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Who Knew?

A Burbank liquor store owner tries to put his life back together as the FBI grills his former employee.

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Walid Beitouni's convenience store, 7 Days Liquor, sits in a strip mall that also contains a small travel agency, a bridal shop, a dry cleaners, and a Polish-Lithuanian restaurant. The nondescript neighborhood around 87th and Oak Park in south suburban Burbank is dominated by shopping centers with huge parking lots, houses with flags in the windows, and a few two-story apartment buildings. You can see jets heading into Midway just a few miles north.

The store, which has been open for only about a month and a half, has a small American flag mounted in the window near its entrance. Indoors, a larger flag hangs in the back. It's Saturday evening and a few young men come in to buy beer, an older guy drops in for cigarettes, and several boys of ten or eleven show up to purchase soda pop. A woman in her 20s works the cash register while Beitouni busies himself with other tasks.

Like so many others in recent weeks, Beitouni is struggling to get his life back to normal. But in his case, it's a bigger job than most. On September 19, his store was the scene of the arrest of Nabil al Marabh, alleged associate of the hijackers who smashed into the World Trade Center on September 11. Before the FBI arrested al Marabh as a possible material witness to the terrorist conspiracy, he was wanted for violating the terms of his probation after being convicted in December 2000 for stabbing a former roommate in Boston. The two reportedly argued over al Marabh's parrot, and the roommate subsequently told his attorney al Marabh had bragged about fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al Marabh is also alleged to have tried to cross illegally into the United States from Canada in June with a phony passport. Investigators have pieced together a timeline of his suspected movements that includes periods in Afghanistan, Canada, and at least four states, as well as several attempts to obtain duplicate driver's licenses--including one that would have allowed him to drive vehicles containing hazardous materials. According to the Toronto Star, he allegedly sent $15,000 to three men suspected of helping to plan the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In early September Beitouni hired him to work in his store. He says he had no clue about al Marabh's past.

Beitouni, a Palestinian immigrant in his mid-30s, is a bit gruff but amiable. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he came to Chicago in 1992, not only to flee the political unrest in Israel and join his father and other relatives who were already here, but also to further a budding career as a middleweight boxer. Back in Israel he had won a few fights but found few opportunities--"no future, no money, nothing." Upon arriving in Chicago, he helped his brother, who owned a liquor store at 69th and Damen. Working in the liquor store gave Beitouni little time to train, so his career in the ring stalled following a few Golden Gloves amateur bouts.

After working for his brother for "at least three years," Beitouni and another brother bought a store at 61st and Racine, where he worked until "'98 or '97." After that, he bought an 18-wheeler and went trucking all over the United States, first as an independent and then for American Road Line, based in Elk Grove Village. "I had some fun," he says. "I had my wife with me, you know?"

Earlier this year, Beitouni bought a former 7-Eleven and spent the summer remodeling it. As he prepared to open for business, he became concerned about security, having heard that the store had already been robbed a few times, including one 1992 incident in which a clerk was murdered in the walk-in cooler. Beitouni owned a .45, so he decided to keep it under the counter. He also made a deal with a man who offered to install a security camera system in the store.

On the day the man showed up to install the cameras, he brought an assistant whom he introduced as a nephew, al Marabh. When the store opened in August, al Marabh became a regular customer, coming in every day to purchase Parrot-Ice, a slush-machine beverage. Beitouni developed a nodding acquaintance with al Marabh, who also struck up conversations with one of his employees.

"I had a worker here when we opened the store, and he met him through the store," says Beitouni. "One day they went out in the car. Because this guy Nabil was looking for an apartment, and both of them needed roommates, they went to look for apartments for rent. Probably just once they went. And the guy came back, and I said, 'What happened?' And he said, 'Man, I don't wanna go with this guy anymore. There's something weird about him.'"

Another day in the store, al Marabh said he wanted to become a truck driver and asked Beitouni what was required. Beitouni explained that he needed a clean motor vehicle record and some experience with trucks. He sent al Marabh to a company he once worked for in Summit called Container Express, Inc. "He went there to give his application, but I guess his MVR wasn't there."

