9/11 Revisited

The following is an excerpt from a journal I wrote on September 18th, 2001, just a week after the attacks on NY and Washington. It’s meant to be a reminder to me as to what I had experienced during these events, and it’s the first time I’m sharing it with others in a public setting. I hope that you may be able to connect with it in some way. Just a warning though, it’s pretty raw. You should know that going into it. I was writing as a man who was convinced the world was gonna fall apart. Today I have hope, but it doesn’t hurt to look back at the past…


September 18th, 2001

Here I come again with a whirlwind of events which make absolutely no sense, that I need to get off my chest. Lately I feel so far from everyone. People talk to me, and it’s as if they aren’t even there. Coworkers, Friends… my phone is off the hook with calls, my inbox is flooded with emails, all from people who wanna know what is wrong…. I’ve been in a daze, and I’m tryin to be positive, but the more positive i’m tryin to be, the more people are like – “Paul, something is seriously wrong – please can I help?” And I feel like I’m in a fishbowl…. or maybe the back of a cavern, and I see people very close yet I can’t touch them, like an optical illusion maybe….

I guess the events that have occurred in the last 7 days has caused my brain to go into an infinite loop. I’m incredibly numb.. and I was “fine” until Friday. Friday afternoon, it hit me – - the Twin Towers are gone; Andy is gone, Andy is one of 5,000 people who are missing, and many are gonna die in the coming weeks.

On Thursday, I came back to what was my home for the last 5 years. New York City. I sat at the cafe on the corner of Waverly and University where i’d usually have a 4am conversation with a good friend about life, finals, music, fun – and I looked out the window and all I saw was smoke, people walking up and down the street with face masks, sirens, lights, it was all death in the air… i went to the fountain where i would sit and read all the books I should have read over the course of a semester, right before the final of course; and looked up, and the towers were gone…. it was like a bad movie… even better – a made for tv movie…

the following events actually happened…

i walked up to union sq park, where mobs of people were standing, talking, yelling, conversating about unity, one country, one love, and the god that is humanity, and among this were speakers, philosphers, proclaiming their truths,opinions, and many, who had empty ideals about new yorkers coming together finally in one heart…. while at the same time, they booed a young man who urged them not to be blood-thirsty for afghanistan blood. Following a sermon given by a woman who asserted that “peace will come when all arabs are dead”. Horrifying…. I could not be silent anymore. It was impassioned rage that allowed me to get up in front of these 200 people and gave them a piece of my mind and my soul. While I was running on pure adrenaline, and I don’t remember exactly what I said, I somehow got the crowd very excited and it ended up in applause, cheers, and hugs from random strangers (and they didn’t even try to take my wallet)... again… surreal

I went to visit my friend Mike: He and I ended up at Central Operations of the rescue effort as volunteers, and we worked till almost 4AM in the pouring rain, as trucks, army vehicles, helicoptors, lightning, people, dogfood, swam around us. We were in a bucket brigade hurling boxes into fed ex trucks, helping officers, running up and down the west side highway with clean socks, pillows, blankets for the cold, and I was somehow transported to a war zone, when the food came, and it tasted so good, rice pilaf and grilled veggies… again.. surreal….

I somehow made it back to my sister’s place, with enough time to sleep 2 hours before work. I barely made it through the day without passing out.

I was getting emails from my friends about Indian people who were getting beat up, hospitalized, for being ‘the enemy’. Warnings from friends not to speak my language in public. The weekend came and I met up with the band. It was very awkward at first, we all missed Andy (our lead singer who had died in the attacks) – We couldn’t believe just 7 days before, we were all joking around, playing, laughing together, and here we were in silence. Once we started playing, we felt God’s presence, and the unity of this situation brought us together. Brought us close… they understood.

I really miss Andy.

And Sunday came, I was asked to bring my guitar, play Amazing Grace, Shout to the Lord, in a prayer vigil at my church… The people were blessed… well mostly… All but a few who were enraged at the fact that I dared to bring a guitar into an orthodox church.

The world is falling a part and all they care about is the fact that a guitar being played in the church. Have they ever read the Psalms? Does it matter if the instrument is a harp or a Fender Acoustic? I couldn’t even entertain their protests.

That day I went shopping then drove to Boston – I was stared down by a woman, shaking her head, while she stared into my soul… I kept on driving.

