This is a personal account from GPC student, Alaa Elassar.
On 9/11, we as Americans usually take this day as a moment of reflection as we try to properly grieve for the innocents we lost that day and to honor the losses of thousands of families. Along with that, on every anniversary of the attacks, we still try to find what or who is to blame.
Through years of living in suspicion, self-doubt, and trying to find out how to hold myself together as a woman from so many backgrounds, I’ve figured out the importance of the connection I have with my home countries, including America. As a Palestinian-American Muslim who has lived through years of post-9/11 discrimination, I’ve finally understood what it meant to be American…and Muslim.
I come from a culture rich and beautiful in traditions. Never have I taken for granted the innocence they gave me as a child, when I was taught to perceive rain as the way God gives me a chance to reach him through a portal in a world I was too excited to stay in. I remember sitting on rooftops and savoring the warm glow of the sunset. I remember biting into mangoes and grapes and figs that forced my tongue under the savory juices of the fruit that captured the pure essence of my country.
I can remember being a child and screaming in an airport, sensing the idea that part of my heart was being torn out of my body as I left home, unsuspecting of the fact that my feet wouldn’t touch Egyptian soil for another 11 years. I especially remember my father’s grip on my arm; panicked and protective, his eyes grieving. Grieving, and telling me it would never be the same.
I remember looking down at miles and miles of desert, thinking of all the ways a child like myself could have said goodbye.
This is another side of the 9/11 stories I have memorized like the back of my hand, reading and rereading them every year as I am forced to stare into people’s eyes, feeling guilty for a pain I felt as well, but couldn’t understand. It’s another side to the Islamic militants high school teachers quoted when they spotted me in class, and the constant assurance I grudgingly give when I hear ISIS (very ironically) bought up in conversations. Fifteen years of apologizing for someone else’s mistake has transformed me into a woman incapable of sympathy for people who label me as a member of a militia despite the honor I carry myself as an American.
I remember 9/11 because the moments it took to break a hole into the wall of our American history were the same moments that haunted me for all the years of my childhood, adolescence, and even now. I remember our mothers picking us up early, telling us not to talk until we were home. I remember our fathers gathering us up in their arms and promising us it wouldn’t change things for us.
I remember them taking us back to mosques we had been visiting every day since we came to the country, and I remember people touching the ashes of what was left of the buildings that had burned down. The last buildings which had held what was left of the memories we were almost able to relive as we sat under massive arches and domes and closed our eyes and smelled the air of incense and perfume they sprayed the carpets with so when my forehead touched the ground, we’d breathe in home. What I don’t seem to remember is knowing that long after we’d leave America, we’d still pay the price of this country’s sins.
Being an immigrant here is like writing a contract and giving it to a government who owns your future. At three, by stepping onto American soil, I’d agreed to give the part I’d loved most about me away. This goes beyond the politics of 9/11, and even farther beyond the fact that we already know we were much more involved in the reasons we lost 2,977 innocent lives in the attacks. We already know that we have taken the lives of 67 times that number in innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the September attacks, we weren’t even given the chance to grieve our own losses, to bury the ones we’d never see again once they died in the towers. We weren’t given the chance to understand why our fathers stopped wearing their traditional clothing; the only things they had left of Palestine. We were not given the chance to decipher the reflection of our mothers’ tears in the mirror as they delicately and courageously wrapped silk scarves around their heads.
Although 9/11 is what changed the way I saw myself as a Palestinian-American, it also gave me perspective, passion, and appreciation. It especially gave me the confidence which pushes me to speak against injustice and the love I have for the people of this country who push their arms out towards us in acceptance of the diverse cultures which make this country worth fighting for. I have learned to fall in love with my home countries and my people.
Eleven years after leaving Egypt and being prohibited from returning to Palestine, I went back to Alexandria. As I did when I was a child, I slept on rooftops of buildings that reached the heavens I dreamed of reaching. I sobbed at the touch of my grandmother, and I fell in love with the busiest streets in the city. I rebelled against the evil of governments and rejoiced with the youth of my country as we won a revolution that inspired the existence of modern justice. I am in the middle of a three–way conflict, and although society’s stereotypes have tried to take away the honor of my people, we have never felt more at home.