Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflecting on 9/11

When I transferred planes in Zurich I had my first encounter with Egyptian culture. I got bumped up to business class and was seated next to a middle aged Egyptian business man. It made me a little bit nervous. Middle Eastern guy + plane = explosion. I wanted to switch seats, but I was the only white guy on the plane, no matter where I went the equation would be the same. I kind of felt like I was playing a game entitled, One Of These Things Is Not Like the Other. I tried to quiet my mind by telling it that my rational was idiotic and that I would have to get used to this ratio. I had to stay where I was and deal with it.
The business man and I had some good conversation and then he fell asleep. I guess for him the conversation wasn’t that engaging. I had a few whiskey sours to calm myself and was getting drowsy, but before I passed out I started to think. In the years since the September attacks I had tried to figure out why exactly Bin Laden had attacked the U.S. I mean, I knew that as a country we could be arrogant and selfish, focused mainly on exploiting other peoples and countries for our own materialistic and political gain, but what was so bad about that? Isn’t that what all countries did? I peacefully drifted into my alcohol induced sleep as the plane hummed along.
A few hours later I was awakened by the snoring of the Egyptian business man. I could hear by the back thrust of the engines that we were pulling out of the clouds and descending upon Cairo. I rubbed my eyes, yawned, and stretched. Then I looked over the sleeping business man and out the window. I was kind of groggy and not expecting much beyond a stretching horizon of vapid terrain. Those whiskeys quickly went to the pit of my stomach and formed a brick. My God, Cairo was huge. I had seen large cities from the sky before and I had read that Cairo was a very large city, but I was not prepared for the sight. An immense city of sand colored buildings with a muddy serpent weaving through it lay before me. For miles and miles were apartment buildings and paved roads. We were high enough so that the apartment buildings weren’t much bigger than the tip of a marker. I could barely make out cars moving on the streets and yet I couldn’t locate the end of the city. I unbuckled and went to a window on the other side of the plane only to be met with the same vision, an endless metropolis in the desert. How strange. I wasn’t even sure what would happen next. Was I still dreaming?

I was so warm and sticky that morning under the damned blanket, but my girlfriend insisted that we have it. Women often require more heat at night than men. Hence, for men, the traditional act of throwing out one leg. On this particular morning my roommate, with whom I shared a bedroom, had gotten up early to have tea and watch the news. It must have been about 6 am. His bumbling from the kitchen woke me up initially, but during the next hour or so I drifted back in and out of sleep peacefully. I could tell that the sun was rising steadily because the beams coming through the window were becoming stronger and more persistent. I could faintly hear the television and was waking up, but still resistant to getting out of bed.
I heard a faint knocking on the bedroom door and it opened a few inches. Buhk’s exuberant face appeared above a steaming cup of tea.
“Dude, a plane just flew into the World Trade Tower.” He said.
“mmmmm… yeah, so?” I grumbled.
“Ok” he said, and softly closed the door.
What a jerk, I was trying to sleep. Why should I care about the news at this hour? I reburied my face into the sheets and my girlfriend’s back. Just a little bit longer here and then I would get up to face the day. It was so soft and dark; I didn’t want to start yet. I drifted back into a light sleep until again a soft knock came from the bedroom door.
“Dude?” Buhk said.
“WWWHAT?” I said in irritation.
“ Uh… maybe you should come see this.” He said.
I sighed to no one and slipped out of my part of the blanket.
“MMMMmmmm… ” Kristin said rolling to her back and putting her hands to her face.
“I’m going to go watch the news, Buhk said some plane flew into the World Trade Tower.” I said. As I said this I realized that I wasn’t even sure where the Trade Tower was, but Kristin and Buhk did since they had taken a trip with our high school brass band that past year which had brought them to New York.
She removed her hands, squinted at me, and reluctantly got out of bed. As she walked into the living room I trailed her slowly in my boxers and a t-shirt. We crashed onto the couch and into each other. The morning was a little cool and the chill was brushing away the heat of the bed. As I held onto her and rubbed her arms another plane hit the second tower. I stopped rubbing and she straightened up. Buhk was still blowing on his tea and put his tea cup down on his saucer with a decisive clink. It was a moment of incomprehension. None of us understood the scene. None of us knew what to say. We just looked at each other with mouths agape. Finally Buhk whispered, “What the hell was that?”

