Osama Abuliel is living the American Dream. He immigrated to New Orleans from Jordan in 1983, attended Delgado and Southern University, became a U.S. citizen, married a nice Italian girl and has a lovely home and two beautiful daughters.
Like other Americans, he was sickened by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Unlike most, he shares a name with the chief suspect, Osama bin Laden, undoubtedly the most hated man in America.
Abuliel, a sales representative for F. Christiana & Co., explains that "Osama" is a fairly common moniker in the Middle East -- but admits the name has caused him some angst. "There are times when I wish my name wasn't Osama, but that's just me being angry and frustrated about the whole thing," he says.
"I have not experienced any racial comments," says Abuliel, who in his job visits restaurants around the city. "Everybody's been nice to me. I think they know who I am and that I don't have anything to do with it. At the same time, I understand the reaction of the American people. We are in this together; this is going to be an international fight against terrorism."
Yet the stress currently endured by Americans of Middle Eastern descent is even worse for those individuals named Osama. In North Carolina, near Fort Bragg, the restaurant Osama's Place bears the name of its owner Osama Yousef. Last week, The New York Times reported that the restaurant has received bomb threats, and Yousef is contemplating changing the name of the establishment he opened more than a decade ago.
"Osama" has in fact been a revered name among Arabs for centuries, heightened by its connection to one of the shahabas, or disciples, of Muhammad, an Arab prophet who founded Islam in the 7th century. Despite slight variations among spelling and transliterations to English, the name means "head of the lion," or "like a lion," and is believed to impart character traits of strength and courage as well as leadership and wisdom. The Pacific News Service recently profiled a Pakistani couple who named their newborn son "Osama," after the terrorist.
"We had decided the name for a boy even before birth," said the father. "Not just that the name is short and sweet -- it also symbolizes courage, bravery and nerve."
But for Abuliel, who has been a U.S. citizen since taking the oath in 1992 with his Jordanian parents at his side, the name now underscores the current tension of being both Middle Eastern and American.
Abuliel recalls the day he became a citizen of the United States. "I was so excited, you just wouldn't believe it. To me, it was a dream come true. ... I am proud to be an American, and I'm also proud of my [Middle Eastern] culture. I belong here. I can't go and live anywhere else."
Abuliel says he is heartened by the acceptance New Orleanians have for other cultures and by the response to the attacks from overseas. "I was glad to hear King [Hussein] say that Jordan will fight those kind of people who are trying to destroy freedom," Abuliel says. "I was relieved, especially, by President Bush's visit to the mosque. That was a real boost to the Arab community."
Saying he'd like to give back to his country, Abuliel has offered his services to the United States government should they have need for his special knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and the Arabic language. He doesn't yet know if he'll get that chance to help.
While Abuliel isn't Muslim -- he and generations of his family counted themselves among the 10 percent of Jordan's population that is Christian -- he hopes that mutual respect for religion will help his country during this time. "We have lots of Muslim friends, and we respect each other's religion," he says. "I just hope to God that the people of the United States will stick together, all religions and backgrounds as one. And we all should fight this evil."
And, he hopes, that will mean not confusing the enemy with people that come from his corner of the world -- or might even share his first name.
"It's the most popular name on everyone's tongue these days, but it's not the name; it's the soul," Abuliel says.