How We Became Important

Five years seems like such a long time ago. Among other things, both my parents were still alive. (Neither is now.) I was not yet married. I had never heard of blogs. I had never been to Finland (a regular destination for me in recent years because of my friend Marko). I had never been harassed by agents of the Department of Homeland Security. There was no Department of Homeland Security. And there was no Patriot Act, the most dangerous, destructive (of civil liberties) and retrogressive piece of legislation in memory, which now holds over every head in this country (specially Muslim and Arab ones) the dark threat of indefinite detention at Guantanamo, without charge or due process.

The thing I remember most clearly about the day of the attacks is speaking to my mother in Karachi at some point. It wasn’t a particularly substantive exchange, but it was nice to hear her voice, and a relief, I imagine, for her to hear mine. For days afterwards one went around as if in a dream. Nothing felt real. The atmosphere in New York City took a long time to return to anything like normal, and during that period one’s emotions remained unpredictable and turbulent. September 11th itself was, of course, the worst. By afternoon of that bright autumn day, my uptown apartment had become a makeshift refugee camp for a number of friends who lived near the World Trade Center, and who could no longer go home. At some point on that day, we all went out en masse to try and get a late lunch, only to find an eerie silence on Broadway. All traffic had been stopped in Manhattan. For some odd reason, the few people present were whispering to each other, if speaking at all. After a while, armored personnel carriers with uniformed soldiers began slowly rolling down the streets, while F-14 Tomcats circled overhead. People in civilian dress carrying submachine guns quietly appeared on the street corners. (Later, I learned they were FBI agents.) It was not clear then if there would be further attacks. One felt like one was in a war zone, and I was reminded of my recurring childhood nightmares after Pakistan’s 1971 war with India. Every little while, someone in our group would suddenly break into tears.

That night, we slept fitfully, gripped by the confusion of sadness, fear, anger. The next day, I managed to collect myself enough to send an email to friends and family expressing some of what I felt. I reproduce that message here:

Hello,

As time elapses, I am more clearly able to identify and articulate what it is that has been making me so sad about this attack. It is this: some cities do not belong to any particular country but are treasures for all people; cosmopolitan and international by nature, they are the repositories of our shared world culture and artistic production, testaments to what is common and binding among diverse peoples, and sources of creative energy. They come to stand for our notions of community and brotherhood. New York has been by far the most magnificent of these world treasures, and it still is today. Here, on every block you will meet people from forty different countries. Here you can speak Urdu with the cab drivers, and Korean at the grocery store. Here, bhangra rhythms and classical sitar mix with calypso and Finnish ambient chants. Here is where mosques and synagogues are separated by no green-lines. Here is where Rodney King’s wish has mostly come true: we do get along. This city is the least provincial; no nationalism flourishes here. It is the most potent fountainhead of intellectual and artistic endeavor. What this mindless attack has done is desecrate and damage the ideals of international community that this city not only symbolizes, but instantiates as fact and lovely example. And it is this desecration which is so devastatingly heart-breaking.

I recall two things: one, the pleasure and awe with which my mother took in the incomparably stunning view from the 110th floor observation deck of the World Trade Center on a visit from Pakistan in 1974. And two, her reading in Urdu, the words of welcome inscribed in the lobby of that building in over one hundred languages, to all people of the world. Alas, no one shall ever do either again.

Abbas

On that day, the only thing that I was, was a New Yorker. A New Yorker who loved his wounded city more than ever. And one whose only allegiance was to the sentimental cosmopolitan ideal that this city somehow still manages to embody even today. Probably because many people were still in shock and unable to say anything, this email was forwarded along and eventually ended up being one of those things that went around the internet in ever-wider circles. I received hundreds of appreciative emails in reply and my two little paragraphs were translated into various languages and published in newspapers. They were even read aloud by European political leaders at emergency meetings and hastily assembled conferences. People started asking me my opinion on what had happened, and along with all the other bewildering sentiments, I started feeling inflated.

A little over a week later, I found out that one of my close friends, Ehtesham U. Raja, who had so far been unaccounted for, had actually died in the World Trade Center. He had been attending a business meeting that fateful morning in Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the WTC. Again, while trying to recover from this blow, I received many messages of sympathy. And I liked it. And then I felt disgusted for feeling self-important through my friend’s death. It was at that time, while sitting one afternoon in our living room with my wife Margit, in the midst of this confusing tempest of fast-changing emotions, that I sarcastically spewed out (for catharsis) what could in a very generous mood be considered a prose poem. I readily admit that I am no poet, and perhaps there is a bit of what Vladimir Nabokov once rightly described as (something like) “the passing around of specimens of one’s sputum for inspection” about my making public for the first time now what I had written that day, but in the spirit of telling what this horrific event did to us New Yorkers, I adduce it here. Please be gentle in judging me:

How We Became Important

At first we were thrilled,

the way one is thrilled by thrillers.

It was a real-life action movie, and then it got better.

This was no small entertainment–no Amtrak derailment,

no mere collision of jumbo jets over Tenerife.

It was something bigger,

and it was right on our doorstep, just outside our window.

It was real.

ABC News went off the air and, being engineers,

we realized the thin hypodermic,

a transmitting antenna, was destroyed.

We felt clever, in the know.

We changed channels.

We called family members

in anxious, incredulous excitement,

but we couldn’t get through.

Well, yes. That made sense.

This was big.

And then we saw thousands perish in an instant.

In a brown cloud.

Live on television.

And we wept. (Later we would brag about this weeping.)

We inventoried important landmarks nearby,

wondering if we would be next,

but we knew it was fantasy,

a wish for the adrenaline rush of fire and heat,

a wish to be closer, still closer.

Of course, no one thought us important enough to kill,

but it was thrilling to make believe.

We climbed to the roof and watched the rolls of smoke and dust.

We identified F-14s by their double vertical rudders,

the overall silhouette of the Tomcat.

We spoke like admirals about carrier battle groups.

We ate lunch, marveling at the unfolding of History.

We lowered the pitch of our voices, became grave,

newly aware of our central role.

We made pronouncements about death and infamy.

We were lucky enough to be Muslims

(and from Pakistan, too),

and while others worried for our safety,

we knew that no harm would come to us.

All the same, we had become victims–

that most desirable status, that gift of our time.

Now we had sympathy, the ear of the world

for whatever we might like to spew:

hymns and elegies

professing love of this land;

our shock and sorrow, and our attempts to transcend them;

pious lectures about people and nations

outside America’s soft, imaginary borders.

We defended Muslims to Christians and America to Muslims.

We were virtuous, pleading restraint but never peace,

and we became terribly sophisticated in our politics.

We ate well and slept badly.

We dreamed of burning airplanes.

Soon enough our attentions turned to Eros.

Women liked our newfound moist-eyed sensitivity.

You see, we didn’t know if there would be a tomorrow,

and in any case we were too important now

to read fiction or write philosophy.

There was no time for the old things.

This was big.

And then, with our egos already swollen,

we discovered that a close friend had died with all the others.

A man eating a breakfast with a view.

A close friend, gone.

We couldn’t believe our good luck!

Not everyone could claim such moment.

Not everyone would receive messages of condolence.

We had only lived on the periphery of meaning before,

but now, when the landlady called to collect back-rent,

we would ask if everyone she knew was OK,

and hope, hope that she would return the favor.

Rent.

How trivial compared to the loss of our friend.

Yes, there was grief.

But how quickly our losses were recompensed

by feelings of centrality, consequence.

Overnight, we became astute and worldly thinkers,

with courageous and steadfast hearts.

We were potent lovers and sensitive friends.

We were sages and saints,

and wise.

We really thought we had become important.

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