The three of us sat there watching the news for a few hours. On the television were pictures of both towers billowing thick black smoke. Smoke and debris was spewing out like it might never end. I had never been to New York and didn’t really know how big the towers were. I didn’t even really know what they were or what they represented. News reports were still sketchy at the time. People still weren’t certain if this was some kind of accident or not. Some people were still speculating about the size of the planes. As I watched flashing images of the burning tower mixed with intermittent clips of reporters giving what information they knew something triggered in my brain. I knew in that instant that this was different from anything I had seen before. A part of history was happening here and in a sickening way I was sure the United States was under attack.
I had a class at 10:30 that day, so I got ready and headed off to school. By this time the Pentagon was also confirmed as being attacked and there was a notion of a plane crashing in Pennsylvania. I had also heard that a few car bombs had gone off in front of the capitol. At this point there was a lot of information going around, and much of it was speculation. Like most people that day, I was confused.
Upon reaching the student union I found groups of people bunched around the few televisions that were on the main floor. I stopped for a while to watch with them to see if anything new had happened since I had left home. It didn’t seem like there was any new information so I proceeded to my first class. As I crossed the union square I remember the whole city had an eerie quiet to it. In a square that was usually packed I was one of the only people. One the bus that morning I was one of the only people riding the #22. When I had entered the union it didn’t have the same din that it usually did. Looking at the clear blue sky I imagined a plane crashing into the tallest building on campus, the dormitory where I had lived the previous year.
As I reached my classroom I saw a note attached to the door. It read, “All classes are cancelled for today.” As I doubled back across the square I again looked at the blue sky. It was a day to feel alive. The world was moving. My new vitality christened by the deaths of thousands.
I walked away happy to have the day off, but with a new questions in my mind. Are we really under attack? Are we going to war? Will I be drafted? Who did this? A new fear, the fear of going to war, crept into my soul. Entering maturity in the U.S. during the nineties I had little reason to think I would ever be involved in a war. For me war was over, forever. After the USSR fell I thought eternal peace would ensue for the United States. I was just a kid.
It was scary to think about. I thought of the service of my grandfathers and father and knew that should the time arise for me to take arms it would be my civic duty just as it had been theirs. I was galvanized.
In the ensuing months I watched my country respond to these attacks. I watched George Bush visit ground zero and listened to reports about troops being sent into Afghanistan to go after the Taliban. I was proud and happy. My country was defending itself and coming together as a nation to fight a common threat. Both parties, for a time, dropped their bickering and united towards that common goal. There was a huge surge of pride in the nation at that time which was positive, but also negative. I was already starting to see the underside of that pride. American people gathered hatred towards all those of Middle Eastern or Muslim descent. Flags hung in every car window and store front. People talked openly about those “rag heads” and “sand niggers”. Some of the people that I knew had gone into the military and I heard gossip around my home town about the boys who were shipped to Afghanistan. Although the patriotism in the U.S. was extreme and a little uncomforting I was content in the knowledge that we were going after the people who had done this. Things would pan out with America as the victor and the country would return to normalcy.
In the winter of 2003 I started to hear conjecture on the evening news about Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The United States was claiming that he was hiding weapons of mass destruction. For months the news covered the U.S. claims that this was a real threat while the rest of the world was asking for more time and investigation. In my mind it was hard to justify. Why were we the only ones who saw this? Why didn’t Hans Blix, who was the U.N. weapons inspector, see these things in Iraq or know anything about them? It seemed to me that pieces of the puzzle were missing. I remember in the hours leading up to the invasion George Bush gave Saddam an ultimatum, give up the weapons now or we are coming in.
I laughed when I first heard this. I was in a restaurant with a friend and I heard it on the news. I nearly choked because I was laughing so hard. It was one of those times in my life when I laughed at the wrong moment for reasons only apparent to myself. Everyone in the place turned to look at the crazy guy choking on his noodles. In my mind I imagined Saddam sitting in his palace with his advisors around him watching the news. A special bulletin interrupts Iraqi news and George Bush appears on screen demanding that Saddam give up his weapons. Grimacing and wringing his hands Saddam says,
“Oh shit, what are we going to do now? How can we give up weapons that we don’t have? Isn’t this a catch-22? Oh shit, well, that’s it for me. Get the Republican Guard ready I’ll uh… meet you out front in a few.”

