Sunday, September 11, 2011

Finding the Right Words, Reflections on the heartbreak of 9/11

It’s after midnight on September 11th.  In just a few hours, the clocks will strike 8:46 a.m. marking a decade’s passing of the unimaginable.  For the last month, I have been thinking of this very night… wondering what I would be doing, how I would be remembering, and maybe more importantly, what I would be writing.

A blog post, an article, or even a journal entry seemed in order.  Over the past few weeks, I struggled to find words that would articulate what I had to say.  Strange as it may seem, the usual rambling writer in me stayed stubbornly silent.  My poised fingers refused to cooperate in creating a stellar account worthy of commemorating the lives lost and the radical changes that our nation underwent that day.

Now, in the eleventh hour, as I sit staring at my blank laptop screen lamenting the lack of words for such a critical occasion, it suddenly dawns on me as to why I cannot write.  For the past few months… no, for the past few years… I have written about 9/11 and its aftermath out of a sense of obligation. Whether writing about the tragedy, or about being Muslim in America post 9/11, or about the painful loss of lives, my writing often felt like a duty, both required and expected.  I developed a weighted sense of responsibility that urged me to write statements staunchly opposing terrorism, denouncing the hijackers, and lamenting the slaughter mainly from the point of view of a Muslim Arab-American.

In all these writings, though, I always felt like there was a missing element.  Something in my words just didn’t feel right.  I couldn’t bring myself to write about my own experiences or my own reflections of 9/11.  I never wrote about how years before that fateful day, I travelled daily through the World Trade Center on the Path train during my commute to my first internship in the city. I never mentioned how giddy I felt gawking at the majesty of the buildings the first time I laid eyes on them.  I never shared the sense of pride I had of working in a city that I had fallen in love with.

 I couldn’t bring myself to write about the sickness in my stomach as I watched the towers collapse on the news while holding my newborn safely at home several miles away from the scene.  I never shared the inexplicable worry that shot through me as I wondered if the friendly pizza man in the WTC Sbarro’s ever got out okay.  I never wrote about my own sense of sadness after learning that friends I’d worked with had lost lives that day.

And then it clicked.  I couldn’t write about 9/11 today because for so long I had set up a clear distinction… a barrier between emotion and obligation.  My writing on the topic embodied this separation.  As explanation usurped emotion, I never articulated my own feelings of humanity or my shared sense of loss.  I bought into the mediated distinction of the Muslim “other” and neglected to focus on the communal sentiment of a human being sharing the desolation of unbelievable tragedy.  In trying so hard to avoid being viewed as an outsider, my defensive mode of writing did just the opposite. 

As the clock creeps closer and closer towards marking the ten years that passed since the tragedy of 9/11, I can finally write.  I can let go of the need to find the “perfect” words because there are no words that can erase such deep wounds.  I can focus less on what to write and more on what to do. 

My nation is in mourning today for the loss of lives here and abroad after the senseless heartbreak of 9/11.  As an American… no, as a human… I know what I should do today.  Writing empty words in an attempt to honor the memories of so many is not enough.  Breaking down self-imposed barriers through actions is a much more potent reminder of the beauty of our country, our communities, and the people we lost.  Strengthening the bonds of humanity by helping others today shows respect and compassion borne of the deep sympathy that was shared on the day that changed our world ten years ago.  For me, the best form of commemoration on 9/11 is a day spent helping others-- hand-in-hand, un-alienated from my country, my people, and my world. 

How will you remember?

May the lives we lost on 9/11 serve as a memory to strengthen our human bonds.  May the souls all rest in peace.  And may the families and friends of loved ones find comfort and consolation in the hearts of their communities.

          --Post by Suzy Ismail

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