Many people have them; I definitely do. In a strange way, 9/11 has shaped the rest of my life.
On roughly 9/1, I flew from Brazil, where I’d spent the last few months, to the U.S. The plan was to finish packing up my things, say some last goodbyes after 6 years living in Maryland, and fly to Syria on the 17th of September. Yes, I was planning on moving to Syria to spend 1.5 years studying Arabic. I had a plan: learning Arabic was going to increase my employability and also provide me exposure to a new and different culture, thus preparing me to become an expert in cross-cultural relations.
On the morning of 9/11, the phone ringing interrupted some lovely sleep. It was a sunny, blue-skyed day with a gorgeous breeze. I was very, very irritated with my grandmother for interrupting, and it took me quite a while to be convinced that her pleas that I turn on the TV were actually warranted.
The rest of the day was much like many days for many people in the U.S. Hide at home? Go find friends? Just find a TV and stare at it? I chose to go for a jog to clear my mind from a few things that were bothering me. First, my entire family was scattered. My brother was in one state on the East Coast of the U.S. My father was in a different state on the East Coast of the U.S. My mother was in Brazil trying to get through to us on the phone with no luck.
Meanwhile, everyone assumed that my trip to Syria was cancelled. But after many hours of meetings and phone calls, neither my mentors nor my parents nor I could come up with any real reason to cancel. As my New Yorker aunt pointed out when she called me to plea that I not go, “if nothing else, this has taught us that no one is safe, anywhere.” Exactly: so Syria is as safe as anywhere.
I was on the first international flight out of the airport I left from, one of the first out of the country. I remember that all I could carry on the plane, on my potentially permanent move across the globe, was my laptop, my camera, my wallet and my passport. I so vividly remember that I was in awe that during this of all weeks, I made my originally scheduled flight and everything went according to plan. This was how I knew that we’d made the right decision, and God was in it.
Guess what I encountered in Syria! I found a country of people who nodded in solidarity when they learned I was American, complete strangers willing to give me a comforting hug just because they’d seen what had happened to my country. I met people who understood the Afghanistan invasion and who would do anything for the U.S., a sentiment that lasted until talk turned to invading Iraq. Sadly, all too soon, that supportive emotion was replaced by bitter hatred. The bitter hatred is what has stuck around. Over the next three years living in the Middle East, I watched that transformation and saw the deepening frowns and furrows with each passport check and border crossing. All too soon, I developed the habit of carrying my passport upside down so people wouldn’t know what it said on its cover. But a week after 9/11/01, the world stood with America.
I suffer with divided loyalties. My friends in Syria and other Arab countries have become like family and they have done a good job of showing me the world through their eyes. I wish people in the West saw what I’ve seen in the East, and I wish people in the East could see what I know of the West. I wish that I felt qualified to be the window between their worlds, but I don’t. I want to help people to listen to each other, but it just seems so hard.