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The Age of Innocence

An Arab American upbringing in the shadow of 9/11

Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.
–George W. Bush, September 20, 2001

God save us always,” I said “from the innocent and the good.”
–Graham Greene, The Quiet American

That Tuesday my mother was stuck at home with us, trying to stay cool. The ban on female drivers was still firmly in place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where we had recently moved. Without a private driver, my mother was now almost completely confined to our small, gated compound. Her days consisted of looking after her four young children, herding us once a day under the blistering sun for a swim in the pool, and otherwise attempting to keep our new, much-larger house in order. Back in the United States, she had judged television a waste of time, but now, channel surfing with the AC on blast was one of the few pleasures on offer.

My mother usually sought escape in nature documentaries, but that day, when she gasped and I looked up from my Legos, the screen showed not wild animals but something resembling a low-budget action film. “Is this real? That can’t be real,” she muttered, punching the remote. The channels flipped up and down, but the image did not budge. For a while she inexplicably kept the TV on mute, and we both struggled to follow the words scrolling across the screen. Her mutterings grew increasingly frantic. At last, as if breaking a spell, she dialed up the volume. As the room filled with voices only slightly less panicked than hers, I caught words like “plane” and “collision.” It took me a while to understand we were looking at New York City, at what my mother said was a “very famous building.” There were murmurs about a malfunction; in those early moments, it was possible to believe that the whole thing might be an accident.

From here, my memory of the afternoon dissolves into a series of blurred impressions: the second plane, crossing the camera like an afterthought, colliding with the South Tower; my mother’s face, drained of blood, her shaking fingers misdialing and redialing our landline. “You have to come home,” she repeated when my father finally picked up. Across town, he sat in the family car with my eight-year-old brother, emergency blinkers on, in a long line of vehicles all hastily pulled over. Later—it could not have been long—the towers buckled, then vanished from view, folding too-neatly into shrouds of smoke.

Despite our horror, we could not stop watching, and the world, for a moment, was mesmerized too.

I do not know if my parents stayed up to watch George Bush’s Oval Office address that night. But clips of it were on loop when I awoke, and for weeks after, the President’s heart-shaped face glowed inside our home. I remember being struck by his appearance; with his round cheeks and perpetually furrowed brow, he looked to me like a bewildered child. Yet it was my mother, straining toward the television, who was more childlike. While my father paced, sober and inscrutable, there was something tender and pleading about the way she hung on the president’s every word. I waited for her to turn to me, to offer comfort, to explain. But she stayed fixed on the screen.

For days after, American networks suspended all advertisements. Overnight, they became a carousel of heart-wrenching images: smoldering debris, tear-stained survivors, heroic responders. Nothing, it seemed, was too sacred for the screen; the coverage itself came to feel almost like a sacrament, a ritual of collective horror. I was most chilled by the recordings of phone calls placed by victims moments before their death, variations on the theme of “I am not going to make it. I love you, take care of the children.” Then, photos of the lost: grinning dads cradling toddlers, newlyweds posing beside a church. As I watched my parents zombie-walk through those initial days, I took to the pages of my diary, parroting headlines—“America is Under Attack!!”—and confessing to something like grief. “So many families can’t find their moms or dads. My heart feels like it’s being squeezed.” I laid awake at night, trying not to imagine losing my own parents in a sudden, violent tragedy. I had nightmares of our home disappearing in smoke.

Despite our horror, we could not stop watching, and the world, for a moment, was mesmerized too. Everyone was speaking about The American People, with gestures beamed in from far flung countries: “The Star Spangled Banner” playing at Buckingham Palace (“where the Queen lives,” I was told), a headline from the French newspaper le Monde, Nous sommes tous américains,translated in capital letters on a CNN chyron. As mounds of flowers appeared outside U.S. embassies worldwide, my mother pointed at the array and listed the countries aloud—“that’s China, wow.” Slowly, I began to grasp that The American People included my mother, included me.

On September 14, my family gathered before the television to watch Bush’s address at the Episcopal National Cathedral. Beneath gleaming marble, surrounded by uniformed men and women, the president offered The American People a clear and simple story. There were villains, people possessed of an inexplicable but all-consuming hatred for freedom and democracy who “attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender.” He continued, “Our responsibility to history is already clear.” It was “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” I recall the goosebumps that flickered across my body at these words, at the cosmic tenor of it all: the church, the soldiers, the invocation of God, of good and evil. It felt true, of course, to call the attackers evil. What else could be said of the apocalyptic scenes of smoking rubble and decimated families? And what else to call the thousands of victims but innocent?

My mother wrapped herself in this story. She erected an American flag in our living room (where had she found it?) and led us through the pledge of allegiance and patriotic songs each morning. After our bumbling recitals of “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America,” she’d deliver short soliloquies on the brilliance of American democracy, even quoting from the Declaration of Independence. In these lectures, she made no mention of our family’s mixed heritage, of the fact that our father was a Palestinian born as a refugee in Gaza. It was for him that we’d moved to the Middle East, choosing Saudi Arabia, the homeland of bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers, because that’s where much of his family had settled in the ’60s. Until then, our parents’ two languages, religions, and cultures had mingled messily, but amicably enough. Now, however, she seemed to feel our Americanness needed to be actively defined—and defended.

