Seventeen years is a long time. In that time, a baby is born and then is off to University. A young adult can go from first year in University to a married man with kids. And in seventeen years a young retiree can go from having a life of freedom in front of him, to counting his remaining days.
A lot can happen in seventeen years. But when it comes to anniversaries, the number seventeen doesn’t mean a whole lot.
That’s unless it has to do with 9/11.
In the case of the aftermath of September 11, 2001, every year is as impactful as the last. Every year has as much meaning – if not more. Every year is a reminder that life is short and can change in an instant.
Each year, when September 11th rolls around, I am reminded of my own experience on that infamous day and how a series of acts that seemingly had nothing to do with me would change who I was and how I lived for the rest of my life.
A simple upbringing
Until that point in my life – luckily – nothing had turned my world upside down. No losses or diseases in the family, no drama at home, and nothing on a global scale.
I had just begun grade 10, was days away from turning 15 years old and had lived a relatively sheltered life in my birthplace and hometown of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.
I certainly hadn’t experienced any overt racism – or any racism at all to my knowledge – even as a brown, muslim kid in a predominantly white town. And despite experiencing the typical stuff a kid goes through in adolescence, I hadn’t ever really felt out of place.
But that one day – seventeen years ago – changed everything.
At this point in my story, I’ll offer a disclaimer: my experience with 9/11 is nothing compared to that of families of those impacted. The first responders on the ground, the people going about their regular workdays in the twin towers and Pentagon who by no choice of their own became targets, and the victims on the plane who were also horrendously caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nor has my experience since that day been as arduous as many others, like the Muslim community in Montreal, Canada, which has been the target of multiple despicable, heinous acts of hate.
Nope, my story isn’t as dramatic or severe. But that’s not to say I haven’t been impacted. And I would suggest it is hard to find anyone who lived through that day and hasn’t been impacted.
A shocking change in routine
My routine every morning before school was to wake up, find a cozy spot next to the fireplace and turn on the T.V.. As I grew older, cartoons turned into news. And on this day in 2001, I did everything as per the norm.
It was either CNN or CBC that I flipped to first and I immediately saw the shocking image of a building on fire. Except I wasn’t shocked. I actually didn’t believe what I saw – just like the saying. I was slightly amused for a moment, before I tuned in to the tone of the news anchors. Then I got the hint that something was not right.
As I listened more intently, I realized that this wasn’t a joke. And I was glued.
I hadn’t seen anything like this in my life. Like I said, I had lived a fairly sheltered life. I wasn’t regularly exposed to this type of subject matter. Not through discussions at home, not at school (we didn’t have History class), and not yet on the news. Then, as I listened to the questions being posed by the anchors – Was this a mistake? Was it intentional? Are people okay? – and my curiosity began to grow, with my own two eyes, I saw a plane fly into another building.
Cue the shock and awe.
I didn’t know what to think, but I knew exactly what I felt: scared. The anchors’ questions had been answered. This wasn’t a mistake, this was intentional, and there is no way that people are okay.
The shock carried over to school, where in many classes we suspended regular activity to either watch or discuss what was happening. The mood throughout the school – among my peers and my teachers – was subdued. We were not at war – although the uncertainty around whether we could be targeted any second was unnerving and palpable – but it was clear something was under attack.
When I got home from school, the first thing I did was sit down at the family computer, get on the internet, and do a search for any photos related to the incidents that I could find. And then I saved them to my computer. They were graphic, they were not easy to see again, and at that moment I didn’t quite know why I was saving them or what I had planned to do with them.
When my mom asked me why I was doing what I was doing, I simply replied “because this is history.”
It was as if I thought that if I didn’t save those photos, that I was somehow going to forget what happened that day. Like the images of a planes crashing, burning buildings, jumpers, people crying, and ash rain blanketing ground zero were going to escape me.
But they never have, and I don’t think they ever will.
A change in the course of life
I have told the story of my post-school actions that day in the context of my very short journalism career. In a speech I once gave when accepting a Young Journalist award I won, I suggested that being a part of history was a – if not the – reason why I went into journalism. That being able to document and tell the stories of events of that magnitude was a responsibility that I wanted and was meant to do, and that that is why I did what I did when I got home.
It sounds great, and while that may or may not have been true, after seventeen years of reflection, I think what’s probably more accurate is I saved those photos because I didn’t want to forget the day that my life changed forever.
I would be remiss not to mention the biggest impact 9/11 had on me. Not surprisingly it is related to religion and my identity as a Muslim Canadian.
Until that point, I didn’t really think twice about being a Muslim. As Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, our family prayed regularly, went to jamatkhana (equivalent to a mosque) regularly, and while it sometimes got in the way of living a normal social life in Western Canada, it was always fairly smooth sailing.
But as time went on after 9/11, I became increasingly uncomfortable with Islam being such a big part of me and my life.
I became self-conscious. Were people now looking at me as a terrorist? Was I suddenly different to people who had known me long before 9/11?
Certainly to many who didn’t, I was simply now a “sand n****r,” as one individual eloquently yelled my way from a pickup truck as I walked the streets of Toronto sometime in the years following 2001.
At every turn, I expected to be treated this way. And while I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I have been confronted or mistreated since 9/11, the amount of times it happened in my head is countless.
Now, I did end up tattooing arabic symbols related to Islam on my body in my rebellious University years. And I did that to remind myself of how proud I was to be a Muslim and to never let myself be deterred by negative connotations, associations and depictions of the faith. A noble gesture, sure. But one that in practice has proven to be a lot more difficult than I anticipated. In fact, nowadays I find myself covering it up more than I find myself wearing it with pride.
Take that Young Journalist award, for example. The main prize was a trip to Belgium, to the headquarters of the European Union. I had never traveled abroad by myself before. And certainly not after 9/11. As a bearded brown man travelling alone, I felt nervous.
Was I going to be “randomly selected” for search? Would I have to defend myself? Would I be detained? These were all questions swirling around my mind as I embarked on what should have been a proud and exciting journey.
The new normal
These thoughts were perpetuated by the way Muslims were and still are portrayed in media. And while there are plenty of examples of fair and balanced reporting that aims to counteract these negative and unfair stereotypes and sweeping generalizations, the fact of the matter is since 9/11 be openly Muslim is no longer a non-starter.
For example, when my wife and I recently decided to document our twins becoming Muslims and put it online on our YouTube channel for our friends, family, and the public to see. I was very nervous. Would we be targeted with hate because we are Muslim? (Spoiler: yes – check out the comments section) And would it come back to haunt our kids down the line?
It is unfortunate that these thoughts are all commonplace for me today. In fact, writing this blog has taken seventeen years in part because I don’t know the impact it will have on me and my family and whether sharing my story is worth the risk of that impact being harmful.
It’s hard not to trace the beginning of that kind of thinking to September 11, 2001.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, even though life as a Muslim – and let’s be honest, life in general – is not as simple as it once was I still believe there is much more good in the world than there is bad.
And while life and I have changed dramatically since 9/11, it continues to change. And while I am around, I have to believe that it can also change for the better. I have to believe that in my lifetime, and in my kids’ lifetime, there will be more that unites people than divides them. That the thoughts my kids will have when they are grown will not be ones of fear, but ones of hope. That they will live in a world where planes flying into buildings in the name of hate is simply history and that that type of history cannot and will not repeat itself.
Because to know a world in which September 11, 2001 can be a reality, is to hope for one that it never will.