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The Tragedy Hits Noe Valley
By Jeff Kaliss
It was the afternoon of Sept. 11, some nine hours after the repercussions of terrorist activity on the East Coast had begun impacting our consciousness here in the West. Carlos Cavillo, a San Francisco native and an electrical contractor by trade, gazed out from his seat at Noe's Bar at the eerie quiet along 24th Street.
"Sunny Noe Valley, everyone's always laidback," he observed. "But all of a sudden, they're not laidback anymore. They're becoming aware that we can't just have our donuts and coffee."
"First thing this morning, the phone was ringing, people were scared and upset," added Noe's bartender Nancy Emory. "They just wanted to make sure I was here." She reported that concerned customers, some of them excused from their regular nine-to-five shifts, had been congregating in the bar all day, to "work it through, get it in perspective."
April Erickson, one of those customers, had witnessed the scenes of the explosions and collapse of the twin towers at New York's World Trade Center on her computer screen at the software company where she works in the South of Market area. "Some of our clients were in those buildings, and we thought some of our consultants might be there, but they actually don't have their gigs until tomorrow.... Now I don't know what will happen, because you never know what's going on with the government and what they'll let you know."
"For better or worse, [George W. Bush] represents us in a very dire time, so I think there'll be a kind of closing of ranks," offered Leo Litwak, sharing lattés and "a day full of news" with Carolyn Evans at Martha's, down the street from Noe's.
An early-morning call from his daughter in L.A. had awakened Litwak to the tragedy, and televised images left him in "utter shock and a kind of despair." He'd promptly phoned his relatives and friends in New York and confirmed they were okay.
"But you felt somehow the conditions of American life had been transformed in just a day," said Litwak. "Our economic priorities will change, and the rest of the world follows in our wake and they're going to endure what we do." Coming to Martha's, not far from the residence they share, provided Litwak and Evans with "an anchorage, a way to do our regular routines."
Across 24th Street at the Ark, clerk Jennie Wooley had tuned the toy store's radio to the news for a time, but then changed to a classical music station. "There are lots of little kids in here, and I thought it would be a better environment," she explained. "I don't think it's reached them, and I wouldn't want to go into detail about terrorism with a kid."
Ahmad Kamal, at 151/2 years of age, is old enough to have come home by himself after the San Francisco Unified School District suspended classes early that morning, and then to have gone to work at Shufat Market on 24th Street, helping out his Palestinian-born father. "I was really scared, because I thought someone would hit San Francisco as well," young Kamal admitted. "It's really stupid, so terrible that the races all over the world are fighting with each other."
"We always think all the wars are happening outside America," sighed Joe Eadeh, owner of the 24th Street Café and also an immigrant from Palestine. His business was far better than expected for a Tuesday, but "everybody was in a sad, sad, sad face."
A half-block to the east, Jordanian-born Walid Masoud, manager of Urban Cellars, was trying to maintain his characteristic benign urbanity as the U.S. Congress sang "God Bless America" on the radio. "Every time I go out to smoke a cigarette, I try to forget about it," he said. "Then I come back in and find the news, and it's still kind of disbelief."
"A black cloud is on everyone's head today," Officer Lorraine Lombardo observed while walking her beat along the shopping district. "People are very sad and upset, but they're also trying to go give blood or just do something to help."
Others headed for Bell Market, where Jeanie, a checker who demurred from giving her surname, experienced a "crazy" Tuesday morning. "Almost every order I had was over one hundred dollars," she reported. "People are buying water, and it's like earthquake mentality."
Realtor Harry Aleo rushed to produce scores of color copies of the American flag, but found his fellow businesspersons reluctant to display them in their windows. "Where is our sense of unity?" Aleo asked rhetorically, noting that many Noe Valley residents were more eager to fly their flags.
The unity sought by Aleo demanded a clear-cut villain, and the neighborhood's many merchants of Near and Middle Eastern origin shared the suspicion that the terrorism might have roots somewhere near their homelands.
"I hope not," said Joe Eadeh, "because it's going to develop a lot of backlash."
"If the people who have done this act are from my part of the world, even from Jordan, punish them," insisted Walid Masoud. "But what scares me is, not finding out who the real doers are and just pointing fingers at somebody and starting bombing."
