Growing up Al-Arian

In Longreads

Ali is at the computer, reading about an Internet hoax. A man is threatening to eat a pet rabbit unless he gets $50,000.

“We have to go,” Leena says. “You’re coming with me.”

“Since when?” Ali is 14, Leena is about to turn 20 and their mother is out of town. Leena is in charge.

“You have to think of something to say,” she tells him. Their father will ask about her thesis, the last thing standing between her and a degree from the University of South Florida. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She has been pulling all-nighters, downing so much coffee that it has lost its power to stimulate her brain. She is about to blow her deadline. Again.

Ali glances down at his clothes: black shorts, green T-shirt. He gets a long-sleeved shirt from his bedroom. Leena eyes the back of his head as he walks down the stairs. He needs a haircut.

In the car, he falls asleep to National Public Radio. She nudges him awake. They line up in the jail lobby behind a man with a missing tooth and a Confederate flag bandanna. A woman in a green uniform asks who they want to see.

Leena says the name quickly, running the words together: “Samialarian.”

The woman scans her list. She hands them two laminated cards. They pass through one blue metal door, and another, and run up a flight of stairs.


Federal agents raided their apartment one winter morning 27 months ago and arrested their father. Leena, on the couch next to her mother, asked one of the officers where he went to school. She got her books and studied for a quiz in her religion and pop culture class.

She figured her father would be home by evening. Then someone called to tell them to turn on the TV. John Ashcroft was on.

“The individuals named in this indictment play a central role in global terrorism,” the attorney general said. “They are material supporters of foreign terrorist organizations. They finance, extol and assist acts of terror.”

Leena felt the tears coming then, because when John Ashcroft goes on TV and talks about your father, it’s not good.

In the courtroom, she heard them read the charges, and after each, the maximum sentence. Conspiracy to commit racketeering, life. Conspiracy to murder, maim or injure persons at places outside the United States, life. Conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, life.

It’s hard to remember what things were like before. Leena crashed her Big Wheel and fell into the swimming pool. She watched the Smurfs and visited the Everglades and Niagara Falls. In a fifth grade choral performance, she sang Cosette’s Castle on a Cloud from Les Miserables. In high school English class at the Islamic Academy of Florida, she read John Hershey’s Hiroshima. She wore baggy jeans and listened to Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. on her Walkman.

Ali’s past has gaps. “My memory just dumped all the memories of him when he was here,” he says.

They have always been different from other kids.

Leena was 10 the first time the FBI raided her house. At 12, she was drawing signs that said “Free Mazen Now!” Her uncle, Mazen Al-Najjar, was arrested in 1997, held for 31/2 years and deported after the government couldn’t prove he had links to terrorists. Last year, they indicted him again.

The Al-Arian family’s phones were tapped for seven years. Leena thinks of the prank calls they used to make at slumber parties. In court, she glances across the room. Which of those federal agents knows who I liked?

After his arrest, his kids put one foot in front of the other, but it wasn’t the same as walking.

Abdullah, 24, finished his master’s degree at the London School of Economics and enrolled in a Ph.D. program. Laila, 23, graduated from Georgetown University and got a job writing for a weekly newspaper. Leena stayed at USF, where her father taught engineering until he was put on paid leave, then fired a few days after his arrest.

Ali and 11-year-old Lama switched schools. Leena took Lama to tutoring and drove Ali to the mall. She handed out leaflets at campus antiwar protests. She tried to keep her personal life out of the classroom. She wrote a paper on privacy issues and the Patriot Act and did not mention her father.

She stayed up late, waiting for the apartment to fall silent. When everyone was asleep, she could concentrate, she could read and write. She could be alone.

“It sort of scares me,” she said a few weeks ago. “Am I ever going to have my own life?”

All the kids have asked that question, even Lama, the youngest. She has freckles and wears her brown hair in a ponytail. She watches Full House. The other night, she Googled herself and came up with 10 pages.

Their mother, Nahla Al-Arian, does the things their father used to do. She pays the bills and drives Lama to school. When Lama and Ali bicker, she has to break it up. She wishes they listened to her the way they listened to their father.

Sometimes, they forget what happened, what could happen.

In those moments, Ali doesn’t hear his mother whispering prayers. She stops checking her e-mail every five minutes. She giggles at an Egyptian soap opera.

