9/11

I was sleeping when the two towers went down. I woke late that morning to a Manhattan skyline full of smoke. I left California two weeks before. I had been accepted into the the Whitney Independent Study Program, a Marxist post-graduate art program in lower Manhattan. Our first meeting scheduled on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 never took place. That day a pervasive terror started to form my understanding of what was happening. My fear wasn’t the same fear everybody said they were feeling. Mine was an existential and racial one.

What are they going to do to us?

At some point in my life as an American, I, together with my family had submitted to the demands that we were not American. Not only were we foreign to all Americans we met, but going further, we became foreign to ourselves. To threatening hosts, we surrendered what differences we could. Some differences couldn’t be erased. Some could be seen, some could be smelled and some could be heard. This sense of exclusion was not foremost in my mind that day. I mean I wasn’t conscious of it. It was part of the reality of my existence in the U.S: exclusion, racism, and a range of subtle to open hostilities aimed at my very existence. It was a reality I inhaled with each breath, so often and regularly that it became routine. I usually didn’t notice anything until something out of this routine happened.

What are they going to do to us?

In each public written or oral account of what Americans were going through after September 11th there are echoed sentiments of sadness, fear and rage. Fear of the possibility of being harmed by a “terrorist”, sadness at the innocent life lost, and rage for those responsible. I never had this general sequence of emotions. Mine were far more selfish and instinctually rooted in survival. My markers of difference, my Arab nose, my curly hair, and my turbaned Sikh male relatives - these were the first thoughts that constituted my fear. In the following weeks, I heard accounts of temple and gurdwara burnings, attacks and murders. They had come looking for blood.

What are they going to do to us?

In Escape through the Pyrenees, Lisa Fittko's memoir of escaping Nazi persecution in World War 2, she divides the world into 2 kinds of people: those who ask what will happen to us? and  those that ask what can I do? In her estimation, those that asked what will happen to us, didn’t survive. I guess the question I was asking in the days after September 11th, is the same as what will happen to us. In asking it I identified myself as a victim. I assumed passivity through its utterance. I yielded my power and waited to be acted upon. My fear was total.

 

At the time, I could only see dead bodies ahead of me. In a way I was right to ask my question. There was suffering ahead. But in another way I gave my strength away and decided to put my head down, raising it only in the form of my work, which was seen in small liberal art circles where everyone is busy congratulating themselves on their good politics, never noticing they don’t actually have anything at stake in the outcome. Now, years later, asking that other question, the one Lisa Fittko asked at the start of World War 2, becomes more urgent.

What can I do?