to complete graduate studies at Georgetown and becoming a citizen, my passion for America only became stronger when I met the great men whose words and deeds created and shaped this country. I was intrigued by the Founding Fathers, particularly my fellow Virginians George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and also by Abraham Lincoln, the greatest American to ever live. Their texts — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, and everything that Lincoln wrote — became my secular American Bible.
My inner wandering has ended, for I have arrived home. On the Fourth of July, I usually have morning coffee with Jefferson, reading the Declaration of Independence. After centuries of great political writings, it took an audacious Virginian to add “and the pursuit of happiness” to “life and liberty” as an integral part of our “unalienable rights.” For Jefferson to string together these words is nothing if not revolutionary. No other culture in history committed itself to the glorious task of ceaselessly working “in order to form a more perfect Union,” and to enshrine the proposition that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
I have witnessed and experienced America’s highs and lows of the last few decades. In the process, I became a firm believer in the indispensability of America while remaining ever conscious of the pitfalls of national hubris, from Vietnam to Iraq. To me, American exceptionalism refers to our audacity to create and dream and innovate and act like a benevolent empire — from welcoming anyone willing to partake in the American creed to saving peoples in faraway places when they are subjected to mass killings, even in areas where we had no discernable economic or strategic interest. America’s incredible soft power — our popular culture, the sports we have created, the music and cinema we have pioneered in the last century and which have penetrated the most formidable of real and virtual walls — is an integral part of American exceptionalism.
There are things only the United States is capable of doing, either on her own or while leading others. The list is impressive, and includes saving Europe from fascism in World War II, defeating Soviet communism, launching the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps, and numerous medical, scientific, and technical innovations which improved the lives of millions of people at home and beyond.
Mr. Trump, as my Americanization progressed, I watched from afar as the world I hailed from, and loved, slowly fell apart and disintegrated politically, culturally, and even physically. I observed with a mixture of despair and wrath as the people who were supposed to preserve and nurture the Arab world instead trampled upon it. Autocracy gave way to authoritarianism, and social tension gave way to civil wars.
The Arab house had brittle foundations, and many of its mansions had no roof. The sullen and vengeful hinterland, in the form of angry young army officers, stormed the cities and palaces of the elites in the cosmopolitan centers of the Levant. They promised deliverance, but delivered darkness at noon. The world I was born in was itself born in the crucible of the First World War and its immediate aftermath. A full century later, we are seeing a similarly epic unwinding, and no one knows how and when it will end.
While the Arabs – with a little help from their neighbors — are in the main responsible for the unraveling of their world, my America, driven by colossal arrogance, contributed to the calamity by invading Iraq in search of Jeffersonian democrats on the banks of the Euphrates and the Tigris, and by help toppling the Libyan despot and then refusing to own the messy inheritance.
There were times when I felt total impotence in my attempts as a journalist to explain the Arabs to America, or interpret America to the Arabs. The old world I left in my youth was receding in my memory, and in its place a world of American memories was expanding. The civil wars in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East forced me to examine a question at the center of our lives as social and political beings: What causes communities to turn against each other and slaughter their neighbors with brutal abandon?
Civil wars, I have learned, are the most passionate of wars. And you cannot be a genuine Virginian if you are not steeped in the American Civil War. That was the beginning of one of my American passions, along with love of music and horses. Over the years I have written in Arabic and in English about the ongoing legacy and meaning of the Civil War in contemporary America. I was and continue to be fascinated by how the Civil War — the most enduring and consequential moment in American history — still resonates in our lives today. We are still living in its shadows, and occasionally resume fighting over its still-unresolved, as we have seen recently over the fate of the Confederate flag. Southerners still suffer from the persistence of the collective memory of defeat. Northerners, as victors, could afford ambivalence.
The bucolic and haunting Antietam battlefield, site of the bloodiest day in American history, is my favorite Civil War hallowed ground. I go there on regular pilgrimages, particularly on Sept. 17, the anniversary of the battle where after 12 hours of harrowing fighting at extremely close quarters, more than 22,000 young Americans lay dead or wounded, or were among the missing. When I walk on the beautifully proportioned Burnside Bridge, or on the Sunken Road — later named Bloody Lane because it was covered with the bodies of the fallen soldiers — I tremble and think at times that I could hear the piercing cries of pain and the exhortation to valor of young men looking in each other’s eyes as they engage in hand-to-hand fighting. It is as if I heard through generations the story of the bravery of my distant imaginary relatives who perished on Bloody Lane, as if I was not born in a distant continent thousands of miles away.
