Transcript of the interview between Abdulrahman Alharbi and TIM Editor-in-Chief Amina Chaudary. Interview was conducted in Boston, MA.
TIM: Abdulrahman [Ali Alharbi] had heard about the marathon from his teacher. He was planning on meeting some friends for lunch and thought that, on his way to lunch, he would first stop at the marathon. He took the subway toward the finish line. He saw runners who had already completed the run sitting there. He was a bit upset with himself for arriving so late but decided to continue walking up along Boylston Street to watch the other runners cross the finish line. After a few minutes, he thought he’d continue to walk ahead. With the finish line now behind him, he kept on walking. He was there for about 10 minutes.
Abdulrahman Alharbi: Everything was normal. After I passed the finish line I heard an explosion or something. I looked behind me and I saw smoke. I thought that it was … fireworks, so I just wanted to continue walking. Then suddenly in just 6 seconds, the second explosion just, I don’t know if it was in front of me or behind me. And it threw me to the middle of the road. So I was really shocked for what happened to me.
I realized that my legs were a little bit hurt because all my jeans were [bloody]…I was bleeding a little bit in my legs but all my back was all [bloody] not because of my body but because of other people’s body.
TIM: There were people around you who were bleeding?
TIM: What did you see when you were on the ground?
AA: I couldn’t see anything but I remember I saw, after the explosion, I saw a little part of, I don’t know if it was a little part of a body or a dog in front of me, but I don’t remember because it was really smoky around me.
I [was] really scared because I heard the first bomb, then the second bomb hurt me, then, I was really scared because there might be another one. Then, I just was walking and the people were crying “What happened, what happened?” I told them “I don’t know there was an explosion or something.”
TIM: In one account that I read it said that somebody saw you running and then they tackled you.
AA: No, no one arrested me, no one tackled me, no. All the people were trying to escape from what happened because they realized that there was something dangerous in the finish line.
TIM: Did you notice anyone around you look at you in a particular way, or skeptically, because that’s also one of the stories that was reported.
AA: No. I talked to two police officers. The first one told me, while he was walking, “Go down [the] street, go down [the] street! You’re gonna find [an] ambulance there.” Then, one of the runners realized that I am injured. He just tried to help me to walk to the police officer, and I told him “Talk to the police officer. He is going to help us. Where should I go.”He told me “Okay, okay, calm down. Everything is going to be fine, everything is going to be fine.” He told the ambulance he is injured from what happened.
Few police man officers came with me from the event to the hospital.
TIM: So, two police officers came in the ambulance with you?
TIM: Three came in the ambulance with you, and then all of the EMTs, the people who were helping you medically.
AA: Yeah. They were really scared of me. I am injured, I don’t have anything and they asked me “What you have in your hand!” I told them “Nothing, it’s just a napkin!” and I throw it to them and they were like “ahh!”
They asked me couple of questions then I asked them “What happened?” They told me “We don’t know, but if you can tell us what happened?”
I had no idea for what happened and what they were thinking about me. And I was just looking to my body and I was really shocked and trying to stop the bleeding in my nose.
TIM narrative: Abdulrahman was transported, like many of the other victims that day to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was first taken in to the emergency room for immediate triage, and then moved upstairs to another room.
AA: All the police officers and the FBI and other guys, which I don’t know where they are from, and all the nurses and the doctors were staring at me.
TIM: When you arrived?
AA: Yeah, I was looking to them like is it because of the color of my skin or is it because of the name of my country? They were staring at me without anything, like they just guessing.
While the nurses stop my bleeding, two minutes after I arrived at the hospital, after two minutes, the FBI came and other people, I don’t know who are they, but I realized that there are a lot. They were like in the line asking me “Where are you from?” “What’s your address?” “Where are you from?” “What’s your name?” “What’s your address?” I gave it to him. [But I was thinking], “Just wait a second they are helping me, the nurses, so just wait, I am injured.” So, they should have wait a little bit because I don’t know if I broke one of my bones. It was really scary. They were writing everything. I was trying to help them. I gave them everything I can.
