Saturday, November 15, 2008

9/11...back when it happened

Written: 19th October, 2001

New York City

Everything always looks different from the outside.
It’s amusing, in a perverse kind of way, to see the horror that strikes people’s faces when they discover that I’m Pakistani and am planning to travel there soon. They implore me to reconsider with rejoinders like: “It’s incredibly dangerous! You can’t go there now!” In short, they think I’m insane to leave a dangerous city like New York for an even more dangerous city like Lahore.
Would you agree? Or would you say that it just looks worse on TV, that the thousands of Pakistani protestors we’ve been seeing on American TV are only in certain areas and that life is going on much the same way as usual for relatively sheltered people like you and I?
Such reactions are normal, though. One tends to thinks twice before visiting a headline-making place like Beirut or Kosovo, even though those are likely to be safer destinations than New York is right now. The media, with its harrowing kaleidoscope of imagery, mirrors a sick, cruel world that we are forced to confront in the midst of turmoil at the local and global levels. We are, however, seeing a more fair representation of the victims on various fronts than we did during the Gulf ‘War.’ We hear the agony of family members who have lost loved ones in the Twin Towers, weeping over why they’ve been punished in such a brutal manner. We see destitute, amputated children in the dusty plains of Afghanistan who are barely aware of what’s happening around them, so immune have they become. Judging from what one sees on TV, Musharraf reassuringly comes across as confident and rational. The entire Pakistani population, on the other hand, seems to consist of only angry mustached males in their 20s and 30s, clerics standing on podiums, and young boys in madrassas rocking back and forth as they spout Quranic verses. As for the rest of the population, we really don’t seem to exist.
Here in the US, one is bombarded with headlines in the print and broadcast media that include ‘America United,’ ‘America Under Attack,’ and ‘Why They Hate Us.’ For the most part, the populace has led a blissfully sheltered existence and has only now begun to weave their way into the complex mesh that is US Foreign Affairs. The American public can now easily locate Afghanistan on the map—the US is fast becoming a less isolationist nation. Public taste isn’t quite in harmony with action flicks at the moment, so not as many people are going to the movies, although Directors of films such as ‘The Siege’ and ‘Air Force One’ have been given new respect for their narrative foresight. Shopping malls are desolate and companies are rapidly closing down. Airlines—the ones that still exist—are trying to lure people into buying tickets by offering huge discounts. Americans, including those who are Muslim, are analyzing the underlying meanings of Islam for themselves to see if it can help them understand the complex layers of this catastrophic international battlefield, and to be equipped to answer their children’s questions. Debates continue on television, at the workplace, and bars, and urban legends rule the Internet. The questions are mostly geared towards Islam’s stance on violence, the nature of Taliban rule, who and what extremists are. One certainly questions oneself. How many of us, for instance, really thought of the term Jihad as an inward spiritual struggle rather than what we’ve been brought up to believe?
The first days following September 11th stand out in my mind as being the only time when I witnessed the great NYC machine brought to a standstill. The air was cloudy with ash, smelling putrid of debris and corpses, enough to make you cringe and weep at the same time. Policemen could be (and continue to be) found on every block, outside every place of worship and every notable building. In a city known for its traffic jams, there was no need to wait for a ‘Walk’ sign as there were simply not enough cars on the street. In one fateful morning, the bustling metropolis had transformed into a surrealistic war zone: the Empire State Building, surrounded by bomb-sniffing dogs and special forces, and the site of the occasional U.S. Army Hummer on the street, were among the sights recorded in the Camcorders of the tourists stranded there. Bus shelters and telephone kiosks were covered with ‘Missing’ notices of the vast majority of people lost in the WTC whose bodies hadn’t been recovered in the hopes that they would miraculously turn up. Candlelight vigils had become part of daily routine. The American Red Cross actually received an excessive amount of blood from donors, so eager were people to have something to contribute towards. Union Square on 14th St. became a shrine of hope and memorabilia, a place that people could use as a forum for expression. There were messages of peace, strength and unity written by people from around the world including verses from Holy texts including the Quran. There were low platforms covered with flowers, lit candles and burning incense. Last but not least, there were the requisite camera-crews reporting live nearby with their satellite dishes perched atop their respective vans.
Ever since the first trucks, filled to the brim with the remains of that blighted neighborhood on Fulton St., were being carted away down FDR Drive, New Yorkers began socializing with gusto at events planned for relief funds. Not only was continuing with an active nightlife beneficial for raising funds for disaster victims, but it also served to preserve one’s sanity. We had all seen downtown Manhattan burning from our rooftops, smelt it through our gas masks, felt it in spirit as well as presence, and we needed to block it out for a few hours a week. Most people went back to work almost immediately, except for those who were left without their offices. Time is money in a place such as this, and the widespread prioritization of the philanthropic and spiritual above the material was immediately felt. However, so was the general desire for retribution.