James Baldwin wrote that Americans have no sense of tragedy; in contrast, no Palestinian can escape it.

Patriotism did not come naturally to me. I liked Chuck. E. Cheese and public libraries, but felt little connection to abstractions like “liberty.” Even as I squirmed during my mother’s rituals, however, I shared her sense of fear, which only sharpened by the day. There was fear in the frequent phone calls from fellow expats relating credible and rumored threats of further attacks. Fear on the news, where tales of Taliban barbarity multiplied and we were regaled with stories of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weaponry. Fear as the American school and sports leagues suspended their activities. The U.S. Embassy admonished us to fear; their frequent warden messages advised us to evacuate or at the very least, “to avoid repeated driving routes and vary our routines. My parents discussed these matters in hushed, disbelieving tones. We were unused to feeling anything but cavalier. Unaccustomed to thinking of ourselves as guests in another’s land. As Americans, we felt suddenly conspicuous, stalked.

This fear also sharpened lines that, for me, had previously been blurred. Bodies revealed themselves in categories: white, Western-clad people felt safe; bearded, brown men a source of threat. Though I’d prayed in mosques on Eid holidays with my father, I now peered suspiciously out the car window at the countless minarets in our city. In a journal entry shortly after the attack, I worried that the manager of our compound, a warm, quiet man, was “a Saudi and a Muslim.” His name, in fact, was Mr. Osama.

In my memory, my father took in the events of that September with a quieter kind of worry. Of course, he felt grief and outrage. Not only was his gentle soul offended by the violence, but he had an abiding love for his adopted country. Of course, he also worried for our safety: a brood of blondes, his wife and children had always been conspicuous in Saudi. Yet in the moment of crisis, he projected a steadiness beneath his furrowed brow. Later, I’d learn that my parents argued about this very difference. My mother felt he wasn’t upset enough. His hesitation to cheer the U.S. military, too, distressed her. My father’s reticence probably had something to do with his upbringing. In Gaza, he’d seen death up close at the age of six, had nearly tripped over dead bodies as his family fled the war in 1967. He’d always known that the world could unravel—or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say he’d never seen the world as whole. James Baldwin wrote that Americans have no sense of tragedy; in contrast, no Palestinian can escape it.

“Now there’s a war,” I wrote on October 12, 2001. “We had to cancel our Girl Scout field trip and they canceled bowling. Everyone is tense and doesn’t know what to expect.” On television, we heard of American assaults on Afghanistan and later Iraq, but by then I was hardly watching the news. My parents limited their viewing to the evenings, after dinner. There was less need, by then, to follow every headline. The skirmishes had begun to look the same on TV: dusty streets, bearded men, fever-red maps dotted with foreign names. Kabul, Kandahar, Islamabad. The American military, like God, operated at a distance, mighty and in mysterious ways. We trusted in our generals and waited to feel safe.

In Saudi, the tense calm that followed the 9/11 attacks gave way to real, explosive violence as al-Qaeda asserted itself inside the Kingdom. They made threats against the royal family and foreigners alike, bombing several Western compounds in Riyadh and launching an attack on the U.S. Consulate in December 2004, just a few kilometers from our home. With my siblings, I watched smoke from bomb blasts rising toward the winter sun, helicopters hovering above the fray. (Later, we’d hear about the Saudis who had died fending off the terrorists.) Several times, in class at the American school, a siren warned us of a credible terrorist threat and sent us dropping to the floor. A French man was shot—we heard “sniped”—a few blocks from where we lived.

Expats began to leave the Kingdom as the violence escalated, but, at least at first, most of our community remained. Over and over, I’d hear American adults describe staying as a kind of civic duty. If they left their lucrative work at Raytheon or Philip Morris, decamping from this Arabian outpost back to their hometowns in Texas or California, then the terrorists would win. Our family’s reasons for staying were mixed. My father wanted to stay close to his family, to continue his job, to see his children raised with a connection to their Arab culture. My mother, after refusing to unpack her suitcase for weeks, finally agreed to “wait and see.”

A ninth-grade teacher pushed me to enter an essay competition sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, urging me to talk about the “oppression” I’d faced in the Islamic world.

Around us, adults speculated endlessly about the risks of daily activities, and we children adopted this preoccupation. We wanted to know how we’d be kept safe. On the playground, bullies yelled rumors of al-Qaeda to scare us. My brother once asked if the tank outside the American school “had real bullets.” I spent hours trying to rank various compounds according to their likelihood of attack. In my diary I wrote, “It feels so unfair that they want to kill us. I never did anything to them, and they did 9/11!” Reading this line now, I see the logic of an era captured with childish efficiency. Our fear and our innocence were, by then, two fixed points from which we triangulated our beliefs, a story we stretched around increasing chaos. The global goodwill that had cradled us on September 12 faded with each passing day—but the thread of our fear still held taut our sense of purpose. Even as the number of those killed by American weapons soared far above the 9/11 body count, as we insisted on “dominating” and “destroying” our alleged foes, we still held fast to our victimhood. “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us,” Bush explained, “we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

In all the discussion of fear and terror, no one accounted for Afghan terror, for Iraqi fear. There were no memorials broadcast for Baghdad’s dead, no nous sommes tous Afghans, no interviews with Fallujah’s widows. I wish I could say that I sought out information then on the casualties of America’s war, that I thought harder about the claims made for Shock and Awe. But I was a child, and the most powerful man in the world was a cowboy telling tales of “bad guys” vs. “good.” I thought I understood.

