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A Year of Living Warily


A few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ventura neurosurgeon Moustapha Abou-Samra was anxiously awaiting the arrival of his college-age daughter at a near-empty Phoenix airport terminal. A policeman stopped to chat.

He was looking for Arabs and Muslims, the officer said, unaware that he was talking with an Arab Muslim.

At Abou-Samra's hotel, a new acquaintance told the startled surgeon that Arab Americans should turn themselves in to authorities or, at least, volunteer to spy on their countries of origin.

It has been that kind of year for Abou-Samra. Ironic. Unsettling. Disarming. Threatening.

"Since September 11, things are different," said Abou-Samra, whose dapper Mediterranean appearance could pass for European. "I have in some situations not mentioned my name, a name of which I'm proud, in order to avoid conflict."

Abou-Samra, 55, is an immigrant success story--perhaps Ventura County's most prominent neurosurgeon, past president of the county Medical Society and a major donor to local arts and charities since moving here in 1981.

His five children reflect the American melting pot; he proposed to his Irish Catholic wife, Joanie, on her 20th birthday not long after arriving in New Jersey in 1972.

An industrial-sized U.S. flag flies from a pole at the family's hilltop home in Ventura. He is a Dodger fan and a runner entered in the New York Marathon. They own a hay and pecan ranch in Texas.

Two cultures, two religions. Abou-Samra's surgical office adjoining Community Memorial Hospital reflects the blend. It is adorned with two U.S. flags and a multi-hued rendition of the Statue of Liberty by artist Peter Max. A bookcase holds both a Koran and a Bible. A crystal calligraphy work spelling "Allah" was a gift from his sister in Saudi Arabia.

The doctor is an unabashed U.S. patriot, and he attends a Catholic church with his family. He is also an Arab and a Muslim, descending directly and proudly, he says, from the prophet Muhammad.

But after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon nearly a year ago, Abou-Samra was forced to reconsider what it means to be an Arab in America.

It's a question many of the nation's about 3 million Arab Americans--fewer than half of whom are Muslim--have struggled with since 19 terrorists made them suspect on Sept. 11.

After that, Abou-Samra's brother, Said, a plastic surgeon in New Jersey, was tarred by hospital rumors that his assets had been frozen by federal investigators. And the Islamic Center his brother supports lost donations from people who had contributed for years, Abou-Samra said.

"They feared they'd be linked to terrorism," he said. "That is a real concern: To worry about giving money to your church is bad, especially in a country like ours."

Recent government infringement of civil liberties bothers Abou-Samra the most--suspects detained without charge, racial profiling by law enforcement, invasive electronic surveillance.

"After Sept. 11, a lot of things have happened in the name of homeland security and fighting terrorism," he said. "We cannot allow that to happen, or this country becomes something it is not supposed to be."

It's a problem fostered not just by last year's attacks, he said, but by a general ignorance of Arab cultures.

The situation Arab Americans face now is not so different from what Jewish Americans and Japanese Americans endured a few decades ago, he said.

"People don't know who we are, what we stand for and what we want," Abou-Samra wrote in a letter to his niece after the attacks, challenging her to become a community leader in Los Angeles. "They have no clue what makes us tick. And, as long as we are an unknown entity, yes, let's use the word--'alien'--we will be treated with mistrust.

"We are educated, family-oriented, loyal, patriotic and very reliable," he said. "We should show others that ours is a good way."

Abou-Samra has spent three decades trying to be as American as his next-door neighbor. Moustapha, which means "the chosen one" in Arabic, is often shortened by friends to a nickname, Moose, or Uncle Moose to his nieces and nephews.

He became a U.S. citizen on Emancipation Day years ago in San Antonio, Texas, hoping to vote for Gerald Ford for president.

"He just paced the floor because he wanted to vote so badly," Joanie Abou-Samra recalled. "And the day he became a citizen, he went to the oldest boot store in downtown San Antonio and bought his first pair of cowboy boots. He wore them to work every day."

Abou-Samra thinks of himself as an American first. His father was an international trader, and his mother, he said, was the first woman to attend the University of Damascus, where she earned a degree in math. His grandfather helped establish the Syrian educational system after French colonialists left in 1946.

"Our heritage is important to us," Abou-Samra said. "But we are here in the U.S., and we have the same concerns as our neighbors."

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