I was 16 when 9/11 happened. What I remember most clearly from that day is the bus ride home from the American international school in London I attended. I sat in the front next to the driver and recall asking her to turn on the radio, which was normally already blaring the latest pop songs, when she said no.
“Not now,” she mumbled tersely.
She didn’t say much, but my instinct told me something was off. That is the moment I remember most clearly, even more clearly than my finally getting dropped off and opening the front door to see my mum’s ashen face and my dad’s absorbed look at the news reports on TV. A plane. A building. New York. Twin towers. Words were being spat out as quickly as the flames from the high-rises we saw tumble like dominoes over the course of the day.
Then more words followed. These were less definitive but heavy nonetheless. They were pointed. Speculative but also loaded, weapons being readied in retaliation. Hijacking. Pentagon. Al Qaeda. Arabs. Muslims. Terrorists. The attack started to take on new dimensions, the reverberations beginning their first of millions of subsequent ripples across millions of innocent lives.
By then, Arabs were already some of the world’s favorite boogeymen, so when 9/11 happened, my family’s and my first thoughts were, “Don’t let them be Muslim; don’t let them be Arab.” Of course, as soon as we realized that wasn’t the case, our hearts sank with foreboding. For a moment, there seemed to be a saving grace in discovering that most of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, given that the relatively chummy relations between them and the U.S. would likely temper the extremity of retaliation. But then a pivot to Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s HQ, and later Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11 at all, happened instead. Millions of innocent civilians were killed in wars that spanned decades. A global faith, one of the three Abrahamic religions, followed by over 1 billion people worldwide, was collectively denounced as evil and, over the decades that followed, countless harms were inflicted — from violence to torture to destitution — on regular people living regular lives.
My school friend at the time, a tall, blond Scandinavian girl who had been raised in Germany, one of the well-educated, traveled, liberal-minded types, was grateful that her brother hadn’t been at one of his business meetings in New York at the time of the attack.
“I’m not really sure if we could have stayed friends if he had been, Layla,” she told me at the time.
I don’t recall what I thought of that statement at the time. Did the unfairness of her statement hit me in the moment, or did I realize it later, when the collective demonization of all Arabs and Muslims became acute? Was it after the “axis of evil” designations, after the attacks on mosques, after the pulling of women’s headscarves, after all the suicide-bomber jokes, after the unanswered job applications, after the “but are you religious” questions? After hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians were killed for crimes they did not commit? Did I smart at her accusation in the same way I did 20 years later when it reentered my consciousness and lit the flame of my suppressed anger and disappointment?
After decades of having my culture and religion painfully vilified because of the actions of a few militant men, I realized just how big a weight I and many of my brothers and sisters had been carrying for so long. Always having to be nice, calm, apologetic, respectable, fun, measured, hospitable, acceptable enough to be seen and appreciated for being a regular, benign human. It had taken a toll, particularly as the reality was that it was mostly Arabs and Muslims who were being killed in droves by American bombs and drones.
And even when it was Arab or Muslim perpetrators, their victims were mostly of their own kind, if not the exact same sect. So why was I meant to feel guilty? My people were getting killed by all sides, but people like me were branded as terrorists.
After I grew older and wiser, and stopped gaslighting myself, and began to allow the full extent of my anger at the injustices committed against my people to emerge, I began to see the problem for what it really was: a racial supremacist one that had me and my type trapped from the start. And I realized who I was really angry at — not the clerics or the mullahs or the hijackers or the suicide-bombers that had made us “look bad” all those years, but rather the superiority complex of many in the West that allowed them to dress up their own government’s form of terrorism in military uniforms and shiny medals while heaping judgement on everyone they deemed inferior.
Unsurprisingly, this anger is burning brightly as I witness a potential genocide being committed in Gaza with the backing of almost every single Western government. Two decades later and I find myself understanding my school friend’s upsetting statement so much better. I feel it too. I too am asking myself some difficult questions. Am I going to be able to stay friends with people who are aligned with a war that I have come to see as fundamentally against me and my kind and who stay silent? Do I have the emotional intelligence and fortitude to even know how?
I was worried to speak to that Scandinavian friend of mine today, 20 years into our best friendship. Considering the blatant disregard for lives like mine being exhibited across the Western world, it felt hard for me not to see her and other Westerners in the same darkened light she once saw me in all those years ago. Back then, I felt the need to give out clear signs and symbols that I wasn’t “that kind,” and I duly gave them to her, with club nights, boozy pubs and naughty boys peppered with regular-enough criticisms of “crazy fundos” for her to get where I stood and to feel safe. I didn’t have much in my power to do beyond that. My government in the U.K. was already making Iraqi lives pay for nonexistent WMDs and Afghans for Saudi Arabia’s Osama bin Laden.