Meanwhile, Beitouni's clerk had quit to go to college, leaving him alone in the store at night. Taking note of the situation, al Marabh hit Beitouni up for the job. "I needed a worker, he came at the right time. I told him, 'This is a new store, I can't pay you no money right now.' He said, 'Well, I'll help you out until you find somebody else.' I didn't even pay him. I gave him, like, some little money to wash his clothes."

Beitouni says he spent a week training al Marabh, teaching him the names and prices of the various liquors and beers and how to work the cash register. "He's not an intelligent guy," says Beitouni. "He wasn't catching anything. I mean, he's gotta ask you like ten, twenty times about the same thing." The following week, al Marabh asked Beitouni how much he was going to get paid. "I said, 'This is a new place, I'm not making no money myself. I'm gonna pay you minimum wage.'"

He tried to be friendly to his new employee. "I talked about sports with him, and he said, 'Oh, when you get a chance, let's go jog, let's do something.' And I said, 'Maybe.' Because I have a punching bag in my house, and I work out every morning, and I was thinking of bringing him to my house. And I'm glad I never did that. Holy shit! I'm glad they took him away before he got too close to me, you know?"

Beitouni says al Marabh never talked about his life or his past. "He didn't ever talk about nothing. The only things he said was his mother was Palestinian and his father was Syrian. Or the opposite way, I can't remember." After al Marabh was arrested, news reports said he was originally from Kuwait. "Yeah, that's what I hear in the paper," says Beitouni. "He never told me that. We didn't talk about things like that, because when you're working there's no time to sit down and talk. I didn't think he was new in this country, like they say in the paper. He was wanted here, he was wanted there."

Beitouni's view of al Marabh fits the impression of many others who crossed his path. Even al Marabh's attorney in Boston described his client as "an odd duck."

"This guy was so quiet, and so horny," Beitouni says. "I mean, every girl who came in the store, he was looking at her ass, saying, 'Oh, I wish I could have that!' When people act like that, that's crazy. And you know, I ignored it. Maybe he didn't have sex probably in a year. He never told me he had a girlfriend or nothing.

"There was a Mexican lady, she came to the store by herself to ask for a hairbrush to buy. I don't have no hairbrush, so he told her, 'Oh, I got two in my car, if you want.' So the lady got real mad and told her husband, and the husband came back the second day and told me, 'Please tell your worker to behave.'" Beitouni says he immediately chewed out al Marabh. "I told him, 'You can't do that in a business, you know?'"

On the morning of September 11, Beitouni, who works late and normally sleeps late in the mornings, was awakened by his wife to see the incredible events in New York and Washington unfold on television. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "Those people do all those stupid things, they mess it up for us here! It's not a human being that can do that shit. We're all human beings, come from one God. You can't treat people like this."

That night, he says, there were disturbances in the neighborhood around his store. "Cops were all over the place. People was going with the flags and hitting people in the cars, right in front of here, in the street. And they come in the store, happy, and they talk to me. And they say, 'OK, we'll get drunk now, and we go do our thing.' They was taking it as fun! And I told them, 'You know, guys, you should feel with other people, not just take advantage of the situation to go have fun. People got killed, you know?'"

Beitouni remembers that al Marabh commented on the attacks that same evening. "He said, 'It couldn't be a Muslim who did that, because Muslims don't do that.'" He says al Marabh said it without anger.

Eight days later, the two men were together in the store, and al Marabh once again brought up the subject of trucking. He asked to use a fax machine that Beitouni keeps in the store, saying he wanted to have his motor vehicle record sent to him from Michigan. Al Marabh got his faxes at around two in the afternoon. Later that evening his uncle showed up, and al Marabh asked Beitouni to watch the cash register so they could go outside for a private conversation. Ten minutes later he returned, and the store got busy.

