9/11: Ten Years On
Ten years on, I'm remembering the literature I read and the music that kept me going in the days and months after 9/11. I had Rumi and Whitman on my bedside table, reading them back to back, alternating between selections of the "Mathnawi" and poems from "Leaves of Grass", sometimes feeling like the two were one, the soul of America and the soul of Islam intersecting at some point beyond where the eye could see:
"Whoever you are, motion and reflection are especially for you,
The divine ship sails the divine sea for you."
-- Walt Whitman
Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
It doesn't matter
Come, come yet again, come"
Until then, the Quran for me was a book of personal spiritual guidance, a convening symbol for my religious community. But after 9/11, I viewed it as a balm for my country's pain, especially lines from Ayat al-Kursi: "His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them."
I remember trying to decipher the opening noises of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," and then having my breath taken away by the understated poetry: "All my lies are always wishes / I know that I would die if I could come back new." In the death of that day, how many wishes went unfulfilled, how many lies went untold, how many resolutions had no chance?
I remember the lift I felt when I first heard Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," and the light that broke through when I went to the tour and heard him include in a song a bit that sounded like Arabic prayer. I felt like he was saying to the Muslims in the crowd, "You are a part of the us."
I remember the stories that summed up the American spirit in that moment. Salman Hamdani, an American Muslim emergency medical tech, hearing about the tragedy and rushing to the site. He perished there with his fellow American first responders. John Tateishi, head of the Japanese American Citizen's League, heard the news on the radio, felt alarm as the whispers that Muslims were to blame grew louder, saw those whispers easily turning into pointed fingers and worse. He cancelled his appointments for the next two weeks and sent a message to his organization's affiliates around the country: we are making partnership with American Muslims our highest priority. One of John's earliest memories was the day he left an internment camp in the mid-1940s. His father had told him: "Never forget this day, John, and never let this country forget it either. It is too good for what it did to us." John was going to make sure that America didn't commit the same egregious crime again with another minority community.
I visited ground zero a few months after the attacks. It was mid-winter, just past dusk, time for the Maghrib prayer. The lights were glaring at ground zero, the cranes were lifting and placing. There was a big pit in the ground, but that wasn't the main thing going on.
"What did you see," my wife asked when I returned.
"We're building," I told her, "we're building."
This blog was originally posted on Huffington Post.