TIM: What else did they ask you for?
AA: They were asking me about my Facebook account.
TIM: You gave them your password for your Facebook account?
TIM: And they took it?
AA: They took everything.
TIM: So there are 20 of them in your hospital room, all around your bed.
AA: All around the bed and in front of, they just was treating me like I did all these stuff.
I just said I should give my life to them.
TIM: And they stayed how long in your hospital room, the whole day and the whole night?
AA: The whole night and the whole day even if I was sleeping, they were just in front of me.
TIM: 20 of them?
AA: Yeah. In the beginning there were a lot, but after four hours, only the FBI and the SWAT. It was really scary.
TIM: At any point on Monday did they ask you if you have a lawyer?
AA: On the second day, before they left the hospital, they [asked] me: “Do you have a lawyer?” I told them I don’t have, no, because I couldn’t talk to any one, even my friends or my family. And my father just knew about me from Twitter.
TIM: Your father found out about you from Twitter? How?
AA: They got it from the news, the American news, and they translated it to my language.
TIM: That just said that there is a Saudi national…
AA: That there is a Saudi national and his name is Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi.
My friends asked the FBI, “What about our friend [Abdulrahman], we need to talk to him,” [and] they asked them if I am really injured badly. They [the FBI] said, “Your friend [is] just injured.” And they said, “Can we call him?” They said “No.” “Where is he?” “We cannot tell you where he is.” So, they really scared them. They thought that I am really injured.
After 15 hours, or at 12 o’clock on Monday,
AA: Yup, I realized that they knew that I am not a suspect. I saw the media because I had a T.V. in my room. I saw that they wrote that: “21 [-year-old] Saudi national questioned.” I was asking myself and looking to the FBI and looking to the nurses. “Look! Why? Ok, I don’t blame you, about your questions, I don’t blame you. You are protecting your country but why did you show to the media that I am a suspect?” They [the media] said, Saudi man, suspect. Why? Did I do anything wrong? Do you have any evidence? Because as I heard from the media, that I was trying to escape. I wasn’t. And they said that the police officer arrested me because I was behaving suspiciously. No. All these lies. I don’t know from where did they get all these lies. But, I was really shocked and I saw all the nurses and the FBI were watching the T.V. and they just watched the T.V. And I realized that all the media in my apartment. They showed that and they did an interview with my roommate. And I was asking them: “You told me you were going to just search my apartment and I gave them the permission!” I still don’t blame them, to this moment. But what I’m going to do after I [am] discharged from the hospital? It was a really scary moment. I looked to them they didn’t say anything.
TIM: Nobody said to you that, “We didn’t tell them, we don’t know how they got this information”?
AA: They told me, “don’t look [at] the media.”
TIM narrative: Sometime around midnight or after, they probably determined that he was innocent but it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that the media reported that he was just a witness. At the time that we interviewed him, he was still residing in a hotel room and had not received his stuff back from the FBI.
AA: If my embassy didn’t help me out to rent a hotel, to eat, and all this stuff, I would be homeless or something. They took my wallet when I was in the hospital, so they took my credit card and everything I have. Everything. My laptop my iPad, my, even my camera. I couldn’t take my exams because I didn’t have any I.D.
TIM narrative: But the most lingering problem that Abdulrahman faces is how he’s reported in the media. This is perhaps the moment in our interview when he became the most emotional. He said they sensationalized so many things about him and his life, and created false stories about his photos on his Facebook posts. This is an example he shares.
AA: I got from somewhere, I don’t know from where, the Saudi flag and the American flag together and I wrote down in my language, “Thank God, I arrived [in] the U.S. after [a] long trip.” They [the media] translated that I said, “God is coming to the U.S.”
TIM narrative: There were other stories that were made up about his photos. But humor aside, Abdulrahman remained quite shaken up when thinking about this.
AA: They are still reporting about me that I am [a] suspect, I am trying to disappear from the people. Many, many lies. I can’t imagine.
