I was 21 when 9/11 happened, and on this anniversary my life is literally sliced into perfect symmetry -- I lived half before this day, and half my life afterward. In terms of pivotal moments, I can always pinpoint this day as a clear change in trajectory in my life. I was already on the path to becoming a teacher, a writer, an anti-racist thinker, an activist -- but this day propelled me into a passion for always learning more - about America's role in the world, about imperialism, capitalism and global power, about nationalism and its role in dividing and conquering people who have more in common than different from one another, across the world.
Many people assume that I started learning about Islam when I married my husband, but it was in 2001 that I responded to the attacks in New York by wanting to learn more, wanting to understand why when classmates or family members said "they hate our way of life/our freedoms", who is the "they" and who is "us". I wanted/ to understand a faith vilified by American media before but especially after 9/11. I never knew then that I would be engaged in a mosque, be married to a Muslim man and raising 3 Muslim kids; so it wasn’t personal then, the way that it is now, 21 years later. I simply wanted to learn more so that I could teach more, about love and compassion, common humanity, as well as the geopolitical reasons why the U.S. is so hated across the world.
I still don’t always know what to do with my hands, often I write first, try to reflect and make a plan for action and then I try to act, to move, to help, to push toward justice. One of the hardest parts of the days after 9/11 is that everyone wanted to help, but we couldn’t find ways to be helpful, and we felt helpless, and hopeless. We tried donating blood, the lines were 7 hours long on the first day, but they didn’t pull people out alive, and ended up not needing extra blood like they anticipated, which was a terribly grim reality. We wanted to go downtown to volunteer somewhere, but the air was toxic and they wouldn’t let anyone unauthorized below Houston St. We flocked out to the streets, to Union Square Park, Washington Square, any public space we could find, to see what we could do, to organize, to connect, to write messages to loved ones, to mourn, to hope, to try and figure out how we could act, how we could be useful.
The first night, we took to the streets to chalk messages to our community. It was a tangible action that Louisa, Jennie, Nicole, Emily, Eli and Eleanor came up with that felt important, would be visible, encourage critical thinking about the media we were all consuming and the immediate message of nationalism and unquestioned patriotism that seemed to be all around us. In the face of the unknown in the morning, with tanks rolling down University Place outside my bedroom window, it felt like something we could control. We received a lot of supportive cheers and “right ons” and some haters, but it felt important and right. After that night, we turned to focus on anti-war protests, and more locally, a teach-in at our college about Islam, using the opportunity to organize on campus about the anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment that was already spreading like wildfire around the city, and the country. A woman in Hijab attacked in a grocery store parking lot in Queens. Sikh men mistaken for Muslim harassed on the train. The polarizing “us” (read: white, Christian, straight, male = “American” 🙄) vs. “them” (read: non-white or racially ambiguous, non-Christian, queer, female/marginalized genders = “unAmerican”) in a terrifying throwback to McCarthyism of the 1950s.
One detail I’ve failed to write about very often in 20 years is the missing posters. They still haunt my dreams to this day. Photos of loved ones, wedding photos, people with their children and their families, on vacations, professional headshots from work, what floor of the towers they worked on (99th floor, 102nd floor, 86th floor) and how to get in contact with their loved ones if they were found. Every available surface across the city was plastered with missing posters, starting Tuesday afternoon and multiplying throughout the week like viral . I would turn a corner and see a wall of scaffolding on a building covered in them, and immediately begin crying. I would stop and read them, look into their faces, trying to hold space for each of them, since I didn’t have anywhere to go or be that first week while classes were canceled. Each encounter a private memorial service, because I knew, as many of their families knew when creating them, that they were probably not alive. But there were miracles of escape and folks delayed on the trains who never made it to work that day, and we heard these stories as we escaped to the bars for a sense of normalcy, comfort and release from the stresses around us.
All this time later, I am thinking about the ways that we took action, the ways that we held space for each other to process and grieve, and the ways that we forged new community in the face of tragedy. It is true that New Yorkers felt connected in a clear way, but we were not united under patriotism, as is often the narrative: rather many of us were united under the banner of being anti-war and NOT retaliating, though of course, this event led to a 20 year war beginning in Afghanistan and shifting to Iraq, where in response to the loss of nearly 3,000 lives, our military took over one million lives. We cannot call out terrorism, then perpetuate it with millions of times of the military power, and still call ourselves the Land of the Free. We cannot limit citizens’ freedoms with the Patriot Act, and insist that we are still the model of equality and human rights. Yet, this is America, and we are exactly this hypocrisy, as Frederick Douglass told us.
But we MUST face history to remember, we must look clearly at the past in order to make change in the present and NOT repeat what has been told to us as the truth. We must critically question the media, create our own media, share our stories, write our own histories, so that history is not only told from the winner’s perspective (Orwell, 1942), or tainted with red-white-and-blue colored glasses.