One evening my mother and I went to dinner and debated the merits of invasion. After eating we were sitting there talking about family and such things. On the television came news of our impending invasion of Iraq. Colin Powell was making a very passionate speech, to the U.N. I think, about the need for invasion. My mother and me did not agree on the need for invasion.
I have a feeling that thousands of conversations like that one were happening in the nation at that time. By the summer of 2004 the 9/11 commission had released its report on Iraq and it became clear that Saddam had not collaborated with Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda, there were no WMD’s, and our presence in Iraq was likely not stopping terrorism, but encouraging it. We were less safe than we were in 2000. I was feeling quite egotistical about this information and was sure Bush would not be re-elected in 2004. People started to turn against the president and the democrats in the U.S. tried to ride the wave of anti-war resentment in the presidential election of 2004, but the tide wasn’t high enough yet. I remember the despair I felt the following day knowing that Bush, despite his follies, would carry a second term. I made a promise to myself that I was leaving the country. I felt that my country had become intractable. A lot of acrimony was built up against Muslims and the Middle East so in February when I was offered a job teaching in Egypt I jumped at the chance.

Immediately when I got off the plane there was a man with a placard that had my name on it. He spoke no English, I just pointed, he nodded, and then I followed. He led me to a woman who did speak English and circumvented me around all of customs. The woman asked where I was going, was I with EALS? I had to buy a visa for 15 dollars and then have one guy look at my passport. It was really amusing because there was a huge shuffling mass of foreigners trying to get through one gate and my escort just walked me around it. No one checked to see what I had in the bags. I could have had severed limbs in there for all they knew. Two more men awaited me to help me with my luggage. I then met four more people from the school who were waiting for me. It was pretty awkward. I shook a few hands and then a man grabbed my bags as I was escorted out the sliding glass doors. I remember stepping aback as the heat hit me. It was August and I was expecting heat, but this heat was different. It was dirty heat. It made me feel like taking a shower every hour after that. My guides took me in to Cairo proper in a fairly new Fiat. As we weaved in and out of traffic at break neck speed one of my guides tried talking to me. I don’t remember what we talked about mainly because I was afraid for my life and sweating buckets in Cairo’s heat. There were no lanes, no stop signs, apparently no rules at all. On the six lane highway I saw one guy back up about fifty feet because he had missed his exit. He barely missed hitting a guy on a donkey. Every sign was in Arabic so I had not even the faintest idea where we were going. Something I noticed right away was that everybody was enamored with their horns. It seemed like the entire way there we were being honked at or honking ourselves. I was later to learn this was pretty much the only traffic rule in Egypt. If you are passing, honk. Want to merge with traffic? Honk. Unsure of who goes first at an intersection? Honk. Getting bored because you are driving alone in the middle of the desert? Honk.

After that quick and dangerous ride we finally pulled up to an old hotel. The outside looked horrible. It hadn’t been painted in many years and bits and pieces were starting to fall off here and there. It was also filthy, covered in dust. It somewhat resembled the sand castles I used to build as a kid, the kind that shortly crumbled as they dried in the wind. My confidence in my guides was waning and my sense of flight was increasing. The outside of the hotel might have been in poor shape but the lobby was well polished marble with very nice looking furniture. The employees all had nice trim uniforms and the women all wore headscarves. After a brief conversation with the receptionist my guide turned to me, gave me the key to my room, and told me she would be in contact. Then she turned on her heel and walked out.
I trudged my way up five flights of stairs with all my bags and into my room. I had trouble with the key, a great sign of things to come, but finally the door opened. The bathroom was directly in front of the main door and I hadn’t peed since Rome. That was 6 hours and 3 whiskey sours ago. I immediately stepped in and flicked on the lights. The first thing I noticed was the bade’ and the small amount of toilet paper. Oh God, I thought, how does that work? As I peed and stared off into space I noticed something moving. All along the cracks in the tiles were bugs, lots of little bugs. I grabbed my bags outside of the bathroom door, threw them onto my bed, and got my camera out. As I stepped onto the balcony I examined my surroundings. As far as I could see were sand colored buildings tinted with the setting sun. I snapped a few pictures and then contemplated where I was. I was in Egypt, in a hotel. I was thousands of miles from home in a country whose alphabet wasn’t even remotely like mine. I didn’t even know when I would see my guide next. I was completely alone. I was very scared.
Because of the time difference I didn’t sleep at all that first night. I unpacked some stuff, wrote some impressions on my computer, and chain smoked cigarettes. Around three in the morning the sky began to lighten. Around 4am I began to explore other floors of the hotel. On the top floor of the hotel I discovered a giant banquet hall with bay windows on two sides. Absolutely no one was around and by the layer of dust on things it appeared no one had for some time. I pulled a chair up to the window and grabbed an ashtray. As I looked out at the sun beginning to illuminate Cairo, smoking cigarette after cigarette, my thoughts kept floating back to the same place. Where did it all begin and end?