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For family, affirmation has a cost

Sami Al-Arian promised his wife in their early days that their lives might be hard. On Tuesday, it seemed worth it.

By VANESSA GEZARI
Published December 7, 2005


TAMPA - When the call came Tuesday, Nahla Al-Arian was on her knees. For days she had been asking God for a sign. Now, as her cell phone played its electronic minuet, she seemed to have gotten one.

In the kitchen, her 15-year-old son answered, his voice shaking. He passed the phone to his older brother Abdullah.

"Should we come down?" Abdullah asked the lawyer. "I guess we'll come down."

Nahla kept praying on the dark red rug in her bedroom. "Allah hu-akbar," she whispered. God is great.

She was 13 when she opened the door of her family's apartment in Cairo and saw Sami Al-Arian standing on the doorstep. He had come to visit her older brother Mazen Al-Najjar, his high school classmate.

She married him when she was 18, in a dress her mother sewed. In the beginning, their devotion to Palestine was stronger than their love for each other.

"I wanted someone who cares more than anyone else about the Palestinian cause, about the religion," Nahla said.

During their 40-day engagement, they talked about socialism and the works of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and the struggle against Israeli occupation. Al-Arian told her their lives might be hard. They marked their 26th wedding anniversary this summer in a visiting room at the Orient Road Jail, a pane of glass between them.

They chose this life. After almost three years apart and five months in court, Nahla was on her way to wherever that choice had brought them.

All over the apartment in Temple Terrace, bare feet thudded softly on the carpet, doors opened and closed, someone signed off AOL instant messaging. The hearing was supposed to start in 10 minutes. Nahla ironed a pink and gray scarf and sprayed it with Static Guard. She put on pink lipstick.

In her Toyota, wooden prayer beads dangled from the rearview mirror and a copy of the Koran lay on the shelf above the backseat, its cover bleached by the sun. Abdullah, at the wheel, nudged the speedometer's needle toward 80. Nahla's 23-year-old daughter, Laila, read a prayer that Muslims recite when they are under attack and they want God to take away their hardships and give them victory.

"I don't know why - I feel quiet, I feel optimistic," Nahla said to no one in particular. "Always God's hand is with us."

Sometimes she doesn't just feel like Al-Arian's wife. She feels like his sister, his mother, his defender.

She has a college degree. She wears black L'Oreal eyeliner that doesn't smudge when she cries. She yells at reporters in front of the courthouse.

She likes Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, and the songs she likes best are about strong women: Coal Miner's Daughter, Don't Come Home A Drinkin'."

Long before federal agents arrested her husband on terrorism charges one winter morning in 2003, Nahla felt it coming. She could tell from the newspaper articles, the fallout after Al-Arian's appearance on The O'Reilly Factor in September 2001.

She grew watchful, protective. She went everywhere with him, to the school he started in Tampa, on errands, to the bank.

I will be your bodyguard, she told him once. I will be stuck to you.

She was nervous all the time, but those were some of the best days of their marriage. They grew more intimate. One day she skipped a school field trip to be near him.

"We had lunch together," she said with a sad smile, "and I didn't regret it."

Some days, she wonders if it was worth it. Were they wrong to devote themselves to a cause, and such an unpopular one? Should they have lived more, taken their kids on more trips, more picnics?

"So many things we missed," she said recently.

In the courtroom on Tuesday, she and her children held hands. When the judge read the first "not guilty" they cried, and every time he said those words, they squeezed tighter and cried harder.

Ali, the 15-year-old, quietly recited a prayer for protection that his father had taught him once when he saw a snake in the garden. His father said that as long as he was saying that prayer, nothing bad would happen.

As Nahla left the courtroom, she thought, after all, that they had chosen well.

"Those are just moments of weakness that human beings all go through," she said after the verdict. "It's just that they feel so useless and lonely, they feel we shouldn't have struggled. But moments like this reaffirm that the path of hardship is the right path. We have to defend justice, or the whole world will be corrupt."

She stopped to talk to one of the marshals.

"So you heard?" she asked him.

"Congratulations," he said. "That's America!"

"And we are Americans, too!" she told him.

Women in headscarves hugged her and called her "babe." A group of boys raised Ali in their arms while someone took a picture with a cell phone. Reporters mobbed Nahla.

"How do you feel about the American justice system?" someone asked.

"I think it has been reaffirmed," she said.

Abdullah stepped up to the microphone.

"We miss him a lot," he said, his voice almost too soft to hear. "We want him to come home."

When the reporters drifted away, they drove to Starbucks. They sat outside and it was cold and their cell phones wouldn't stop ringing. Soon they were on their way to the jail.

[Last modified December 7, 2005, 00:35:05]


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