She says that forgetting is a blessing.

One recent evening, she got a joke in her Hotmail. She read it out loud to Leena and Ali.

A young man told his mother he had fallen in love and he wanted to get married. He said: “Just for fun, Mom, I’m going to bring over three women and you try and guess which one I’m going to marry.” So he brought them. After a while, he asked his mother to guess who he had chosen.

“The one on the right,” she said.

“How did you know?” he asked.

“I don’t like her,” his mother said.

In the living room, they all cracked up.


Ali loved Hamlet. He read it in Egypt, where he spent the first half of eighth grade. It was a few months after his father’s arrest, and he stayed with relatives.

The students had a big book of Shakespeare plays. They read aloud in class, stumbling over the words. Ali struggled with Arabic, but English came easily. Hamlet wasn’t assigned that year, but he read it anyway. He liked the part when Hamlet’s father came back as a ghost to tell how Claudius killed him.

“He poured poison in his ear,” Ali said. “Hamlet wanted to take revenge.”

The story that most reminds Ali of his own father is The Odyssey. Odysseus wandered the seas for 10 years, trying to get home. A witch turned his men into pigs. He visited the underworld.

After his father’s arrest, Ali and a friend sat around running through the parallels. Poseidon, the sea god, kept Odysseus prisoner. He raised storms that blew the ships off course. When Odysseus finally reached home, everything was different. He defeated his enemies. He made up with his wife. His son was grown.

Lately, Ali has been thinking about Romeo and Juliet, which he read in English class this year. He is a ninth-grader at a big school where most people think Al-Arian is a common name. He says that only his friends and a few teachers know whose son he is.

He liked Romeo and Juliet but hated the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes. The Capulet and Montague thugs drove finned cars. They smoked cigarettes and fought with guns, not swords. They spoke with American accents.

“They just ruined it all,” Ali said.

He was at the computer in the living room one day after school. Leena sat on the green leather couch, and there were cardboard boxes stacked against the walls. A few weeks ago, their mother decided they were moving out of their apartment in Temple Terrace. She changed her mind, but she didn’t unpack the boxes. Books still lined the shelves – Social Power and Political Freedom, The Jews in America, The Chomsky Reader – but the pictures and framed diplomas were packed away.

Ali was talking about the Romeo and Juliet movie. In the last scene, Juliet had taken a drug to make her look dead, but she was coming out of it. Romeo found her in the church, surrounded by candles. He kissed her. Her fingers moved. The color came back to her cheeks. Anybody could see she was waking.

Romeo was stupid, Ali said. He didn’t see.

“She’s, like, coughing and Romeo still thinks she’s dead,” Ali said. “She has to tear the poison out of his hand as he’s drinking it.”

It was too late.

Lama came into the living room to listen. “What happens at the end?” she asked.

Ali and Leena looked at each other.

“Everyone dies,” Leena said.

Lama looked surprised.

“Oh,” she said. “I thought there was always a happy ending.”


Dear Honorable Judge Moody, the letter began. It was a Wednesday morning during spring break, and the blinds were closed. His fingers clicked across the keys.

My name is Ali Al-Arian, and I am the 14-year-old son of Dr. Sami Al-Arian.

He had been thinking about the letter for weeks, ever since a kid at Lama’s school asked if her father was a terrorist. It upset her so much that she told Ali about it. Now he wanted to tell the judge. Jury selection is supposed to start Monday, but Ali wanted to ask the judge to delay the trial until after final exams.

In my American Government class, I learned that every person has the right to a fair trial, and I feel that this is not possible in Tampa, which is pervaded by hatred and fear of Muslims and Arabs.

Ali’s government teacher mentioned his father’s case in class. They were talking about the Bill of Rights, a defendant’s right to a speedy trial. The teacher said that mentioning the case might upset some people. It didn’t upset Ali.

I will never forget how my 11 year old sister came to me one evening with a distressed look on her face, and quietly confessed that she is terrified of ridicule at school if the trial takes place in Tampa. She believes the children will make fun of her, something one girl already did.

He e-mailed the letter to an assistant to Thomas McCoun, the federal magistrate judge assigned to the case, because he didn’t know Moody’s e-mail address.

