The distance from Lexington to Astoria is six miles; 1.5 hours by foot. On that crisp fall morning, it took twice that. Some streets were crowded, others were closed. Across Queensboro Bridge, a steady stream of office-goers walked home in single file while behind them, the smoke rose in an unending plume.
The news set the tone early on. Hundreds were missing, hundreds were feared dead. Over and again, on loop, planes crashed into the towers and made America gasp in unison. Deep into the night in Dhaka, airwaves brought fear home.
Over the next few weeks, I learnt of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. I heard stories of men who had read the Quran and somehow found in it all that I had not. And I learnt about the FBI, the CIA, the Army; about an impending war in a part of the world that had reduced two towers to rubble.
In New York, my cousins were also learning new things. They were not to appear ‘too Muslim’, or frequent the halal aisle at the grocery store. Going to the mosque was out of the question. Across the city, Muslim establishments were being vandalised, hijabs were being torn from the bodies of women, the NYPD was ramping up surveillance.
Overnight, Muslim had become a bad thing to be. Every night, I fell asleep to Ammu conversing with Khala in hushed tones. Something was going to happen. Something Bad.
And then, it happened. The Something Bad. On October 7, President Bush came on TV with an announcement of war: “We defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear.” The operation, named “Enduring Freedom,” was to save Afghanistan from itself. It was to show the world, once and for all, that violence was not the answer. That evening, American planes blanket bombed Kabul.
Over the next few months, the world changed, and the evening news became a nauseating rerun of a bad war movie. In between dinner and homework, I learned the names of new cities: Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar. From the comfort of my couch, I watched them burn.
When the towers came down, the smoke lingered for a week, blocking out all light. In that dusty, murky darkness, fear uncoiled serpentine. As the city teetered, it crept out from rubble, crawled into coffee shops and whispered absolution into eager ears. Some shook their heads in disbelief, others looked up and listened.
When the leaves turned, Fear swam through the Hudson and landed in Queens, then Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island. It swept across state lines and invited itself into homes in forgotten neighbourhoods, giving those who had nothing something to fight for. Even as the dead were being buried, Gods were thrust into war.
Fear turned faith into license for murder. The attacks started. Others noticed. Where most saw rage, a few saw opportunity. This was their chance to forge an America that looked different, talked different, prayed different. Organisations poured in money and created factories that manufactured more Fear. Their product took to the airwaves, dressed up pretty in stars and stripes, and each night for a hundred nights, it spoke of a world drowning in darkness. No one remembered Mohamad Hamdani, who had raced into the burning World Trade Centre to help. Rarely were the 31 Muslims who had worked in the towers mentioned. All anyone could talk about was invasion and collective responsibility.
One night, long after the television had been switched off, men fell asleep dreaming of war. In their dreams, as cities suffocated in smoke a hundred towers crumbled, and children died frothing at the mouth.
When the towers came down, time became mobius. The past rushed forward to embrace the present, a century of Fear morphed into rage. A civilisation built on the backs of people looked at a people with disgust, men who had cut up the world wondered how best to curb the spillage. In the marbled halls of power, a strategy took shape: the ills of a few would inform the fate of the many.
The bombs rained down. Tanks slithered up valleys and into towns, leveling the most wonderful landscapes the world had ever seen. Museums were ransacked, artwork stolen, schools perforated with bullets. Hospitals ran out of supplies, the streets overflowed with the injured. In cities where America was little more than a country on a map, America reduced civilisation to dust.
Then war came home. In late 2001, in 2002, and in the years and months after, Muslims in America became prisoners in their own country. There were things that could not be talked about, and people one could no longer trust. A line had been drawn in the sand and no one knew where it was. Imams stood at the heads of congregations and stuttered, politicians spewed lies no one countered. Mosques were retrofitted with CCTVs, informers were sent into houses of worship to listen in on conversations. At airports, the TSA printed out posters of burning towers graced with the words “Never Forget.” The searches began.
Fear hardened, multiplying and mutilating into a thousand different forms in a hundred different locations. It found itself in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, each time leaving behind a trail of mangled bodies.
It crept into Washington DC, into Presidential proclamations and judicial chambers; into every vote and every election. Muslims who had lived all their lives in America woke up to chants of “the Muslims are coming.” A generation learned to live in fear. They cast their votes in silence, for leaders who thrived on their silence. When war ravaged the countries they had once called home, they prayed in silence. When newspapers spoke of hate crimes they told their children, quietly, to remain silent. All Muslims dared do was have the audacity to live.
In schools across America, no one spoke of the unspeakable horrors their country had wreaked on the world. No course talked of the fraught history of the Middle East, the invasions of Afghanistan, the US backing of the Taliban. In the American imaginary, extremism had erupted out of ether.
The war on terror became the rallying cry of a generation. Reasons were minted, regimes crushed, militants emboldened. The memory of those who had suffered was desecrated by making a million more suffer. Across the world, terror sought to root out terror.
One day, long after the dust had settled, America looked into the mirror and confronted a stranger.
When we moved to New York, summer was waning. At the airport, we were taken aside to be vetted: our names had raised all sorts of red flags. Our phones were taken away, our luggage thoroughly checked. When we got out at last, my cousins assured us this was routine procedure.
Later that week, in the crisp of fall, we visited Lady Liberty, walked around Ellis Island amongst the history of people who had traveled the ocean to call New York home. We went to Central Park, heard a busker sing Hey Jude at Imagine Square. After lunch, we braved Brooklyn Bridge, debated turning back but pushed on and made it to the Pier.
Across from us stood Manhattan; on our left, in the distance, Lady Liberty bathed itself in the last rays of the September sun. When night arrived, the city lit up, and two beams of light shot up into the sky. As tourists took photos, we stood in silence, breathing in the air.
It smelled, ever so slightly, of fire.
Imrul Islam works for the Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia in Washington, DC He is a MA candidate for Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University.