Zak Ebrahim was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1983 to an American mother and an Egyptian father, El Sayyid Nosair. When Zak was seven, his father assassinated Meir Kahane, the militant ultra-Orthodox, anti-Arab rabbi. While in prison, his father was found guilty and later convicted as one of the conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
I remember my early childhood as a happy one although around the age of seven my father exposed me to a side of Islam that few people get to see. In every religion, in every population, you’ll find a small percentage of people who hold such fervently beliefs that they feel they must use any means necessary to make others live as they do.
A few months prior to his arrest, my father sat me down and explained that for the past few weekends, he and some friends had been going to a shooting range on Long Island for target practice. He told me I’d be going with him the next morning. We arrived at Calverton Shooting Range, and when I hit the target my uncle turned to the other men, and in Arabic said, “Ibn abuh.” [Like father, like son]. Later I realized that they thought they saw in me the same destruction my father was capable of. These men were eventually convicted of placing a van filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives into the sub-level parking lot of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. These were the men I looked up to, whom I called ammu, which means uncle.
By the time I turned 19 I had already moved 20 times in my life and that instability meant I found it hard to make friends. I kept my identity a secret to avoid being targeted, but even so, being the quiet, chubby new kid in class was more than enough to get me repeatedly bullied. So for the most part, I spent my time at home.
Growing up around bigotry meant I’d been raised to judge people according to their race or religion. One of the first things that challenged this way of thinking was during the 2000 presidential elections when I was taking part in the National Youth Convention (a non-partisan organisation) in Philadelphia. Having been the victim of bullying for most of my life I chose to be part of a group that focused on youth violence. The members of our group came from many different walks of life and I soon discovered that one of the kids I’d befriended was Jewish. I must admit I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that for most of my life I had been led to believe was insurmountable.
Another major turning point came when I found a summer job in an amusement park. Most of my life I’d been taught that homosexuality was a sin and by extension, therefore, that all gay people were a negative influence. When I ended up working with some of the gay performers at a show there, I soon discovered that many were the kindest, least judgmental people I had ever met. Having been bullied as a kid created an immediate sense of empathy in me toward the suffering of others.
Then there was, The Daily Show. On a nightly basis, Jon Stewart forced me to be intellectually honest with myself about my own bigotry and helped me to realize that people’s race, religion or sexual orientation had nothing to do with the quality of their character. Inspiration can often come from an unexpected place, and a Jewish comedian did more to positively influence my worldview than my own extremist father.
One day, I had a conversation with my mother about how my worldview was starting to change and she said something to me that I will hold dear to my heart for as long as I live. She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime and said, ”I’m tired of hating people.”
Zak Ebrahim is not my real name. I changed it when my family decided to end our connection with my father and start a new life. But I speak out in the hope that perhaps someone someday who is compelled to use violence may hear my story and realize that there is a better way, that although I was subjected to a violent and intolerant ideology, I did not become fanaticized. No matter how much the levels of violence you have experienced it doesn’t have to define your character because in all of us is the ability to change our paths.