Before my second day of high school, the reactions to me were more along the lines of confusion and pity than hostility. Lots of “you don’t have to wear that here, honey”s and “Are you fresh out of Iraq?”s and mistaking me for a pediatric cancer patient.
The morning of my second day of high school, I awoke to the sweet, poppy strains of whatever Radio Disney was playing (and possibly censoring) at the time. I quietly made my way down the stairs so as not to wake my kid brother. Halfway down, I paused on the landing and noticed that the TV was on, its volume turned way down, its eerie light the only thing illuminating my mother’s face. The mouth on that face opened to say the first non-sung words I heard that morning.
“Something happened to the World Trade Center.”
At the time, I was steeped in an odd blend of far-left political dissent via my pro-Palestinian protesting, Islam-flavored conservatism via my upbringing and reading, and far-right patriotism via Christian TV programming. My sleep-addled brain, then, heard “World Trade Organization” rather than “World Trade Center,” so I assumed “something bad” meant that it had been disbanded or something. I said the first thing that came to mind: I yawned out a sleepy, half-questioning, somewhat sarcastic “Yay?”
Absorbed by whatever she was watching, my mother didn’t even notice I’d said anything, so I finished making my descent to the TV room, and, for the first time, saw and heard what was on the screen. The WTO wasn’t disbanded, two separate planes had hit the World Trade Center. Disbelief set in. Perhaps my mother had unwittingly tuned into a movie with an extended news segment and hadn’t realized it. Then, she flipped the channel at a commercial break, and I saw that every single television station was covering it.
Still, our day wasn’t cancelled. We ate breakfast, dressed (complete with headscarves), and headed over to the the dentist for my appointment, then to school. I watched the footage of one tower falling, than another, as my teeth were drilled. On the way over to my high school, someone in the car next to us glanced at us and then did a double-take, glaring angrily. At school, one of my classes was cancelled because the teacher in question was worried about her New Yorker parents, so we went to the multi-purpose room to watch the news instead. That was when they started broadcasting the footage of Palestinians celebrating the attacks.
Until that moment, I hadn’t any conscious understanding of how defensive I was starting to feel. It suddenly welled up in me and bubbled out in the form of an impassioned, ill-advised-and-timed call to my classmates to understand that the United States has been waging war on Palestinians via our support of Israel for years, along with a reminder that Muslims had probably died in the attacks, all issued by a mouth still half-numb from Novacain.
On 9/12/01, my parents kept my sister and me home from school, and it was confirmed to us personally that at least one Muslim had indeed died thanks to the WTC attacks: my second cousin. We spent the day mourning her in prayer and fretting over our fate. My mother, a Canadian citizen, started talking about how we could go north if we got “kicked out” of the United States. There was no time to reflect on the irony of having to worry about being placed in internment camps like Japanese Americans were during World War II when any of us could have been my cousin, killed just like any other American could have been at the hands of Al-Qaeda.
My father suggested that we women might have to stop wearing our headscarves, which shocked and appalled me. A few weeks later, when we heard about friend of a relative was followed in her car by men who turned out to be drunk off their asses and armed to the teeth, it didn’t seem so outlandish after all.
I remember crying when the news reported on how Japanese American survivors of internment camps came out publicly in support of American Muslims. I remember being infuriated when someone asked “Was ‘he’ one of the hijackers?” after I told them that my Muslim cousin had died in the WTC attacks — and being equally as infuriated when someone else in a different context asked the same thing and then claimed it was a “joke.” I remember being solemnly informed by British Muslim relatives that “the Jews were warned” about 9/11 since it was all a Zionist conspiracy. I remember the receptionist at the dentists’ office quitting or being fired since she was unable to treat any Muslims with decency after 9/11 (her New Yorker brother turned out to be fine but she was quite upset regardless).
9/11 led me to research Islam even more than I had before so that I could answer people’s accusations that my then-faith was inherently violent and evil. That research eventually led to my deconversion. My deconversion led me to spend time with people who didn’t know who I was and where I’d come from in the hopes that, after years of having to act as the Muslim ambassador to the world and defender of the faith, I could just be me.
Vain hopes. Once, out of nowhere, someone who read me as Latina (i.e. assumed that I couldn’t be of Muslim background) informed me, just as solemnly as my British relatives had about “the Jews,” that “the Muslims were warned.” I told him about my cousin. He asked me if “he” was one of the hijackers. Someone else in some other context asked me if my family was “Muslim or American.” A man who I had the gall to honestly turn down with an “I’m not interested” told me that as “a Middle Eastern” who wasn’t a virgin, the best I could hope for out of life was a hasty marriage to a poor, already-married old man to “save my honor” and prevent me from being murdered by my own family.
“We all know how violent you sand [n-word]s are,” he reminded me. “Remember 9-11?”