Since the first week, things have gradually begun returning to a more normal level…but not quite. Despite getting back in the groove with one’s routine, one continues to harbor fear at what could happen next, fear that someone near us could be a terrorist, fear that someone around us could think of one of us as being a terrorist. There have been countless false alarms, bomb scares, frightening forwarded emails about the possibility of a future strike, and now there’s the threat of Anthrax. By the time this article is published, there might even be something new to be cautious about. In characteristic New York fashion, there is no general vibe of fear or hysteria despite what newspapers describe or what news anchor may warn about, which has a great deal to do with the tremendous strength displayed by Mayor Rudy ‘the Rock’ Giuiliani. During turbulent times, the need for strong leadership is crucial to keep the masses appeased. Even George W. Bush, previously the butt of every standup comedian’s jokes, has gained the respect of the staunchest of Democrats. American patriotism is at its peak. One can see this being capitalized in t-shirts being sold on the street—some state ‘We Shall Overcome,’ others bear Osama’s features and the caption, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ Stars & Stripes are on stickers, flags, shirts, houses, fashion runways, store displays, office windows and yes, even cabs. Nobody, particularly anyone ‘foreign’-looking, wants his or her patriotism to be questioned.
The evening of the WTC collapse, a woman making a very heated statement about Middle Eastern politics glared repeatedly at my friend and I who were sitting nearby. It was a numbing experience. Around the same time, an elderly woman offered me a throat lozenge while I was coughing, and a policeman bid us Good Evening and advised us to dress more warmly as it was getting chilly. Yet, somehow, that one negative event stood out in my mind more than the two positive ones. I told myself that it was natural for people to feel angry, but couldn’t help feeling fearful at the extent of this anger, which seemed to be coming from every direction.
One outburst came from quite a different direction. Selim, who is Turkish-American and works in the music industry, is adamant about getting his point across. “The clash against Middle Easterners is awful!"
Yes, many of my friends are quite vocal with their thoughts. Elise is Moroccan-American and Jewish, works in the textile industry, and has lived in Israel, which she regards as a second home. She remained reasonably calm when the WTC incident occurred—understandably so since this isn’t the first time she’s witnessed urban terror. What does unsettle her is when she hears derogatory statements or sees incidences of discrimination. Despite my protests, she insisted that she would threaten any person on the street she saw glaring at me. Luckily, no one did, although the other day, she sharply reprimanded a garbage collector whom she heard badmouthing Arabs.
Then there’s Sanam, from Islamabad, who has a very worthy job in the philanthropic field. Sanam works in Public Relations for Sakhi, a non-profit organization that represents and works for South Asian women who are victims of domestic violence. Like other Pakistanis working in New York, she feels the irony of the current situation: “Our parents encourage us to come to the US in pursuit of promising careers. When something like this happens in New York of all places, we lose all sense of security—even more so now that Pakistan is heavily involved. I think we’re realizing that that the concept of security is just one big illusion!” Sakhi for South Asian Women, along with various South Asian, Islamic, Arab-American, and Afghani groups such as The Arab-American Family Support Center, Inc, and Women for Afghan Women, has participated in vigils and peace rallies in the City. As the only young Muslim female in her organization, Sanam’s candid views are to appear in the Spanish edition of Marie Claire magazine, the Arab Press, and the Italy-based European Press. She has also had an in-house interview at MTV Studios on Broadway, which has been particularly good with trying to end discrimination and the cultivation of Muslim stereotypes. Their Anti-Discrimination campaign, previously aimed at promoting Gay Rights, aims towards educating American youth to prevent them from succumbing to Islamophobia. Recent topics of Oprah Winfrey shows include ‘Islam 101,’ a sensitive and informative study of the teachings of Islam which included interviews with Maleeha Lodhi and a previous Pakistani Ambassador the UK, as well as Queen Rania of Jordan. ‘Inside the Taliban,’ was the topic of a show that outlined Taliban rule including the plight of Afghan women, as well as briefly mentioning that the Taliban, successfully defeating the USSR after extensive warfare, owed “much of their success to billions of dollars in weapons supplied by the United States.” Efforts such as these directed towards increasing public awareness are incredibly heartening. There will certainly always be room for sympathy and compassion in a world where most else seems to be ruled by aggression.
Despite all the hoopla—‘Breaking News’ headlines accompanied by pulsating music—in the national media, and public paranoia about where and how ‘the Evil One’ (to put it in the words of Mr. Bush) could possibly strike next, life in NYC is, after all, going on much the same as usual. The streets of Broadway, if not the shows themselves, are as crowded as ever; the ‘6’ train, running up and down the east side, rapidly runs out of seating space for irate commuters; there’s still a line of hopefuls outside Lotus, a lounge in the meatpacking district; Junior Vasquez is spinning vinyl somewhere in the City; and everyone is on a treadmill at the New York Sports Club after a 10-hour workday. OK, so Rockefeller Center is partially closed off, there are 3-hour waiting lines at airports and sports stadiums due to increases in security measures, and there are souvenir shops selling $25 postcards of the old New York City skyline. And, of course, a lot of people now watch CNN more than NBC. But, really, things are on the path of getting back to normal. Only now, the definition of normal has changed.
New York was the city that never sleeps. It still is.

19th, October 2001
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