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9/11: An Expat's View

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The anniversary of 9/11 affects all Americans, including those who live abroad. I lived in New York City. I now live in Tartu, Estonia, a university town in northern Europe. And so, I also think about this day, and what it means Eleven years have passed, but the effects are so real, and so is the love I feel for all those affected.

On this September 11, I am sitting in the third floor of Tartu's central public library. I see the passing streams of cars. Beyond the rows of tall oak, standing like palace guards at attention, marking the entrance to a parkway lining the western bank of the Emajõe River. My body is in Estonia. But expatriation is never complete. Go as far as you can, and still a part of yourself remains in your native country. Where your grandparents and great-grandparents are buried, you were born, where you first learned to walk and speak, where you first fell in love and where you first suffered heartbreak -- you can never fully leave such a place.

America is big. Perhaps too big. I cannot feel so much for every part of it, or even most parts. But on this day, I think of that one city in America that means so much to me. Gotham. The Big Apple. Sweet New York City.

I was not there on that traumatic day. I only saw the before and the after. I remember when I first came to live there, how vast it all seemed, a megalopolis, a galaxy rather than a city. How Manhattan was a forest of stone, steel and glass, with skyscrapers reaching heavenwards with infinite striving. And on the streets below, so much life and humanity, moving at least twice as fast as how I lived in California. In that relatively small space, people from every kind of background, every race and ethnicity, every religion and political viewpoint, every kind of story of joy and sorrow. That richness of human life will always impress me even more than Manhattan's Promethean cityscape.

I remember learning to live there, finding my way about in the city. Forming friendships, some of which will survive, I think, for the whole course of lives. I think of the churches I visited, the places where I prayed. Of the little Greek Orthodox church, in a parking lot in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Of how I passed those two towers everyday on my way to work, thinking nothing of them, assuming they would always be there. We always mistake the contingent for the perpetual. And after work, often going to the bookstore at WTC 5, spending a few hours reading and thinking. I mostly read about Central Asia. Ironically, perhaps, the book I remember most was a volume on minerals in Afghanistan.

I remember, too, my first girlfriend. It was in New York City that we met, and came to know each other. That is the main reason I am grateful to that metropolis. I cannot disentangle my memories of bustling Manhattan, of its parks and bookstores and museums and cafes, from my memories of her, of the time we spent together.

I left for California, to pursue my own plans. They did not transpire as I had thought. Human plans never do. But perhaps they were for the best. In any case, we were no longer together, but I kept in touch with her and other friends.

I was asleep on the morning of September 11. I was living in a graduate student house in Berkeley. My neighbour, who was also my friend, classmate, and karate instructor, banged on my door, exclaiming "America is under attack!" I stumbled to the next room, cognitive dissonance mixed with morning drowsiness, to see the news. I saw the footage. Both towers had already fallen. I knew there would be immense damage. I could not believe, however, that they simply disappeared. They were like mountains, as far as I remembered them. And I heard Afghanistan mentioned in connection with them, but not because of lapis lazuli or any other kind of precious stone.

I was worried, of course, for all of my friends in New York. Especially those I had worked with, at a Fortune 500 company a few blocks from the towers. Especially her, because she worked there. I knew she often got out of the subway stops near WTC. I called, and like so many others, could not get through.

I found out later that she, and everyone else I knew, had escaped bodily harm. I visited New York City again, two or three years later. I saw Ground Zero. My eyes confirmed for themselves that that whole complex was gone. Nothing left but a gaping, hollow space. The Greek Orthodox church was gone, too.

I also saw my friends and acquaintances again. I asked one of them what was different now. He said most things stayed the same, but people were quieter. People just didn't speak as loud anymore.

And I met her, too. I was glad to see her. But she had changed. She had seen terrible things on that day. I had always been able to make her laugh. But she could not. For a time, laughter was banished from her heart. And that was far more chilling to me than any architectural destruction.

So much else in America changed, as well. American conservatism changed. It used to be far more hospitable to the idea that the West is a tradition joined with others. All religions may not be equally true (from the sheer logic of competing claims), but the numerous expressions of sacredness around the globe deserved some kind of respect. My college was a small, liberal arts Catholic college that is very much part of the American conservative intelligentsia. One of the visiting speakers was Erik von Kuehnnelt-Leddihn, a charming, learned and eccentric Austrian cosmopolitan aristocrat who was part of the founding of American conservatism at National Review. He spoke about his travels through the Muslim world. A devout and orthodox Catholic, he was still open and perceptive to the humanity in this other world. His words painted such a vivid and intriguing picture, that I became interested in understanding Islamic history and thought. And that wasn't such a strange interest to have, as a conservative before 9/11.

I saw American conservatism slowly morph into something else. I do not buy into idealistic "religion of peace" political correctness, but neither do I believe in paranoia, or suspicion, or chauvinism. But I saw my political home succumb, over time, to nationalism. And so, I became homeless to an extent, although neither my principles nor my physical location changed.

This was not simply a matter of abstractions. Conservatism was not just a set of ideas, but also a web of friendships, so many of which I formed in New York City. I was part of what one can call "the Bohemian Right." For example, many of us would go to a Catholic church in midtown Manhattan, near Grand Central Station, that still has the mass in Latin. We would meet up afterward, sometimes at someone's apartment, other times at a diner. We would discuss monarchy and the gold standard, Thomas Aquinas and tarot cards, Croatian industrial bands and Jewish Yemeni folk music. All that is gone, too, from my life.

Such is the way of things. Life composed of periods of time that have their proper charm. We don't fully appreciate how precious they are until they pass. And they always do recede. Just their manner of passing changes. In some cases, an act of violence marks the boundary between one part of life and the next.

And so I look at those oak trees, which are present and alive in this moment, this period. Looking at their green leaves and brown bark, I think of those hymns and paintings of the cross, and of the mourning of Karbala, the Islamic Golgotha. I may be a believer, but I agree more with Voltaire than Leibniz. Pain is integral to the mystery of life, and it just can never be fully explained.

And across the Atlantic, beyond so many miles of sea, New York City also survives. And over that salt water, I salute that city of so many souls, and move on.

Ave atque vale. