My 9/11 experience


I rarely think of 9/11. I know that almost every one has been affected by this day in one way or another. It was 10 years ago and yet it feels like yesterday. I had to remember that day against my will the other day, long before the actual date came, while teaching a grammar lesson. Yes, this day creeps up in unexpected places, unexpected times.  

The lesson that week was the “past progressive,” a tense that puts emphasis on the course of an action in the past. The textbook was talking about the Challenger explosion in 1986. Interviews are listed asking people as to what they were doing when the shuttle went down. It was obvious that the textbook, although in a new edition, was printed way before the “Challenger incidence” of our time, 9/11. All exercises included memorable events such as the J.F.K. assassination and natural disasters. I had my students revisit what they were doing on a particular day that changed the course of their lives or the lives of others. They remembered incidents when a civil war broke out in their country, they remembered earthquakes and tsunamis, and every single one of them knew exactly what they were doing. Ask me what I had for dinner yesterday and I wouldn’t remember. Ask me what I was doing yesterday on a specific time, I wouldn’t remember. But I do know where I was exactly 10 years ago.

It seems that extreme emotions under extreme conditions are perfectly recorded in our memory. Emotions such as anger, fear, grief, hatred, revenge and emptiness in combination with visual clips are stored right next to each other.  My students asked me what I was doing when a disaster happened. Since I have not personally experienced natural disasters or the outbreak of a war, I immediately thought of 9/11 even though I was thousands of miles away.

My father and I were on a vacation in Germany and we had to leave to Syria the following day, having bought our plane tickets weeks before. On 9/11, we were driving our car and listening to the radio when a “mysterious plane accident in NY” was announced; the radio host was talking about “some smoke”,  “fire”,  and people in fear. We thought, as most people did, of a terrible accident. When we turned on the TV, I recall my father saying: “Whoa, that’s more terrible looking than they described on the radio! That’s a lot of smoke.”

When the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, I remember exactly how I felt. I knew it was an attack, I knew there would be war, and I knew those who did it would call it Jihad. It felt as if a mini airplane poked my stomach, causing me pain for the whole week. We arrived the following day on Sept. 12, at the airport in Frankfurt, and it was a mess. Flights had been cancelled or delayed, people were standing in endlessly long lines, there were police with dogs everywhere, and for the first time, security guards with heavy guns. The looks we got from people were easy to understand: “Look what you have done!” “Are those terrorists?” and “Go to hell.”

I was relieved to go to another country, but thought of those who lost their lives and of those Muslims who lived in the New York area who wouldn’t leave their homes for weeks. I asked myself what the world was coming to and how life would be for us. Having arrived in Syria, I was even more shocked by the reaction of close friends and family members: Yes, the lives lost were innocent, but America “deserved” it!” They claimed that we were at war and regarded it as “Jihad”, a payback to America’s military interventions and constant support of Israel, a reminder to Americans that people can defend themselves and a revenge act to cause pain to those who caused pain to others.

I knew inside of me that the US had “screwed up” in the past, I knew that Americans didn’t know how it felt to be a victim, to be bombarded, and that they had no idea that they had enemies all over the world. But I also knew that some Muslims screwed up, too. Nobody in Syria was able to recognize that at the time. Minds were too blind to see, souls too proud. All I heard was “revenge.” I felt betrayed, misunderstood, and even disgusted. It took a while before people in the Middle East started to realize that something was wrong. Many were affected by the images of the people who jumped out of the burning buildings, by some Muslim scholars who clearly said that this act was “un-Islamic” and an act of terror, or by simply experiencing the events that followed.

People in the Middle East thought, after the attacks, that America was going to think twice before waging war. Nope, it didn’t work that way at all. Within a short time, Afghanistan and Iraq were bombarded, and Israel received their biggest support ever. Muslim charities around the world were shut down, including many who did not have any links to terrorist groups. Innocent Muslims were attacked, harassed, felt their privacy invaded, and their mosques were vandalized overnight. Revenge. Again.

10 years after….has anything changed?  Well, in extreme situations like these, we can always count on decent human beings. Kudos to the mother who lost her son in the Iraqi war but stood up against president G.W. Bush, kudos to those Americans who reached out to help others although they were grieving, and kudos to some of the brave Muslims who didn’t hide in their homes but chose to go through the fires of bigotry and defend what they believe in.

It was neither operation Iraqi Freedom nor Al Qaida who brought sense into the Middle East by starting the “Arab spring.” It was the realization and self-criticism that was long overdue: Our land is a mess because of our government, our own faults, and our own corruption. Those in power have poisoned the minds of people in the Middle East for to believe that the West alone is responsible for our misfortune. I hope this generation of Arabs and Americans will take the fate of their countries into their own hands and expose the wolves in sheep’s clothing who claim they are for democracy but are not.

I am sure every one of the overthrown Arab despots will know exactly what they were doing when their regime collapsed.

Rihab Naheel lives in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She is an M.A. student at St. Cloud State University.