American Girls

Crossing between American and Egyptian cultures, he Said girls made one deadly misstep: They fell in love

After 9/11, Ahmed begged his two oldest daughters not to wear head scarves to school, fearing anti-Arabic taunts or worse. "But they wanted to," he says. "They said this is America. We are supposed to be free to choose our own religion and practice it."

Even so, after the attacks Ahmed felt that people who had known him for years "looked at things differently." He went up and down his street to "reacquaint" himself with his neighbors.

An animated man with a thick mustache, Ahmed has answered his front door on the way to the gym. His Oklahoma-born wife arrives and asks for the keys to their new SUV for a daughter's soccer practice. He hands them over and keeps talking, bouncing a bit on the balls of his feet.

The brothers moved to America to start a new life after being left with nothing by their father, Ahmed says. He worked as a math tutor at a small East Texas college, where he met his wife.

"Her family was against me at first," Ahmed says, but he won their acceptance.

"The American dream is coming here, getting an education and raising your family up," Ahmed says. At age 40, he walked across a stage to accept his degree in engineering. He and his wife both have professional-level jobs.

But Yaser struggled. "There were times he made less than $20,000 [per year]," Ahmed says.

The Said family was against Yaser's marriage to Tissie from the beginning, Ahmed says. He describes the Owens family as "lower class, uneducated, racist," always trying to sneak the children into Christian church.

Yaser was "the artist" of the Said family, a quiet man who could write eloquently in Arabic and studied sculpture at a junior college.

"He's straightforward, simple," Ahmed says.

Yaser rarely attended the mosque. The most important thing in his life was his family.

"He worshipped the girls," Ahmed says. He calls his nieces Amina and Sarah the family's "stars"—smart, athletic and beautiful.

The family had lined up on different sides: Yaser and Islam versus Amina and Sarah, with Tissie in the middle. The girls told their friends that their brother was weird, a loser who parroted his father's negative attitudes about America and women.

Ahmed says Yaser cooked the family's meals and insisted that the family eat together. Late at night, after taxi calls waned, Yaser would wake the girls and give them "juices and vitamin water" to keep them healthy. He bought the girls a computer and cell phones, sent them to private Islamic school and let them use his bank card at the mall.

"The kids are free to do what they want as long as they stay on track," Ahmed says. "He didn't want the girls turning out like the Owens family, dropping out, getting pregnant and doing drugs."

But were they really free to do what they wanted? Consider Amina's hysterical phone call to her mother from Egypt in 2005, where the children traveled with their father. "He wants me to marry an Egyptian man in his 40s," a tearful Amina said. "I don't know him. I never want to come to Egypt again."

When the call came, Tissie, who rarely saw her extended family, was attending a family funeral. She told family members what 16-year-old Amina said and giggled. She confided to Moggio that when the girls married, they would receive "a lot of money." The groom's family had to give the mahr. Then the groom must give his bride a significant piece of jewelry, the shabka. The jewelry, the bride's personal wealth, must be gold. (Ahmed says that on this trip, a handsome young man had asked for Amina's hand in marriage, but Yaser rejected the request because Amina was too young. As with his own daughters, Ahmed says, Amina would never be required to marry a man she did not approve.)

But first, Islam had to marry.

At the same time Yaser had to ramp up the spending, he was finding it harder to lease cabs. Jack Beasley, manager at Yellow/Jet Cab, says that Yaser had been fired in August 2003. The company banned Yaser from future leasing because customers complained that he was "crazy," Beasley says. "Other cab companies would not hire him because nobody wanted to work with him anymore."

King Cab owner Massoud Nasseri was an exception, and he continued to provide Yaser work. Nasseri, who came to the United States in the 1970s from Iran, says Yaser worked long hours, but would not leave the house unless Islam was there to make sure the girls stayed home at night. He worked the graveyard shift six or seven days a week. Never drew complaints. Never got scared.

"He wasn't a sissy man," Nasseri says. "He worked night clubs, and he knew the danger of driving at night. He would work places others wouldn't work."

And, according to Tissie, he always carried a gun.

————

Honor killings of women persist in the Arab world and parts of India, despite efforts by activists to raise the penalties, which are often nominal, Al-Huwaidar says. Shame can taint a family and its financial prospects for generations.

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