When things quieted down, al Marabh called Beitouni over. "He says, 'I want to tell you something. I want to be honest with you, because I don't want you to get involved with the problem.' I said, 'What's the problem?' He said, 'I'm wanted by the FBI.' I said, 'Are you fucking joking with me?' He said, 'I'm gonna call the FBI office early in the morning and see what they want from me.' I said, 'You better call them now, and you gotta leave, man. I got a family, I don't need to get involved.' And I didn't even ask what the problem was, because when he said 'FBI,' what I had in my head is that maybe he's illegal in this country."

Beitouni fired al Marabh on the spot and went to his office in the back of the store to cut him a paycheck. Al Marabh prepared to leave. The store was empty, and it was a little after 11 PM.

Suddenly six FBI agents burst in. "Right away the people was all over the place," says Beitouni. "They said, 'Nobody move, this is the FBI!' Their guns was out, and I put my hands up. The first agent who got in, he was talking on a two-way radio, and he said, 'OK, we got the suspect.' And they was pointing the guns at him. I'm trying to find out what's going on, you know? And the FBI agent told me, 'You don't want to know about this case. You're not gonna see this guy for a long time.'"

Beitouni says he found it hard to believe that such an unassuming character could be involved in an international terrorist conspiracy. "This guy, I don't believe he's something like they say in the news. We can't tell, because he's still under investigation or whatever. But I mean, we got a saying in Arabic: 'Always be careful of quiet people.' When the FBI took him I said, 'Man, maybe you're mistaken, because this guy is so fucking dumb.' But you never think, you know? When that problem happens in New York, you don't know it's gonna happen in your fucking place!"

When the agents searched the store, they found Beitouni's .45 under the counter. "I told them right away, 'That's my gun, for my own protection.'" He told the FBI that years earlier he bought the gun from a man who came into the store he and his brother owned at 63rd and Racine. "A normal guy, you know? I just bought the gun from him. I left my business as a store and started the trucking business, and the gun was with me for years in my truck. I never used it, I never did nothing." Beitouni told the police sergeant who'd been waiting outside that he worried about his safety since opening the store. "So I just did the stupid thing: the same gun, I put it here. By accident, I got arrested. They wasn't worried about the gun. The sergeant told me, 'Don't worry, it's gonna be no problem for you, you can go and get bonded out for $100.'"

The Burbank police took Beitouni in, and he was out the same night. When he got home, he checked his wallet and found his ID missing. He returned to the police station the next day to ask for it. The sergeant told him that the officer who had his ID wasn't there, so he should come back the next day. Beitouni returned to the station, and this time, he says, the police kept him there for three hours of questioning.

"I told them, 'I came to pick up my ID. Why are you guys holding me? Am I arrested?'" The cop on duty told him that he just wanted to check some facts and confirm the spellings of people's names. "He started, you know, trying to harass me. He told me it was only gonna take 15 minutes; he let me stay there for three hours with no reason. And then he's asking me, 'Are you legal in this country or not?' And I said, 'Yes, I am legal, I'm married.' I'm trying to cooperate with the guy. If you're gonna make him pissed off, he's gonna be on you all your life. You know how it is. They hold me for three hours and they let me go. They said, 'OK, Mr. Beitouni, you can go, we're sorry we kept you here,' and all this kind of bullshit."

The next day, the police showed up at the store. "I felt like they tried to put something on me because the guy was working in my place. It's not my fault, you know? It could happen to anyone in the United States. They start searching again for stuff, they took me, they hold me like at least for half an hour, and I'm handcuffed and I'm trying to tell the officer, 'Can I know what I'm arrested for?' And nobody wanna tell me. It took like an hour-something, and I said, 'If I'm under investigation or something, I need to call my lawyer.' I need to know what to do, you know? I can't just be like this."

The police took Beitouni back to the station. "They sent the immigration people. I said, 'I don't know what you guys try to do to me, but I'm legal in this country. I'm married, I got two kids, my wife is American.'" After 40 minutes, the police sergeant told Beitouni that his immigration status was in order. "I said, 'OK, can I go now?' He said, 'No, you're not allowed to work here. You don't got that green card.' But my thing is in process, you know? I've been here for eight years. They can't take me away, because I got a wife here and I did everything legitimate with the papers. They can't just take somebody from his family.

