Islamophobia — yes, it can happen here

I enjoyed the feature story on Portland photographer Hafid Lalaoui that my BDN colleague Troy Bennett put together this week. Like Troy, I’ve known Hafid, a native of Morocco, since he moved to Maine in the late 1990s. It was great to see a shout-out to the bohemian scene at the Free Street Taverna, my favorite downtown watering hole in those days. And Hafid’s comments regarding how much more ethnically diverse Portland’s become since then are a timely reminder of how far we’ve come in two decades.

Hafid Lalaoui, 69, a fixture in Portland bohemian circles for 20 years, plans to return home to Morocco for good at the end of the month. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Hafid Lalaoui, 69, a fixture in Portland bohemian circles for 20 years, plans to return home to Morocco for good at the end of the month. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

“I was really lucky in that I was able to assimilate into the arts community,” Hafid, who’s 69, told Troy. “I never dreamed, when I came here, I would be one day walking in any street in Portland and listening to French language, to Arabic language and listening to African dialects.”

I’m hesitant to mar the rosy picture of acceptance and tolerance Troy’s story presents, but the same art scene that embraced Hafid was also the source of a bigoted incident that bears mentioning — now more than ever.

Among the poets and musicians and photographers who drank at the Taverna at that time was a painter I’ll call Scott. A Vietnam vet who drove cab for a living, Scott was stocky and intense. He was not quite right in the head, prone to launching into paranoid rants, which is why I’m not using his real name. Scott could be affable, but also unpredictable, all the more so after a few drinks. A story made the rounds about how Scott had practically beaten some guy to death during a minor street altercation in town. Clean cut and gray-haired, Scott possessed a level of physical strength you wouldn’t expect in a man of his age and appearance. There was no telling what might set him off.

In the days immediately after 9/11, Portlanders were stunned by the news that two of the hijackers had been in our midst the night before the attack, shopping at Wal-Mart, eating at Pizza Hut, sleeping at a Comfort Inn. Something must have snapped in Scott’s troubled mind, because he swore he’d seen Hafid at the Taverna on 9/10, conspiring with Mohamed Atta.

To anyone who knew Hafid then, or knows him now, that’s a ridiculous allegation. The Moroccan’s irrepressible spirit of bonhomie is legendary. But there was nothing funny about Scott’s claim. Federal authorities certainly weren’t laughing when they hauled Hafid in for questioning. And though they released him soon after, having found no evidence to support Scott’s story, Hafid certainly didn’t feel safe in the Taverna or on the sidewalks of Portland, knowing his angry, unhinged accuser was prowling the streets in his taxi.

Portland, which seemed like a “really sleepy town” compared to New York, where Hafid had lived in the ’80s and early ’90s, must have felt nightmarish in the weeks that followed. The city’s lack of diversity was no longer merely notable; it was dangerous for a man who was, as Troy noted, “the first African many Portlanders … knew by name.”

It’s important that I bring up this story now because this is precisely the time we must all speak out about the demonization of immigrants from Muslim countries (such as Morocco) and the violence that kind of fear-mongering sparks.

Earlier this month, Republicans in Maine decisively chose a candidate for president, Ted Cruz, whose response to a terror attack in Europe was to call for “law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” in the United States. And our governor, Paul LePage, endorsed the candidacy of Donald Trump, who recklessly spread the incendiary lie that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in a New Jersey city publicly cheered as the Twin Towers fell. Trump has infamously vowed to ban all Muslims from entering the United States if he wins the White House. LePage has said he believes Trump could be “one of the greatest presidents ever.”

So when we talk about the targeting and harassment of immigrants based on bigoted suspicions, not only can it happen here, it has happened here, and it most certainly will happen again if the Islamophobic authoritarians at the top of the GOP ticket accrue the power so many Mainers are eager to give them.

Hafid is moving back to Morocco next month to reunite with family and reconnect with his homeland. I’ll miss my old friend and wish he didn’t decide to leave, but another part of me will wonder if he got out of our fearful country just in the nick of time.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.