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As tempest roars, she fights for her family

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2002

Nahla Al-Arian is a woman under siege. There's no tear gas, no rubber bullets, no tanks rumbling through the streets. But every night she goes to bed with the same fear.

Nahla Al-Arian is a woman under siege. There's no tear gas, no rubber bullets, no tanks rumbling through the streets. But every night she goes to bed with the same fear.

What if the husband asleep beside her is arrested in the morning? What if they take her husband, the way they have taken her brother?

Her husband is Sami Al-Arian, the USF professor suspected of ties to Palestinian terrorists. Her brother is Mazen Al-Najjar, now in solitary confinement in a federal prison on the basis of evidence, presumably about terrorism, that no one beyond the government has seen.

When Nahla awakens, her inability to do much that might help the men hits her again, as it does every day. Secret evidence. Endless, faceless grand juries. Charges splashed across newspaper pages. She has no chance, she believes, in the face of Israel's immense influence in America. "I feel paralyzed," she said.

And yet she fights.

The battle to clear Sami and Mazen has taken over her life. She is 41 years old, the mother of five and also a religion teacher at Tampa's Islamic Academy. In the spaces between, she speaks about her husband and Mazen to anyone who inquires: Her husband is innocent. Her brother is innocent. She answers e-mails. She takes phone calls. Why, she wonders, doesn't the government clear them, after these last seven years of digging through every cranny of their lives?

Nahla Al-Arian has had her home searched. She has grown accustomed to death threats. She suspects her phones have been tapped, that even her trash has been inspected. Regularly, she has to reassure one of her children that their father will be okay.

Seven years of this pressure, suspicion and uncertainty would break the spirit of some people. It has not broken her. She speaks in an almost hushed fashion, but the longer she talks, the stronger she seems.

She is dressed in the traditional Muslim way, covered, except for her face, from head to toe. Her skin is unflawed and creamy, her brown eyes enormous. She talks like an old soul.

"Every night, I pray to God. I put my suffering in the context of the suffering of the Palestinian people. I feel guilty. I'm not suffering enough. They have nothing."

About a decade ago, Nahla Al-Arian put her guilt to practical use. Over the course of a few years, she raised $120,000 to send to Palestinian orphans and for the construction of a clinic for pregnant Palestinian women. She stopped, she said, when federal investigators began looking at her husband.

The government is said to be looking at whether her husband used committees he created as fronts to raise money to finance terrorism. There is no indication whether the government also looked at the group Nahla Al-Arian formed, Muslim Women Society, to collect that money for children.

Many people reading this are likely inclined to tell Nahla Al-Arian to go back where she came from. The suggestion is impractical, to say the least. Like just about everybody around her, Nahla Al-Arian is an American citizen.

She looks at America in contradictory ways. She speaks as if the angry, anti-Arab sentiment that is loose upon the land doesn't exist. Anericans are wonderful people, she said. They aren't ugly when she is out with her easily recognized husband. They don't say bad things. Just the opposite, on occasion. She has watched some Americans shake her husband's hand and wish him good luck.

"My faith in America cannot be stopped."

But at the same time, she said, she was more at ease living, as she once did, in the Middle East, in unstable countries, with governments that didn't want Palestinians. Nahla was never afraid then. But she is afraid now.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813)-226-3402.

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