Monday, September 12, 2011

My memory

Ten years ago today, I was a senior sitting in my first period AP Economics class when a teacher from down the hall rushed into my classroom and without a word of apology for interrupting the class, blurted out, "They've just crashed a plane into the World Trade Center. Turn on your TV."  Before that day, I didn't know what the World Trade Center was, I had never heard the name Osama bin Laden, and had no idea that my identity as an American was about to change forever.

When every television in every classroom in my school showed the Twin Towers engulfed in flame, ash and debris, I naively thought that it was an accident---that some drunk pilot had fallen asleep at the wheel or something. I had heard the word terrorism before that day, of course. But I never thought of that word as having a place within my own vocabulary.  I can't remember using the word before that day. When my classmates and I watched the news anchors reporting on the scene, I heard this word used over and over again and I began to get a sinking feeling in my stomach.

By third period, my worst suspicions were confirmed.  The news anchors were reporting that Islamist extremists were suspected of orchestrating the suicide bombings. When this update left the news anchors lips, a sophomore girl dressed in her ROTC uniform, announced to the class, "I can't wait until I'm in the army so I can get in a plane and bomb all of those damn Iranians myself."  Shaking with fear and anger, I turned in my seat to face her and said equally loudly, "Excuse me. I'm a damn Iranian." I even pronounced it like she did: Eye-rain-ian instead of the correct pronunciation which is: Eee-ron-ian. The whole class fell silent and I turned back in my seat and put my head down. I was stunned at her comment and at the boldness with which she uttered it. In a way, I couldn't believe it. I had spent my whole life trying to explain to friends and classmates where my dad was from.  Most people heard the statement, "My dad's Iranian" and accepted it without judgement. Just curiosity.  My childhood friends reacted to my dad's nationality with innocent ignorance,"Your dad's from Iran? Where's that?"  instead of with the belligerent ignorance that I encountered that day and henceforth.

By fourth period, the PA system was rattling off the names of all of the students who were being pulled from class.  Parents were in a panic over the possibility of another terrorist attack, this time in Miami, and the number of students being pulled out probably numbered in the hundreds. Midway through fourth period, I heard my own name called. In confusion, I grabbed my bag and my jacket, said goodbye to my friends and walked out of the class.  I scanned the throng of parents for my mother and instead saw my older sister and her then boyfriend waiting for me.  "What's going on? Why did you pull me out of class?"  I asked.  "Mom thought that you'd be having a tough day," she said simply.  I found out when I got home that my other sister had encountered the same kind of hostility at work when one of her coworkers announced to the whole office that she just wished that people like that (she emphasized the word "that"  while looking at my sister) would just go back to where they came from.

When I was sitting in the backseat of my sister's boyfriends car as we drove home, I started feeling really sick.  That day, I came down with the flu and I didn't have to go to school the rest of the week.  In a way, I was glad not to have to go because I didn't know how other people would react to me. My friends, I knew, would stay my friends. But I was worried to go into my third period class. I was worried about being treated differently.

If you've never faced discrimination before, I doubt you will be able to understand just how I felt in those days. Apart from being worried and afraid for myself and my family, I also felt angry. Angry that this had to happen at all. Angry at the extremists for putting Middle Eastern people into a position where they have to defend where they're from and what they believe. When the news came out that no single suicide bomber was Iranian, it didn't make a difference.  When the media showed images of people gathering in Tehran to light candles for the victims of the attacks, it didn't make a difference. We were seen as the enemy and it didn't matter that we weren't.  Suddenly my dad, who is not even a practicing Muslim, became a fundamentalist in the eyes of the world.  Some of my dad's Iranian friends coincidentally lost their jobs around this time.  Iranian students who overstayed their student visas in order to not have to return to Iran where they couldn't find jobs and would be repressed by a totalitarian regime, were suddenly tracked down by the Department of Homeland Security, detained, interrogated and unceremoniously kicked out.

I felt that in the days following September 11th, I was being told by the whole country that despite being born here and regardless of whether I identified myself as American or not did not matter anymore.  I was going to be different whether I wanted to be or not.  I couldn't call myself American anymore.

In ten years, it has gotten easier.  Time passes and people's memories do fade for the most part.  But that latent feeling of alienation is still there. When Osama bin Laden was killed, people would ask me what I thought of his death.  It's as though they think my opinion would somehow be different from any one else's.  That I wouldn't feel happy and relieved that there was one less murderer in the world. When people ask me what I think of the latest terrorist attack, or the war in Iraq, or the latest inflammatory comment that Ahmadinejad has made, I am aware that those people do not see me as an American. Suddenly, I'm not a half-Persian, half-Chilean girl who was born in Miami.  Suddenly I am an other.

I have questioned my identity over and over since that day. Whether I even want to be called an American if Americans don't want me. What's that old line? Something like, "I don't want to be part of any club that would have me as a member?"  Well I felt the opposite way once. I desperately wanted to be part of a club that wouldn't have me.  In that sense, national identity can be a very fickle thing. Even today, I'm glad I have so many to fall back on: American, Persian, Chilean, Miamian. That way, the expulsion from one identity does not make me feel groundless and invisible.

I know this post is lengthy and pretty deep but it feels cathartic to get it all out for once. I also think it's important that we all document our memories of September 11th not just so that we can reflect but also so that we can learn from each other's experiences.   The upshot of this whole post in case I rambled, is simply this: We're all Americans. All the time. No matter what.

(Photo:Getty Images)


  1. Wow, powerful post. I'm sorry you had (and have) to face that kind of stuff. I'm just as shocked by ignorant people's comments as I am by anything related to terrorism. We're not so different from each other when we're all behaving like that.

    I did want to reply to your thoughts about people asking your opinion on certain events. We all have different opinions based on our life experiences, backgrounds etc. and maybe it's just me, but I'd be genuinely interested in your opinions on things like that as opposed to thinking of you as "other" and just asking a question I'm not even interested in hearing an answer to. Is it the question that bothers you or is it the way they ask?

  2. Found your lovely post through your comment on Jenna Park's blog. It makes me sick to think of the ignorance of some people that leads to hurting innocents. I often wonder if people in this country have ceased to think for themselves. While I wish your experience was unique and isolated, I'm sure it is not -- there's a great This American Life episode on this issue that you can listen to online:

  3. @ThisTinder That's a great question. I guess I'm bothered by the tone of the question more than the fact that it was asked. As you said, you can tell when someone is asking you something as a way to judge you or as an opening to tell you what they think or what they think you should think. Does that make sense?
    Please know that if I thought someone was asking me because they are genuinely curious or interested in Middle Eastern issues (as you seem to be) I would love to answer their questions to the best of my ability. XO

  4. @Anonymous: Thank you for your very beautiful comment. I got a little teary eyed reading it because you're so right and I feel heartened when I see that not everyone is so thoughtless and unkind (isn't it sad that those sentiments seem so few and far between?) I will definitely check out the link you sent. As we say in Iran, mamnoonam.

  5. Hi Kiana, Yeah I know what you mean about how you can tell from the tone, etc. what people are *really* trying to say.

    Interestingly, and I don't know if this is just in Canada or my experience, but being something other than "white" is becoming more and more the desirable scenario. Now, even people from the standard white European background feel the need to clarify and expand that they are *something*, not just "white" or Canadian :) That may be more in urban areas though.

  6. <3 you. You do a great job of putting feelings into words. (Better than I EVER could.) ...

    my memory: 2nd period English class