Yesterday afternoon while we were on our way to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, my husband (a Scot) drove by a restaurant in England where we are at the moment that reminded him of the September 11 attacks on the United States. He had dinner at that restaurant shortly after the attacks. Someone he worked with called him on the phone earlier that day and told him what was happening. His initial reaction was, “What? What do you mean? What does this mean?” He describes another work colleague’s reaction being, “I really need to eat Chinese food.” So they both got up and went out for Chinese. It was only later, my husband explained, that they both realized the severity of the attacks and the massive death toll that ensued.
“Where were you on September 11?” my husband asked me. And I proceeded to tell him a story I do not like to tell and have rarely told. But it is the true story of so many Arabs that day, even if they won’t admit it.
I was at our sporting club in Cairo on the afternoon of September 11 with my children, my ex-husband, and my father-in-law. My father-in-law worked in television and suddenly got a phone call. His reactions to what was being said on the other end of the line were odd. “What happened??” I asked. “Planes are attacking the United States,” he responded. “What?? That doesn’t make sense. What do you mean planes are attacking the United States??” He had no further explanation other than saying that it seemed someone was waging war against America.
Together with everyone at the sporting club – the news was spreading like wildfire – we all headed towards the nearest television set at the club. Crowds were gathering. We saw images of airplanes flying into tall skyscrapers. People were incredulous but almost everyone had a smile on their face. As did I. My initial thoughts were, “Finally someone is teaching the U.S. a lesson. Finally they are getting a taste of their own medicine.”
For years I had been very angry at U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East; so angry that I renounced my U.S. citizenship to protest the U.S. bombings of Iraq during Bill Clinton’s administration.
When I got home, however, my initial reaction to the September 11 attacks changed. I realized that thousands of innocent civilians were dying as a result of these attacks. And I realized that the lives of hundreds of thousands more civilians were being changed forever. I realized what was happening was horrific. It was wrong. It was not deserved.
Some four hours after my husband and I had this conversation recalling the September 11 attacks, we turned on the TV to learn that explosions at the Boston Marathon had just claimed lives and limbs. My husband is a marathon runner. I aspire to be one some day. We were both in a state of shock. This time, as was the case in many other instances since September 11, my initial and remaining reaction was one of dread. I followed the news updates with an intensity, waiting for the news I feared most: that these attacks were perhaps performed by someone claiming to belong to an Islamist group again. Up until the writing of these words, the source of the explosions are yet to be revealed. I continue to await the news with dread.
I’ve been flipping through my social media feeds and they are flooded with Arabs and Muslims sending their condolences to the people of Boston. The reaction is almost defensive. It’s as if we’re saying, “We don’t support this even if it is one of us who did it.”
The reaction, I would venture to say, is not only one of horror at the loss of life at a sporting event. It is that, of course. But it is also one of deep-seated frustration. We have had to endure years and years of explosions, killings, thuggery, and foreign invasions in our part of the world. So many lives have been lost. So many other lives affected. In a few countries, the people managed to reach a state of previously unknown euphoria after deposing decades-long dictators. We were at a turning point, we all thought. Change is on the way, we were almost certain. Our children will have a brighter future, was the general sentiment. But two years after our revolutions, the situation is dire. The economy in my country Egypt is in a strait, the security situation on the ground is lousy, and our politicians seem to be in a rabid power frenzy. We watch the situation in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq with a certain numbness. My social media feed receives pictures of dead children from some posters almost on a daily basis. It’s gruesome. I scroll past these pictures the way I would scroll past a picture of a penis; the pictures are distasteful, is all I really think.
My people endure not only all of the above, but we have endured, most of all, years of illiteracy and ignorance. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have a decent education, those of us who have been even more fortunate to be exposed to knowledge and thought and culture, are deeply frustrated with the ignorant, often fanatic thinking we are exposed to almost on a daily basis. On one level, we blame ourselves: we have not done enough to combat illiteracy, ignorance, and fanaticism. On another level we understand its roots: decades, if not more, of oppression by dictatorships, which, oddly enough, were supported and encouraged by world democracies. And decades, if not more, of foreign interventions that have bred hate and disdain among even the educated amongst us.
The thing that hits me most is that my reaction, and clearly the reaction of so many other Arabs, towards the bombings of the Boston Marathon, was one of shock and attention. My reaction towards the deaths of people in my own country and those happening in neighboring countries has been one of numbness. The only explanation I can think of for this disparity is that I realize we have a long and difficult road ahead of us in the Arab and Muslim worlds until we fix our problems. These horrible things will happen in our part of the world until we, as a people, are able to unite in creating the change that we need. But as so many of us are working hard at creating this change, if ever so slowly, our problems spill over into other parts of the world. This spillage then has terrible repercussions on our efforts. We face more intolerance, we become the targets of anger, and frequently there is more foreign intervention. So for every small step of positive change that we create, we get thrown back a thousand more steps.
My sympathies go to the people of Boston. My continued numbness shields me from the immense pains in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And dread fills me as we wait to hear who did it this time and thus learn how far behind we will fall yet again.