As we head into the end of 2018 and the second year of the Trump administration, I still find it difficult to believe that he is at the helm of our country. Having returned to the US two years ago, after living in the United Arab Emirates for the past 18 years, I am finding it hard to acclimate myself to the new America in which I find myself. I arrived in the summer of 2016 when the US election was in full swing. I was frankly appalled by the entire side-show which was American democracy in action. And the outcome saddened me; because I am not convinced the person who won is a person worthy of running our nation. And he is certainly unable to make those of us who are “different” because of our background, religion, race, ethnicity, etc. feel secure or even comfortable in America.
This situation angers and frustrates me, because in many ways I see it as a re-run of my younger life. For literally decades, my family and I had to keep one step ahead of Libya’s horrible dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. We were always worried that his henchmen would find my father or one of us. It was an uneasy time in my life, and for some unknown reason, I have that same sense of disquiet in my current life in the US. I am angry about this fact. I just moved back to the US, but my country no longer appears to be that place where I knew I was welcome.
I am a bi-cultural woman; my father was from Libya, my mother from Atlanta, Georgia. I was born and raised in Tripoli, Libya, during the early 1960s, when King Idris was the ruler. However, in 1969, Gaddafi launched his coup and became the leader of Libya, for 42 long years until he was killed during the Arab Spring in 2011. I grew up in Libya, in a country with many different types of people, races, cultures, religions, and ethnicities. When Gaddafi took over, people said we should give him a chance. Unfortunately, he became dictatorial almost immediately. Companies were nationalized, people who had lived in Libya for generations were told to leave, and the Libyans themselves bore most of his destructive tendencies.
On my 9th birthday, my father was arrested and taken from our home by Libyan security forces. We didn’t know where they took him or why. My mother called my uncles, and they finally located my father in a Tripoli jail. They also discovered he was arrested because at one time he had been a journalist, and all newspaper reporters were being jailed. Yes, Gaddafi had an innate fear and hatred of journalists and truth tellers. Although my father had given up his journalism career years before the revolution, that did not matter to Gaddafi. Apparently for him, once a journalist, always a journalist. After about a week in jail, my father was released, but kept under house arrest for another few weeks. There never seemed to be any particular reason for his arrest, nor did his captors actually ask him any pertinent questions, rather it was just a round-up of journalists, who Gaddafi looked upon as perhaps “dangerous” or with the ability to undermine his authority and horrific regime.
Over the years, my father’s company was nationalized, he was summoned to court for cutting down a tree on his own farm, he was involved in a traffic “accident” wherein the other car disappeared, and there was continuously some incident or issue. All of this made him decide to leave Libya, his country, home, and extended family. Consequently in 1976 we left home for good and moved to Italy. Unfortunately, putting distance between himself and Gaddafi was not enough. In 1978 we were attacked in our home in Rome by four masked men with guns. This was not a typical Italian robbery; those usually took place during the day when no one was home. It was a traumatic time for all of us, and to this day I am extremely nervous around ground floor windows, especially at night. My father was beaten, his head grazed by a bullet, and he was quite seriously injured. Despite his usually calm and peaceful demeanor, he fought them because he knew those men had no intention of robbing us, but would probably have tried to take one of his children. We moved to Morocco after that incident. But I never felt safe. When I was in university in the US, I told people I was from Tunisia. I never wanted anyone to know I was from Libya. I always felt that if anyone knew that I would be a target. Regrettably in the end, Gaddafi won. My father died under mysterious circumstances in 1981; he was only 58 years-old. We believe he was poisoned by one of his former “friends” from Libya, who visited him in Morocco.
Even after my father was gone, I spent an inordinate amount of time ensuring people did not know where I came from. And certainly, I could have said, “I’m an American,” because I am. My mother was an American, I carry a US passport, and I am an American. However, I have never felt comfortable just being American. I know that hyphens seem to bother many in the US. Today more than ever, I think my hyphenated nationality of Arab-American is disturbing to some. But I am of two cultures, I am two parts of many different things, and I will not ignore half of who I am, just to fit in and be considered an “American.” We Americans come in an intriguing variety of combinations. But over the years following my father’s death, it was very difficult for me to mention Libya. I know why, because I was afraid of Gaddafi and his followers. I was afraid they might still be looking for us, or wish to harm us. Even though I was finally brave enough to write a book about my parents in 2009, I was still very careful not to mention where I lived.
But much of that anxiety ended with the death of Gaddafi in October 2011. I finally felt that perhaps I could get on with my life, stop being nervous around other Libyans, and be more truthful about where I came from. And that did last, for a few years. However, I returned to the US just in time to see our entire country go in a disturbing direction. I came back to a president who scares people, and a president who seems to bring out the worst in people, and who denigrates our news media.
This is so familiar. My father was arrested in Libya for his former career as a journalist. But we would expect this kind of fear and hatred of journalists from a megalomaniac dictator. Of course Gaddafi wanted to keep his people in the dark; imagine their fears and concerns if they knew the truth? But to see this same situation in America? To have this identical hatred of the news media, to continually refer to the US media as “fake news” is all just a little too familiar for me. It all harkens back to an era of fear and uncertainty in my life. And I don’t know why, as an American, living in America, I have to be afraid of my own government.
As an Arab-American I do feel nervous, as a Muslim woman I feel unsettled, and as a mother I feel concerned for my sons. This is not what America is supposed to be about. This is not what I expected at this point in my life. I should not have to and I will not allow yet another leader, puffed up with his own self-importance ruin this new stage in my life, or cause distress to my children. I lived in fear of one bully, who stole my childhood and my father; I will not allow this new bully to do the same.
I came home to America, only to find that this home looks an awful lot like the scary days of Gaddafi. I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t feel especially secure, and I worry about the many people in the US, citizens or not, who seem to have been caught in the crosshairs of an administration, who is headed down a path eerily similar to another scary dictator I had to run away from. Where can I go? This is home, but somehow it isn’t.
Laila S. Dahan is an independent researcher and adjunct professor of writing at Woodbury University in California. She taught writing for 14 years in the United Arab Emirates at the American University of Sharjah. She holds MAs in political science and TESOL and a Ph.D. in applied linguistics. Her research and teaching interests are multidisciplinary and include global English, language and identity, cross cultural communication, women and Islam, and the politics of the Middle East. Her most recent publications include a chapter entitled “Reflections on the hijab: Choice or obligation?” in the anthology Mirror on the veil: A collection of personal essays on hijab and veiling (2017) and the essay “Dear parents: Your children watch and learn” in the edited collection Be the change you wish to see (2018).