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Arab Cab Drivers Are Victims of Anti-Iraq Anger

February 18, 1991|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Americans are incredibly ignorant of Middle Eastern culture and politics, said the Iraqi cab driver, who leaned against his parked car at Horton Plaza. During the past month, this ignorance has shown itself in the form of "unbelievable stupidity that leads to misunderstanding" he politely added.

Since the Persian Gulf War began last month, Iraqi cab drivers in particular, and Middle Eastern drivers in general, have been the targets of local abuse heaped upon them by misinformed passengers.

The enmity that many Americans feel toward Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is being directed at Arab cab drivers--regardless of nationality--by some civilian and military passengers eager to strike a blow at the enemy, taxi company officials said.

Despite some nasty confrontations, fearful Arab drivers are suffering passenger abuse in silence, afraid that going public with their complaints will only make matters worse.

Just as Japanese-Americans were singled out as the enemy on the home front during World War II, Arab nationals and Arab-Americans, especially cab drivers, are the new targets of hate in San Diego, officials said.

"Many Americans are incredibly ignorant about Arabs who live here," said the Iraqi driver, a Kurd who did not want to be identified. "Not all of us came to this country simply to find a better job. I am here because I don't support Saddam Hussein. My family was persecuted in Iraq. Many Arabs who are here came to America because they are afraid of their government."

Taxi industry and regulatory officials said they have received numerous complaints from passengers who objected when an Arab driver was sent to their door or picked them up at the airport. In isolated cases, the complaints have escalated into violence.

Deb Post, Coast Cab general manager, said that one of her drivers, an Afghan mistaken for an Arab, was beaten on the back of the head by a sailor wielding either a pipe or brass knuckles. Three other Arab drivers for Coast Cab reported that they were shoved around by passengers in Coronado, Post said. About half of Coast's drivers are Arab, she added.

A Port District official, who requested anonymity because of the present security arrangements at Lindbergh Field, said his office has received five calls from angry passengers upset over the large number of Arab drivers working at the airport.

"These people are upset at the high number of Middle Eastern folks who are in the taxi industry. They want to make a general statement that they are very annoyed by this," said the airport official. "All this began after the outbreak of hostilities. I call them real redneck calls."

Although taxi company officials reported the attacks and other incidents to airport officials and the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, none of the drivers have reported the attacks to police. A Navy spokesman said that Navy officials have not received any complaints from cab companies about sailors abusing or attacking their Arab drivers.

"They (drivers) are apprehensive and scared. They don't want to draw any more attention to themselves. Our drivers say they have always faced anti-Arab sentiment, but this has increased and escalated since the war began. They are uneasy and want to put these incidents behind them. They hope for a quick end to the war," said Post.

Indeed, every Arab driver interviewed by a Times reporter agreed to talk on the condition that his name and employer not be disclosed. None wanted his photo taken. Most drivers said they were afraid that if they went public with their grievances, they would become targets for passengers who view all Arabs as the enemy.

Some concerned cab owners and drivers complained to Barbara Lupro, MTDB paratransit administrator, that a newspaper story would only worsen the situation. The MTDB regulates the cab industry.

"Two of the owners brought it up to me. They said they had been contacted (by a Times reporter) and said a story wouldn't be very useful or helpful," said Lupro. "I'm sure they're sensitive about generating negative publicity for the industry. From a driver's viewpoint, they also feel that a story could give people ideas. It's kind of touchy."

Another Iraqi driver who has lived in the United States for 15 years and is a U.S. citizen said that "more people have been asking me where I'm from" since the beginning of the Persian Gulf War.

The 37-year-old man said that his father and brother were jailed by the Iraqi government solely because he was living in America.

"Passengers see me and know I am from the Middle East. They can also tell from my accent. I had two passengers step out of my cab Wednesday when they found out I was Iraqi. I didn't tell them about my father and brother, but even if I could it probably wouldn't have mattered," he said.

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