Mr. Trump, my own children grew up listening to Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Cash. They know that the blues and jazz are like America, that they come in many different colors, tempos and keys. They still remember their long hours of captivity as teenagers as I drove them on the country roads of Virginia listening to Delta and Chicago blues, with short breaks of Arabic music. (You should have seen the look on their faces when they were nine and 11 years old, when their mother pointed to a Muddy Waters poster and said matter-of-factly: “This is your grandfather.” I cannot claim African heritage, but when I am deeply immersed in the blues of Charley Patton or Mississippi Fred McDowell, I fall under their spell.)
I would gladly introduce you, Mr. President-elect, to some immigrants and descendants of non-European immigrants who like me became thoroughly and irretrievably Americanized, and who much more than me enriched and improved America. Until his retirement a few months ago, Charles Elachi, a scientist born in Lebanon, ran NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA for 15 years. Akhil Reed Amar, one of America’s most accomplished constitutional law scholars, is the son of immigrants from India — given your apparent fondness for the Second Amendment, you might benefit from reading his book, America’s Constitution: A Biography. Perhaps I can convince you to read just one short story by Junot Díaz, in hopes of stemming your demonization of Latino immigrants. Díaz was born in poverty in the Dominican Republic before his family moved to the United States when he was a child, and his stunning literary works chronicle the failures and hopes of marginalized Latino immigrants in the bleak urban sprawls of New Jersey. His sparse, austere prose and staccato sentences reflect a decaying world inhabited by characters still unwilling to give up on the American Dream.
I could go on and on. Mr. Trump, I am part of a relatively large network of friends, scholars, and journalists who immigrated to the United States from Arab states, Iran, and Turkey. All of us have been writing and lecturing about America’s complex relations with the cultures and the societies of the Middle East; their problems and yearnings; the good, the bad and the perplexing. We come from different backgrounds culturally, and as you can imagine we are Muslims (Shiites and Sunnis), Christians (Maronite Catholics and Greek Orthodox), Jews, and atheists; we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on every issue, but we all share an abiding love of America.
Some of us have names that might strike you as strange or even exotic — Firas, Hassan, Afshin, Karim, Faisal, and Omar — and some of us have names that would surprise you: Richard, Paul, and Henri. This mélange of names reflects the bygone days of diversity and cosmopolitanism that was once the pride of the great ancient cities of the Levant and Persia. We came to America in part to escape the suffocating identity politics and intolerance of our former homelands, where nationalism is one step away from chauvinism. We wanted to live in a country where one can partake in American patriotism by embracing the American creed and ethos, regardless of ethnicity and religion.
When we get together, we often marvel at our American experiences and say: only in America. And yes, only in America can a group like us prosper and celebrate our Americanness while trying to help America succeed in a region we still care very much about. Some of us have been deeply disillusioned with the politics of repression in the Middle East; others cannot go back to do research or even to make short visits to see kin and friends for fear of intimidation and imprisonment, because we may have expressed honest criticism of the bitter realities of the region. Our appreciation of our freedom here is not based on some theoretical understanding but on precious lived experience.
I voted against you
Mr. Trump, for almost two years you and your close supporters have engaged in the politics of fear and smear, speaking ill of nonwhite immigrants and Muslims and publicly praising authoritarians like Presidents Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Mr. Trump, your hostile views about “Muslims entering the United States” shocked the American Muslim community, and antagonized and alienated Muslim states, the very people you need in the struggle against Islamist extremism at home and abroad. Your opposition to accepting even a small number of refugees from the horrors of Syria betrays our values, and condemns more Syrian children to death at the hands of their government while we watch the proceedings streamlined live.
Your ambivalence about human rights at home and abroad is very disturbing. For the first time in my 44-year American life, I am genuinely concerned about my civil rights. For you to suggest depriving Americans of their citizenship for exercising their First Amendment rights — indeed to even think that it would be legal to do so — is beyond chilling. In a world where autocracy is on the march, you have seriously damaged America’s unique place as a successful, inspiring democratic model.
Mr. Trump, I voted against you, precisely because of these reasons. And if you desecrate my American secular bible, you will see me and my compatriots manning the proverbial ramparts to defend the very idea of America — the America we deserve and cherish, the America that comes with many colors and accents. For we are not American nationalists, but we are definitely fierce American patriots.
This article was first published in Foreign Policy on December 26, 2016.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem