On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was packing up to go to college in my childhood apartment on the Upper West Side when my mother came back from the supermarket with orange juice and the news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I had planned to go to Century 21 that day, which then sat across from the Twin Towers, boasting bargains on everything I thought I needed for four years in Chicago. Instead, I spent the next 48 hours like everyone else in the country, huddled with family and friends in front of the television, watching the horror show happening downtown. Sirens echoed in the street without end, and by the first afternoon we had to close our windows against the stench and smoke drifting up from Ground Zero along the river and through the streets. That first evening, friends visiting the city from Louisville arrived like refugees at our door after wandering the deserted streets of midtown Manhattan all day, and we all cried together in front of the television.
On September 13, 2001 my mother and I set off for Chicago and my new school, heading west across the George Washington Bridge with the radio on, leaving the smoldering city behind. I felt disloyal as we drove away, and scared that the city wouldn't be the same when I came back. Each time we stopped on our drive, our New York license plates gave us away, and clerks, gas station attendants and waitresses in Pennsylvania and Ohio hugged us, choking up about what had just happened where we were from.
The next Monday, on my first day of college, I enrolled in Beginners Arabic. The year before there had been just twelve students enrolled in Arabic 101 at the University of Chicago; the week after 9/11, there were nearly triple that, and the Near Eastern Languages Department had to pull in an extra teacher to meet the demand. In the year after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the number of undergraduate students studying Arabic doubled nationwide.
There were no CIA moles in my first year Arabic class, as far as I know. There were a few students of Middle Eastern descent, hoping to learn more about their culture. There was a girl planning to visit her boyfriend in Cairo the next year; a grad student studying the Crusades who felt it might be useful in order to read medieval texts. The rest of us just felt it was the right thing to do, although few were able to explain why. Something terrible had happened to our country, and learning Arabic seemed the closest any of us might get to doing something that mattered. By the time we were in our second month of classes, the war in Afghanistan was in full swing, and my cousin joked that I'd better switch to Dari my second year.
I came back to New York for the first time over Thanksgiving, and as my cab swung down toward the FDR from the airport I could see a million American flags atop buildings, the red, white and blue cloth glittering in the late afternoon sun. That weekend my friends and I took the subway downtown, and made our way quietly to a line wrapped round the block near Ground Zero, police herding tourists past the rubble that remained. Vendors were already selling miniature towers, t-shirts and FDNY baseball caps, and framed photos of the World Trade Center-dominated Manhattan skyline, the words "Never Forget" in bold, angry letters along the bottom. The neighborhood had been transformed into a Disneyland, filled with hustlers and souvenir stands, a place for making money off of other people's grief. I felt better when we were a few blocks away, sitting in a quiet coffee shop talking about what we had lost. Back in Chicago, sitting in Arabic class, I tried to explain what Ground Zero was like to a classmate. She shook her head. "Already, there's no dialogue," she said grimly.
This summer, the debate over the proposed Islamic center at 51 Park Place, near Ground Zero, has gotten heated and ugly, with little dialogue and plenty of hatred. Yesterday, a man wearing a white cap walking by protesters near the site was called a coward, which led to the chant of "Mohammed is a pig." The proposed center, which Mayor Bloomberg supports but which seems to have flummoxed many politicians, including Obama, has become an excuse for prejudice against Muslims to again be publicly exhibited and lauded.
One of the repeated arguments against the center has been that it is somehow disrespectful to victims of 9/11. On Facebook a few days ago, a friend wrote "Pretty sure anyone who thinks Park Place is hallowed ground has never been to Park Place." She makes a good point. Nothing is more disrespectful to the victims of 9/11 than the souvenir stands and stores which populate the area. I suggest anyone who is against the proposed Muslim Community Center, especially those taking the time to protest in person, take a good look around the area and see what it's become. It is shameful that in a city as diverse as New York, the Muslim community is still clearly viewed as guilty by association. A community center of any faith, bringing offerings of peace and dialogue to an area that has seen so much and turned so sour, should be welcomed by all.