"And after like 20 minutes, after all this kind of struggle, then he came the last time. I thought I'm going home. I said, 'That's it? That's enough harassment?' He said, 'No, I found a good one on you--your gun was stolen.' They told me, 'You're gonna be in jail. You're gonna bond out tomorrow.'" He went to court and the judge set bail at $25,000. He paid 10 percent, and his court date was set for October 18.

Beitouni says that between running his store and dealing with the police he was so busy he didn't get a chance to read the newspaper accounts of the arrests until four days after the fact. "I don't have time to read the paper," he says. "I didn't even see myself on the TV." Now he has some time to ruminate on the meaning of his recent experience. He speaks freely, but with visible annoyance. And like other mainstream adherents of Islam, he's quick to denounce the suicidal behavior of the September 11 hijackers as absolutely un-Islamic.

"I'm a Muslim," he says. "I'm sorry to God, I don't pray right now--but I am a Muslim, I believe in Islam. I learned in school that a long time ago, when they had the wars with the Christians and whatever, they used to say to the soldiers: don't kill no old ladies, no kids, no old men. If you do that you're not a Muslim, you're a killer. And these people who go bombing themselves, they've already made a violation for themselves with God, because in our Koran it says you can't kill yourself. That's haram, that's forbidden. God made you, God will take you."

In the past month, Americans have been asking each other: why do these people hate us? "I can't see no reason," says Beitouni. "American people are good people. We're living in this country, we're having no problem, we get treated fairly like any person. If you go to Jerusalem--now there's a problem. But here we always get treated fairly. Why are we gonna be not happy?"

Beitouni recalls his days in Israel, working as a lathe operator in a machine shop. "I worked for a Jewish guy in Tel Aviv. My boss was good people, and I knew him for a long time, ten years. I used to go home to Jerusalem every two weeks to see my family. I had a lot of Jewish friends. Actually all the Arabians in Jerusalem, before all the problems started in 1987 with the Intifada, we used to go out, go to people's houses--you know, friends. In other words, everybody was happy. Nobody was thinking about land! They were thinking about living, about going and having fun! You know, eating, meeting with friends--that's what life's about.

"But after the Intifada started, the Arabians go far from the Jewish. What happened there, I hope it's not gonna happen here. Because here it's a peaceful country. Everybody in the United States, Irish, Mexican--this country is for everybody. So we get along with everybody, and we don't want this to happen against us here. I love my wife, man, I love my kids, I'm working, I'm doing the things I want to do."

Now that the national trauma has affected him in such a personal way, Beitouni is feeling the stress. "I got every night two police cars watching my store," he says. "Customers, they're afraid to come to the store right now. I need to live, you know? It's not my business what happened. I don't wanna get harassment from nobody."

He says that even some of his regular customers seem to be harboring suspicions. "From 20 customers, you find one customer who comes to stare at you. And you can see like he hates you." Could they simply be curious? Beitouni shakes his head. "No, you can tell. Like, a lot of people look in here and say, 'Hey, man, you looked good on the news!' You know? But it's different when a guy comes to stare at you. Like, 'Gimme a pack of cigarettes,' and he's so mean. What did I do, man? And I just ignore it, because I don't want to be having a fight with my own customers." Meanwhile, business is way down, though he doesn't know to what degree the slump is specific to his store. "I can't really know right now, because it's messed up for the whole United States," he says. "The economy go down, people aren't buying, they're not going out and having fun. That's very bad. This week was dead. I hope next week will be better."

Beitouni knows his business will have to overcome its unwanted association with al Marabh. "It's bad publicity, because it's a new store, and I've still got my Grand Opening sign out there," he says. "I treat my customers fairly and I want them to know the truth, that I got nothing to do with this guy. Because a lot of people, they misunderstand. Like I told them, it could have happened to anyone in the United States, and I was the lucky guy. He chose me, man, and now he's fucking up my life. If I catch him, I wanna kill him, because he messed up everything for me. It's a bad time for my business. I'm trying to make my life straight and raise my family. I'm about living, you know?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Associated Press.

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