Over time, I grew to despise my life in the Middle East. In later diaries, I wrote resentfully of the country that had been home for half my life. “Everyone is worried all the time,” I wrote, “we can’t do anything, because of security. I just want NORMAL life!!” America came to seem attractive, not for its superior political philosophy, but simply because I associated it with safety. In America, I thought, I would step outside the door without wondering if snipers watched me from a nearby roof. I could meet friends without keeping my body half-clenched, bracing for a blast. I began siding with my mother, agitating to “go home.” By 2005, Jeddah’s expat community had been hollowed by evacuations, both mandatory and elective. I was nearing high school, and my mother added the superiority of American schools to a list of arguments for the move, which included “security,” “freedom,” and “peace of mind.” Unwilling to leave his ailing mother, my father gave us his blessing to abandon him.

In the United States, Americans treated me like a hero for the time I spent in Saudi. They had been consuming the same story I had, their image of the Middle East built entirely of terrorist mugshots, clips of sandy Humvees against grainy skies, the words of medal-breasted generals. Yet unlike me, they knew nothing of the spaces between, the world I’d already begun to miss. More bizarre: while my fear subsided as I settled down in the sleepy Midwestern town we moved to, I discovered those around me still felt themselves in clear and present danger. It titillated them, seemed to confirm, as it had for me, that they were special. The perceived barbarity of the world “out there” redoubled their identity as the persecuted ones. They spoke gravely of “creeping Sharia,” flew Don’t Tread On Me flags off the backs of trucks. Many asked me to describe, over and over again, how I was “made” to “cover up.” (Truth be told: I loved my abaya, which, in context, felt simply like any other clothes). They were disappointed to know I’d never met a mullah. A ninth-grade teacher pushed me to enter an essay competition sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, urging me to talk about the “oppression” I’d faced in the Islamic world. I did, and won. At the ceremony, retired servicemen in full regalia handed me a check, lining up to shake my hand.

It would take me many years to extricate myself from this role, to cease humoring American friends—and later, American editors and readers. Working in media makes it difficult; the power of the national myth resounds through so much of Western public discourse. For the most part, publications want tidy “analyses” of terrorism—it was imagined for a time that I possessed some supernatural insight into extremists—or stories of victimization, preferably my own. Even as I grew increasingly uncomfortable with these narrow frames, I tried, for a while, to toe the line. I slipped in nuance where I could, tried to sketch complex characters. I justified the work with the thought that someone else would write these stories, if not me. At least I had one foot inside the “community.” It took time, and much painstaking work, to dismantle my own, internalized beliefs—from a sense of Western superiority to racism to (paradoxical) Islamophobia. I still hesitate to identify myself as what I am: not just American, but Palestinian, Muslim. These are words that expose not only me, but the one who hears them; I am not always ready for what I see. 

Americans remain largely, and violently, incurious about people from the Middle East.

Twenty years after 9/11, the “Middle East” remains shorthand for threat, turmoil, and brutality, even among liberals. Americans remain largely, and violently, incurious about people from the region, which includes many Arabs and Muslims, but also millions who may be Afghan or Iranian or Kurdish, and/or Christian or Jewish or Druze, and/or atheist or feminist or queer. What they have in common is the way the past two decades have plunged many of them into ever deeper hells. At the same time, terrorism perpetrated by white extremists has surged inside the United States, but most Americans reserve all their fear—and hatred—for foreigners. No amount of bloodshed has managed to suture the hole 9/11 tore in the American consciousness. All our might and all our trillions have not restored us to the prelapsarian certainty of September 10, 2001. Even so, in the wake of a recent blast that killed thirteen American troops and at least 170 Afghans, Joe Biden echoed Bush: “We will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

I worry that we have starved away any language but this kind: creeds of force, retribution, and preemption, always-already consecrated by the cause of “security.” This refusal to tolerate vulnerability has filled soil with bodies buried before their time. Our fear is an endless battlefront.

These are realities that outmatch my language. Like my ten-year-old self, I often feel shame at my inability to feel the vastness of what I know. But I do tremble at the way self-inflicted wounds persist as evidence of war’s necessity, the way our terror is used to christen all we do. I tremble at how little we’ve been humbled, troop withdrawals or no. Our assurance of our innocence. Our violent distrust of difference. Our surety that our “values” will one day save the world. I am afraid of this story, not because of how it ends, but because of how it doesn’t.