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The next day, his mother got a phone call from Bill Moffitt, one of their lawyers. He was upset. He didn’t want it to look like they were trying to pressure the judge. Besides, the lawyers thought the letter looked too grown-up. The sentences were long and ornate. There were big words.

Moffitt told Nahla to ask Judge McCoun’s office not to pass the letter on. She did.

She sat Ali down. “Did you write it yourself?” she asked him.

Laila helped, he told her. He e-mailed his sister a copy. She read it, corrected the grammar and e-mailed it back. He found the big words himself. He went to and clicked on the thesaurus. He typed the word “hatred” (as in: “the jury questionnaires were full of hatred towards my father”), and the computer gave him “abhorrence.”

The computer is his ally. It holds his music, sends his instant messages.

man, you missed it in geometry. you shouldve come.

what happened?

it was so funny.

After school, he puts on headphones and scrolls through his music collection. He likes Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Pearl Jam. He likes Nirvana’s Nevermind, even though it came out the year he was born.

One afternoon, he listens over and over to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses.

Cause nothing lasts forever

And we both know hearts can change

And it’s hard to hold a candle

In the cold November rain.

He plays an online video game called Maple Story. In the game, he is a thief, a pale anime figure in a hat like a coconut shell. Ali doesn’t like the hat, but it protects him, so he wears it.

He climbs levels, shimmies down pipes in a dank, green cavern, bounds through a beat-up urban neighborhood with graffiti on the walls. He throws ninja stars.

In the game, his enemies are green mushrooms that leave behind piles of pennies when they die. Every time he defeats one, a message pops up on the right-hand side of his screen. “You have gained experience,” it says.

He carries potions and jewels. He carries screws and leather to make new weapons. Just in case.

The song screams into his head.

Cause nothin’ lasts forever

Even cold November rain.

He likes the guitar solo at the end. He likes how sound builds a wall.


One rainy twilight, the phone rings. Leena clicks on the speakerphone. His voice fills the room.

“Baba!” Leena says.


“So give me the good news!” he says.

They keep his photograph on the table near the phone so they can look at him while they talk. His voice is so big that it’s like he’s there with them, but then they think about the real him, which is larger than life, and the voice on the phone feels small.

“A ghost,” Leena says.

Tonight he wants to know about her thesis. He wants to hear that it’s finished. It isn’t, but she tells him it is. She doesn’t want him to worry.

“What’s up?” he asks. “How’s Ali?”

“He’s good,” Leena says. Ali is at a friend’s house.

Nahla tells him that she and Lama ate Japanese food at the mall. He tells them that he ate on a table outside his cell.

Abdullah gets on the line from Washington, where he and Laila live.

“Have you been reading, writing?” his father asks.

“I have finals today, just lots of different things. I’m just trying to balance.”

His father wants him to apply for a grant. Abdullah doesn’t want to think about it. The deadline is years away, literally.

Sami Al-Arian is talking fast, fast, fast. In jail, he reads Foreign Affairs magazine and circles fellowships. Now his voice is rising, making the phone on the table vibrate.

“They have 15 to 20 different recipients, so you’re competing on the topic,” he tells Abdullah. “So you must have confidence in yourself.”

“What difference does it make, Dad? I don’t think they’re funding Ph.D. research. They’re funding established writers.”

His father won’t give up. “Some are not professors. Some are researchers. The point is you possess an idea, a proposal. You are going on the strength of that idea.”

“I just don’t see the urgency,” Abdullah says.

“I didn’t ask you to do it now,” his father says. “Take it easy, man.”

He switches gears, tells a joke. A young man tells his mother that he wants to get married. He brings three women to her house and asks her to guess who he has chosen.

Leena told him the joke through the glass, the day she visited with Ali. Hearing it again, she smiles. Abdullah’s laugh crackles over the speaker.

Laila picks up the phone. She wants to talk to her father before Starbucks closes. She tells him what’s up at work and that she went to the mall.

A mechanized voice breaks in. You have 60 seconds.

He says goodbye and hangs up before the operator can cut him off.

First published in the Tampa Bay Times.


Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa M. Gezari has reported from four continents for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and others. Her book on the war in Afghanistan, The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, was published in 2013. A visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, Vanessa is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and a three-time Livingston Award finalist. She has received grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism; an International Reporting Project fellowship; and a MacDowell Colony writing residency.