I was applying for jobs so I had to make my Twitter feed nice. That meant no fuck-bombs, obviously, and probably fewer instances of calling the St. Louis Cardinals the St. Poois Shartinals, but mostly it meant stepping out of political debates. My father says to me, “Now Jeff, you know when you put something on the World Wide Web then anybody can see it, and you don’t know who that anybody may be.” He says this to me after I criticize Israel’s latest bombing of Palestine on my Twitter and Facebook. I never said “Fuck Israel” or anything like that; I just posted a link that discussed the murdered Palestinian children and I said Israel needed to be sanctioned for its actions. I kept tweeting and retweeting things critical of the Israeli campaign, which seemed at least deserving of criticism from some stranger thousands of miles away, if you ask me. All the pictures of dead kids kept getting to me, and part of it was that the dead kids looked like me, yes, but to be honest, many of the Israeli soldiers also looked like me, which bothered me as well, to think that maybe some version of myself could be cajoled by rhetoric into shooting an unarmed child, or dropping a bomb on a playground. A couple of my college friends who were (apparently) extremely pro-Israel unfollowed me. That’s the only way we kept in touch, so did that mean they decided we were never going to be actual friends again?
That meant no fuck-bombs, obviously, and probably fewer instances of calling the St. Louis Cardinals the St. Poois Shartinals.
Anyway, around this time I read a story about a professor who got fired for his tweets about Israel. The college world is supposed to be leftist, supposed to be progressive, and I was in the process of applying for jobs in academia. My Twitter feed was just politics, Batman, the Milwaukee Brewers, and jokes. I tried to stop saying curse words, to stop criticizing in-power political regimes. But injustices kept happening. I couldn’t not engage, but my fear of not being hired, of not getting a job, made me tweet vague statuses like, “It sure is a tragic world,” and “I hope all children get a chance to grow up.” It wasn’t helping. It sounded like stuff a racist uncle would say to excuse police shootings or systematic oppressions. What difference did my tweets make, one way or the other? I wasn’t getting interviews and all my mentors and friends said it was astonishing I wasn’t getting interviews. I never deleted my old tweets, true, but there were so many nonsense baseball tweets since then, I doubt anybody was coming up on my pro-Palestine internet self and saying, “Let’s put this radical bozo in the No pile.” In college at a touch football game, a friend wore an IDF shirt and said we never trash-talked enough at our football games, so I asked him if he brought a machine gun to shoot me whenever I make a great catch. He didn’t think that was very funny. It was a couple months after 9/11 and none of my friends liked it when I mentioned being Arab anymore; they thought I was just trying to get pity points.
What difference did my tweets make, one way or the other?
A truck full of rednecks followed me home one night and yelled “Arab!” out the window at me but it was rural Georgia—that’s the kind of thing that could have happened before 9/11, to be honest. I went to join the Arab-American student union on campus but I was one of only two people there who didn’t speak any Arabic whatsoever. When I told the group’s president how I grew up saying grandmother he said it definitely was not an Arabic word and it felt like my grandmother never even existed. My parents called that year and told me it was as good a time as any, in that new scarred America, to shave my beard and tell people my name was Danish or Gaelic, to wear an American flag shirt. I could have erased my Arab self! Many people would think that’s a poisonous thought but there have been many times in which I regret not hitting that shuffle button, just stumbling through the rest of my life as a swarthy white dude. People would still ask me what I am but I could just puff my chest out and say “Welsh-Irish” and everybody in the room would quiver a little. I could have been so white I became unapproachable.
Glenn Shaheen is the author of four books, most recently the flash fiction collection Carnivalia (Gold Wake, 2018).
Illustrated by Meher Khan.