There was no bombing in Noe Valley, but over the next few days the neighborhood experienced its share of the backlash feared by Eadeh. The breaking of a window at Sun Valley Dairy on Church Street occurred so early on Tuesday morning that it was more likely an act of petty theft than a demonstration against owner Chuck Rafidi, originally from Palestine's West Bank.
But Rafidi later noted that one of his customers, Najib Joe Hakim, had come by the store to xerox a note left on Hakim's parked vehicle, reading "Please! Remove your PLO sticker or don't park here." Hakim, a staff photographer for the Voice, noted that the bumper sticker depicts a Palestinian flag and not anything having to do with the Palestine Liberation Organization. He'd been cautious enough, on Tuesday morning, to remove from his rear window a couple of other stickers reading "Stop U.S. Aid to Israel" and "A Palestinian State for Peace and Justice."
"I felt like somebody in their mind was connecting me or Palestinians in general or the PLO in particular or Arabs or Muslims with this [terrorist] event," said Hakim. "By the way, I'm not Muslim, I'm Christian," as are many of the neighborhood's Near Easterners.
Hakim reported the incident to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and to the local police, who managed to identify the neighbor who'd posted the note and to bring him and Hakim together. The neighbor "was afraid someone would target me while my car was parked in front of his house, and he didn't want his house to be damaged in the process," Hakim recounted. "We shook hands, and that was that, pretty much."
On the afternoon of Sept. 12, Yousef "Joe" Louh was confronted by a belligerent customer he didn't recognize at his St. Paul's Market on Sanchez Street. "He was going to buy a six-pack of beer, and he asked me where I'm from, and I told him I was born and raised here. And he asked me where my parents are from, and I told him it's none of his business," said Louh, whose people are from Jerusalem. "And he just left the six-pack and left the store."
On the morning of the same day, Saif Ataya found his Noe Market on Douglass Street painted with graffiti shouting "Arab go home" and "Terrorist Arabs." The hateful messages appeared three days in a row. His daughter, a kindergarten student, faced similar sentiments at school. During the following week, Ataya's store was pelted with eggs and garbage, and his Daly City residence was smeared with dog and cat feces. He temporarily shortened his business hours, and appealed for police surveillance.
"I'm Muslim and proud to be Muslim," said Ataya, who came to the U.S. in 1991 as a political refugee from Iraq. "But the religion where I'm from believes in peace. We don't even believe in retaliation."
Prior to his weekend offering of brunch on Sept. 15, Abed Amas was phoned by his chef and busboy, who'd discovered red paint splattered on the front step of Fattoush, Amas' Church Street eatery. "I think this is probably a bunch of kids," said the Palestinian restaurateur. "Maybe someone went through the Yellow Pages and found Middle Eastern restaurants."
All these despicable acts have been balanced by the sort of support which these merchants have come to expect from their neighborhood. "One of my neighbors was in tears," said Amas. "She said, 'I never thought this would happen here.'"
Ataya of Noe Market is certain that his defamers are "not my customers, not my neighbors," who "come here to check on us, which lifts our spirit up a little bit."
Louh's corner store functions as a community gathering place, and he has tangible reasons to believe that "my friends wouldn't let anything happen."
Meanwhile, shops, churches, and residences all over Noe Valley have sprouted signs reading, "Noe Valley Is a Hate-free Zone." Global Exchange, which inspired the "hate-free" campaign, posted a second notice: "As we grieve, let us remember that vengeance offers no relief."
Churches such as Bethany, St. Paul's, and the Noe Valley Ministry continue to hold prayer and meditation vigils.
Noe Valley rabbi Gedalia Potash has found himself echoing the words of local Arab-Americans: "The only thing we can do is really support each other."
During recent gatherings of his Chabad congregation in observance of Jewish high holidays, Potash advised that, "When such an event happens, a tremendous amount of energy is generated within the community, and it's important to channel any such energy in a positive way. I'm quoting the prophesy in Isaiah, about 'beating the swords into plowshares,' [because] we could make the mistake that the terrorists are making, to hold civilians and innocent people accountable.
"People should take a very strong lesson about the importance of every individual," Potash continued. "There were a maximum of a hundred [terrorists] who managed to pull off such a terrible thing, which teaches us the power of each individual.... We can [also] learn in a positive sense that we have to care for a child from day one and make sure everyone is educated with proper values."