The next day at work, I wake up to phone messages, emails, churches being plagued with bomb threats in New Jersey, unmarked package left at our churches door in the city with a decapitated statue of Jesus inside. Our women being spit on in the streets, and our kids being beat up. I call my friend in Los Angeles to check up on him, see if all was ok… he then tells me, his uncle was murdered in his grocery store this weekend by an ‘american hero doing his duty’. I realized how lucky I was – i only got stared down. I worry bout my parents, I don’t want anything to happen to them.

My sister calls me up, she’s afraid…. I can’t be there for her until this weekend.

It’s hard to walk around these days, I love this country, and I’m confused as to where I belong. I am a born citizen, so why should I feel this way?

i know i’ll need time, for all these realities to sink in… so i can start dealin with them…. i’m just in a state of shock right now.

I just didn’t know my face was a mirror into my soul. I’m sitting in a status meeting taking notes, participating, concentrating, when 3 people ask me “Paul – what is wrong, can we help?”

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The Demonization of an Entire Culture

When we say, “Let’s hear from you,” she advances to us
chanting fluently, her glance languid, in effortless song.”

  • - From the Ode of Tarafah

These are the words of a Qasida, an early Arabic love poem, from a time where Arabic culture was known for its richness, beauty, and its contributions to the modern world. We are living in a world where, because of the acts of a small but dangerous few, an entire culture, its language and people, are the objects of suspicion, discomfort, and hazard.

When I was 5 years old, I would ask my mom to not speak Arabic to me in public because I wanted to be considered more American. I asked her to make less Ta3amiyya, less mulukhiyya, and more spaghetti and fried chicken. What I put into my body would make me what I was. My mom however, wasn’t so happy with my need to hide my culture.

Ironically, it was 5 years ago when my mother asked me to not speak Arabic in public so much, because she was afraid for my well being.

It is 5 years after September 11th, and recent threats that are no doubt very real, are being reported by the media in such a way to induce paranoia of people from Arab descent. Why is it, that the bravery of Korean War hero James Jabara and the leadership of NATO commander George Joulwan are overshadowed by the tyranny of Al-Zarkawy? Why are we forgetting the political contributions of Selwa Roosavelt or Victor Atiyeh every time we hear a report of a terrorist attack? Why don’t we think of Frank Zappa, Ralph Nader, or Steve Mansour, instead of imminent danger, whenever we see an Arab man on an airplane?

The response I get from people is very trite and simple: “Well, if these terrorists didn’t do what they were doing, then Arabs wouldn’t have such a bad reputation. It’s understandable.”

Am I really in control of what religious extremists from the Middle East do? Not more so than an average white person from New York is in control of actions by the KKK, or Timothy McVey? Is it then my right to bear extra scrutiny? Haven’t we seen enough news reports, films, TV shows of what happens when African Americans have been the target of unnecessary blame because of paranoia that’s gotten out of hand?

I, by no means, make light of the clear and present danger that our world is in at the hands of terrorist groups, and these fascist radicals. I am Coptic. My people have been under the threat of persecution for decades in Egypt at the hands of extremists groups. My people have known this real threat first hand for many, many years before Americans had any taste of what it is like living with the threat of these people. I stand against terrorism as much as the next guy, but if we want to see this world become peaceful, we cannot conversely adopt the same extremist mentality that our enemies employ on a daily basis.

The following headlines are but a warning sign to what may be happening to us if we let paranoia take us out of control:

https://www.democracynow.org/2006/8/21/iraqi_peace_activist_forced_to_change

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=401419&in_page_id=1770

The answer is not a witch-hunt. The answer is not demonizing an entire race or language. The answer lies in the hands of our leaders and our protectors to improve security. To have better leads in where danger is happening and where it’s not happening. It’s calling on people to get off their asses and and learn about what it means to be a terrorist, and who can be a threat, and who absolutely is not one. I am not talking about people taking extra precaution on me, because I look like I’m from Middle-Eastern descent. I’m not talking about that at all. Trust me, I feel safer when I’m more thoroughly checked, because I have nothing to hide. I want TSA to do their jobs, and I want them to be diligent, but there is such a thing as extremism.

By telling people what kind of shirts they can and can’t wear, they’re just giving terrorists a clear cut recipe of what they can look like, sound like, act like, if they want to get away with blowing up a building! If TSA is doing their job, they can tell a paranoid person, “Look, we investigated this man, and he is safe.”

Look, I want my family here to be safe. We’re tax-payers, we’ve been contributers to this nation for almost 40 years. We are as American as Pepperoni Pizza. I just think that some middle ground needs to be taken. It’s not an easy answer, and there has to be a balance between freedom and safety. My friend who works in law enforcement tells me I can’t have both, what do you think?

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