What I’ve Learned About Bigotry as an Arab-American Scientologist

As an Arab-American Scientologist, I’m familiar with bigotry. My family emigrated to the United States from Palestine when I was four years old and I was introduced to the wonders of bullying by the children of San Francisco’s Sunset District. The kids would surround me, shove me back and forth like a medicine ball, and serenade me with a barrage of “Ay-rab go home” and other slurs that I didn’t quite understand as I didn’t speak English yet.

San Francisco’s golden gate bridge
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

My first language was Arabic. By age four, I had mastered enough of the language to be quite conversant, only to be told by my parents that we would be relocating to the other side of the planet where I’d have to start all over again. So, even though I didn’t understand all the insults, I knew enough to ask my parents if we could indeed go back “home.”

“This is our home now,” they would gently tell me.

Then there was Walter. Most of the neighborhood children were under 10 years of age but there were a few pre-teens and even a couple of teenagers on the block. My best guess was Walter was around 13. One day, when a few of the older kids were harassing me, Walter intervened. He told them to knock it off, “or else.” I was taken aback. So were several of his peers who took him up on his “or else” threat. An ugly fight ensued and Walter was overmatched. Cut and bruised, he ended up running into his house to grab a bat or something to even the odds. Thank goodness no one got seriously hurt. After that, the teasing didn’t completely stop, but it lessened significantly. No one wanted to piss off Walter again.

Isa (right) with his mother, Naimeh, and brother, Suheil.

As the years went on, we moved to different neighborhoods in San Francisco, with different challenges. I wish I could say the bigotry stopped, but it just took on different forms. In my teen years, there was another group of kids, and another Walter.

One time, after a group serenade of “Cry, Ay-rab, cry,” Michael Cole walked up to me. I had cried per the group’s request, and the satisfied mob dissipated, except for Michael. He lingered and walked down to the corner grocery store with me where he bought me a green squirt gun. Don’t ask me why. It was his way of apologizing, I guess.

I noticed that, as opposed to Walter, Michael didn’t dare stand up to the others. He could only speak his mind when they were gone, so they wouldn’t turn on him, too. Most members of the group were actually my “friends,” and like Michael, several privately apologized for the name-calling: “You know I didn’t mean it, Isa.” Then a couple of weeks would go by, and there was Michael Cole and the rest calling me “Ay-rab” again. It was as if the mob had a mind of its own. It taught me something about herd mentality.

Only a fool would think the majority of Arabs are terrorists or megalomaniacs. Arabs, like all people, come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. I have hundreds of Palestinian friends and relatives and I’ve yet to meet a terrorist, although I have come across a jerk or two. But if you want to hold on to hate, you can’t bother to look at truth. You have to base your vitriol on some rumor spread by a bigot with an agenda. If you bother to check things out for yourself, you are liable to prove those rumors false. So the rumormonger depends on ignorance to do his damage. There is no substitute for finding out for oneself.

I do my best to make my own decisions, even when everyone I know disagrees with me. I don’t just follow the herd blindly. Believe me, it’s easier said than done. But it was this lesson—one of the most important in my life—that led me to Scientology.

Hollywood sign

I was studying acting in San Francisco and I decided to make the big move to Hollywood to study with a well-known teacher. That’s when my then acting coach warned me, “Be careful, he’s a Scientologist.” “What the heck does that mean?” I thought to myself. Obviously, he was implying something nefarious. Imagine if he said, “Be careful, he’s a Jew,” or “Be careful, he’s a Christian.”

Fortunately, my distaste for prejudice kept me from taking his “warning” seriously. I enrolled in the class and found the teacher to be brilliant, with an astonishing wisdom about life. I was fascinated, to say the least. I suspected he might have gotten some of his life philosophy from Scientology, so I went over to the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre and enrolled in a communication course. I was always interested in communication and found it a missing element in education. The course was eye-opening. I realized Scientology was a scientific approach to spirituality with tools that immediately improved my life. That day started an extraordinary journey of self-discovery. Had I listened to that “warning” I would have deprived myself of the most profound spiritual adventure I’ve ever experienced. One that continues to this day.

The saying goes that love is blind. Hate must be deaf, dumb and blind.

But I never forgot Walter. It takes courage to stand up to the mob. Wherever you are, Walter, thank you.

Isa Totah
Isa Totah is an award-winning writer and director working in Los Angeles. His feature film project, “America,” delves into the Arab-American experience and is being produced by Academy Award winner Mark Johnson (The Notebook, Breaking Bad, Rainman).