I’m not saying my feelings are all fair. She is not representative of her government, after all. She is an enlightened person, with good core values, a supporter of Palestinian rights and politically aware. But she is also very quiet publicly. I don’t quite know how widely and how loudly she would claim to be an anti-Zionist, in the same way I was often asked about Islamic fundamentalism. There are undoubtedly personal and professional reasons for her lack of vocality but they feel difficult to accept under these circumstances.
My concerns are ones that many other Palestinians are struggling with at the moment. I’ve seen people’s posts on social media calling out the deafening silence of their Western followers on what is happening in Gaza, and I’ve heard many complaints about Western friends’ woeful engagement on the issue. For Palestinians who still have homes and families in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, the lack of public solidarity being exhibited by their friends feels to them like a betrayal.
And while I can understand the desire to not enter a politically charged fray when you don’t have to, it has so much more weight and consequence as a member of the dominant social structure. To put it bluntly: The world is made in the image of Western civilization, to promote its ideals and benefit its adherents. That supremacy needs to be broken, externally and internally. I guess, truth be told, when I picked up my hammer and started smashing it from the outside, I thought my European best friend might pick up another and break through the other side. Was I expecting too much? After all, it can’t be easy to offend a system that favors you, whether you chose it or not.
Of course, there are countless allies, from America and across Europe, who are sticking their necks out and speaking up for Palestinians, whether online or in person at any of the dozens of marches and sit-ins taking place. I’ve been told by several people that their vocal European friends have been threatened by their employers or sponsors for posting online, yet they continue to do so. Several American celebrities have come out publicly calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and, this week, the British entrepreneur Oliver Cookson announced he was divesting from Israeli businesses and arms companies in his $600 million portfolio. Nevertheless, there remains a glaring silence within personal circles, and it is resulting in a reevaluation of friendships and raising questions about common values.
My interaction with another female school friend, an American, who by chance I saw for the first time in more than 10 years a few weeks before Oct. 7, when she visited London, exemplifies the difficulty in communicating this issue. After the Hamas attacks and the Israeli assault on Gaza began, I messaged her on Instagram to ask why she didn’t include Palestinians in the post she had made calling for “peace and love and humanity” for Jewish people. Couldn’t we all be included in such a lovely message, I asked? She apologized and agreed and said she’d “think about wording” for a next post, which never came.
After the Al-Ahli hospital attack of Oct. 17, I, like countless others, was utterly distraught. The next day, I woke up to a private message from my American friend expressing sadness and horror over what was happening in Gaza, but I checked her profile and there was still no post. I snapped and wrote a series of despairing impassioned pleas asking her why she “and so many others in the world who have power and privilege [are] not willing to stand up for what’s right?” She smarted at that question, responding with a terse “that’s simply not true about me” and ignored every other aspect of me asking for collective and equal humanity for all people. She did, however, add a sympathetic “sorry for your pain” and closed with “sending love.” She then proceeded to unfollow me and never engaged with me on the topic of my pain again.
It is often difficult to communicate with Westerners on Israel/Palestine. Riddled with fear and guilt over antisemitism, they overcompensate with inane binaries or shoulder shrugs that leave many of us livid. Internalized racism, fed by a media and political discourse that instinctively dehumanizes people of color, also allows them to shirk off concern for our human life more easily. “I’m not into politics” is another common refrain, along with “there’s nothing I can do,” but the reality is that when a particular group of people have disproportionate power, they have an obligation to use it, and, in the midst of such intense violence and suffering, doing nothing is a choice.
By contrast, the conversations I’ve had with Jews and with Israelis have been complex and deep, much like the conflict itself. Multilayered and far-reaching, Jews the world over understand that something seismic and fundamentally inhumane — regardless of the rationale for it — is being committed in their name, and they are showing up for that. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Westerners in whose name many heinous policies are now being enacted, be it in America’s vetoing of a cease-fire at the U.N. and its military financing of Israel or the EU’s unwavering support for the occupying power. And yet this particular group of people find it hard to show up in public solidarity with oppressed people and innocent children, balking at you when you press them about calling out obvious atrocities committed against the Palestinians.
As for my best friend, the truth is that we have never had to put my allegiance to her causes to the test. She has never needed to have any. That’s the light load you carry when you’re born into a middle-class family in prosperous, postwar Europe. Maybe I’m just jealous she doesn’t have to scroll through pictures of dead Scandinavian babies under the rubble. Maybe it’s envy that she doesn’t have to worry if people think she’s human enough to live or die that is really getting to me. I can’t deny that I sometimes wish I had that simple life. But then it would mean that system had crumbled, and would her life be so simple then?
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