Fear of bias puts Steinway Arabs on edge

By Dustin Brown

On the stretch of Steinway Street between Astoria Boulevard and 28th Avenue, a bustling Middle Eastern community has grown cautious in the days following the destruction of the World Trade Center by Arab terrorists.

Although an epidemic of bias crimes against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent has swept the nation in a misdirected retaliation against terrorist acts carried out by what was believed to be Islamic extremists, patrons of Steinway’s Middle Eastern establishments said they had seen only a handful of incidents. But the impact on the community’s psyche goes much deeper.

Muslims in Queens and across the country have presented a united front in response to the terrorism, asserting that the killings violated the most central tenets of Islam.

“My Holy Koran does not say to kill people,” said Mohamed Badra, referring to the central text of Islam, as he sat at the Eastern Nights restaurant on Steinway last Thursday afternoon. “It says people are the same and be respectful of all religions.”

Conversing casually at the Egyptian Coffee House on Steinway Street Thursday while smoking water pipes, a group of Egyptian immigrants — many of them American citizens — decried the terrorist acts while pledging their own allegiance to the United States.

“We all work here, we’re all citizens, we make a living here,” said Nasser Elgabry, a taxi driver from Egypt who has been an American citizen since 1995. “This is our land.”

Members of the Middle Eastern community along Steinway Street reported some bias incidents in the days following the fall of the World Trade Center, including vandalism and the shouting of racial slurs. But many of the Arab men frequenting Steinway businesses have taken the bias incidents in stride, passing them off as unfortunate but understandable reactions to a volatile and confusing time.

At the coffee house, a group of men pointed to a shattered piece of mirror they said was broken last Wednesday night by a group of five youths who later returned to apologize. The men who sat in the shop Thursday afternoon were quick to forgive, promising charges would not be pressed for an incident the shop owner would not even admit had happened.

A sense of apprehension still succeeded in stifling activities within the Arab community, even though the fear typically proved to be greater than the actual threat. One Egyptian employee at an Afghan restaurant that had received threatening phone calls anxiously repeated the rumor that three Arab men had been killed in a bias attack along Steinway Street, which proved to be false.

Fear inflicted a big blow in business along Steinway Street, where Middle Eastern restaurants and coffee shops that would otherwise have been packed saw only handfuls of customers.

Business at Steinway’s El-Rawsheh Restaurant fell by about 50 percent in the days after the attack, a drop owner Mohamed Mohamed attributed to the fear that is preventing Arabs from going about their ordinary routines.

“Some people are scared to go on the street because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mohamed said.

“Even the atmosphere on the street is changing,” said Nourddine Daouaou, a cab driver originally from Morocco who is now an American citizen. “People are so afraid to be victimized. There are Arab women wearing veils — they don’t know what to do. They’re proud of who they are, but still there is fear.”

For many of the Arab shopkeepers along Steinway, their very ability to have opened a business is cause for great loyalty to the United States, which they stress is a home they chose because the opportunities afforded here are greater than those in their native countries.

“The United States gives me a lot,” said Tarek Elhossini, an American citizen from Egypt, as he opened his electronics store early Thursday afternoon. “I have to stand behind the U.S. This country is a very good country.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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