It might have been yesterday. That is how vividly I remember 9/11. September 11, 2001 changed the world. That oft-repeated statement cannot be overemphasized. The terrorist attacks turned the world on its head. Most people have acclimated themselves to the post-9/11 world. The changes that were made after the attacks are not fully present in the lives of most Americans. The occasional hassle at the airport and the news-bytes of distant wars fought in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan leave little indelible marks on our lives. But I find it particularly hard to escape the legacy of that fateful September morning. It trails me like a ghostly apparition. It always looms somewhere in my consciousness.
We were a few days into our fifth grade on September 11th. But what should have been a regular day felt strangely out of kilter. Our teacher, Ms. Ryan, a stalwart of the daily schedule, had yet to teach us a single lesson. We noticed the hushed whispers and masked looks of worry from our teachers. Rumors ran rampant. We were young then but not entirely out of touch. Cafeteria conversations were rife with speculations. In the gym, someone whispered to me something about the Pentagon attacking the World Trade Center. I myself didn’t know what to think. Something was amiss, but none of us really knew what.
In the weeks and months that followed, the entire atmosphere of the country changed. There was fear in the air. It hung insidiously over our heads like a stubborn, gloomy storm cloud. The fear bred hatred, and hatred latched onto people like the putrid rank of the corner “piss” alley on my block.
My mom asked my dad to stop going to the mosque. “Anyone could be an informant; they will make something up about you just to get you,” she told him, “You’re a nice person, easy going, you’re too easy of a target.” We heard stories of Arabs and Muslims disappearing, then turning up days later at a jail or holding facility awaiting deportation or worse. No one knew who was truly guilty and who was innocent. The net was cast and it could close around anyone.
One day my sister came home in tears after someone had verbally abused her because of her hijab. She was in tears. The kids I played basketball with seemed to forget my name. “Taliban,” snarled out in a nasally voice, was how many of them addressed me. Once in a while I would lose my temper and curse back, leaving no racial or sexual expletive unused. They deserved it, I told myself.
Was I American? It was a question I had never truly considered until the days and months following 9/11. I grew up in Sunnyside, Queens, near the 7-train line, in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country. Diversity is a buzzword that loses meaning when you come from Queens. It usually means that in a mostly white neighborhood there is a healthy sprinkling of brown and black. But what happens when nearly all the people around you hail from the every corner of the earth? When the local middle school speaks nearly a hundred languages? My block had Tibetans, Nepalese, Indians, Mexicans, Colombians and more Bengalis like myself. That was just my block, a 300 feet by 900 feet piece of Earth that spoke more languages than most of America. Being different in Queens is not novel. Everyone is different, everyone speaks a different language at home and everyone curses in English. So I fit right in. Until, of course, the eggings in Halloween, the jeers and taunts whenever I left my house wearing a traditional thobe and skullcap, and the stubborn, petty vandalism that persisted on the white façade of my store front mosque.
I can’t remember exactly when I decided I was an American and a Muslim; existing in a cosmic venn diagram that encompassed two civilizations, two major regions of the world. I was straddled in the center, the result of the tumult of history. But never once did I feel myself conflicted. It was hard for me to not be American as it was hard for me to not be Muslim. In essence, I never had a choice.