TIM: Some people still are saying that you are behind the bombings, you think.
AA: Yeah. There are a lot. I lost my privacy.
I have been trying to just forget it and all these stuff. … But I couldn’t forget, I am double injured from the explosion then from the media. So, it’s not easy to forget. Because you just going to write my name and search about [me], you are going to think I am from Al-Qaeda and, like terrible things.
TIM: What do you think when people are saying he has connections to Al-Qaeda? What do you say to that?
AA: I’m just wondering from where, from where did they get all these lies? From where? But some of them said, “From our own sources.” Say it. “From our own documents.” Show it. Til this moment, show it. I need it, I hope to meet one of them just to show me where is your document that I am a suspect, that I am a terrorist.
I read a lot of articles that talked about me very badly, and all the comments they said, “Get out from our country, you are a terrorist.” Actually it’s not easy to study at the U.S. You [have to first] get good grades in my high school and the other exams. So almost all of them really want to study at this country. It’s an amazing country. But I don’t know why they thought that Saudian are the terrorists. We really hate the terrorist people. They don’t compare between old man or a boy or 8 years old or 20 years old. They don’t care they just killed everyone. Why they thought that we are thinking with the terrorist. We really hate them. They are killing everyone. They don’t care. Why? Like what happened at the event [marathon]. Eight years old killed. Because of what? He didn’t do anything. He just one of the children. It’s really crazy. They killed in my country many people. They killed children and innocent lives. They are not Muslims. …
I don’t know if I’m going to continue my studies. I came in to study my bachelor’s, I have full scholarship from my country, I don’t know if I am gonna be safe from other people. Because, I lost my privacy. So that’s why I am really scared. So it’s not [an] easy thing to just forget.
When researching for this interview, I spent time going through the ways in which the media reported about him, what was said, how was it said.
As we, in America send out messages that we are Boston Strong, we are healing as a country, we will overcome, we will persevere, I wonder, have we forgotten Abdulrahman and if we failed to realize that he, too, needs time to heal. And perhaps he may never find that since somehow the media exposed everything about him. In certain cases, suspects’ names are never released in case they turn out to be innocent. There is a reason behind that; if the name is released, the damage is irrevocable. Given the sensitivities towards acts of random violence like terrorism, what could be more damaging to someone than being labeled a terrorist?
If a person has nothing to do with the bombings, then he is as much a victim as anyone else, so why is he twice victimized? And in reference to the hateful write-ups that are still being circulated about him, I wonder, have some of us in America allowed hate to cloud our judgment? Why are we forgetting the American values of love, compassion, loving thy neighbor? When the founding fathers built this country they embraced, embraced all and recognized that we can all play a part in making this country great. That we have all types of professions, of diverse backgrounds and religions including Arabs, and South Asians, and African Americans, and Muslims, who help make America great. In a world in which we are threatened at losing our status as the best country in the world, we should honor and embrace those who make this their home. Make this their country. Work hard and make America great.
Perhaps this should make us question more about what we hear and what we read, about the unidentified “sources” that people claim. When many in the rest of the world suffer from lack of freedom of press, have we taken this concept of freedom of press in the wrong direction? Have we forgotten to do due diligence in our reporting? Are we acting as automatons taking for granted the ways in which the news can go viral, but at the same time can destroy someone’s life given the Web’s permanence of information.
At what point do we as a nation decide that the name of a person can be released into the public allowing for the presumption of guilt, practically destroying his ability to function as a normal member of society without a single shred of real evidence? And who should be held accountable for this failure and why is it that we are not holding them accountable? Who decided that giving this man’s information to the media was in any way a fair or just thing to do? What benefit was gained from releasing his name to the public? If there was none, which seems to be the case, why was it released?
The focus of the public’s anger is justifiably towards those who perpetrated this crime. However the ambivalence with which we have treated an individual who was unjustifiably placed in the ire of the public is itself objectionable.
This could have happened to anyone. It could have happened to any of us, and that is a fact that we should all be concerned about.
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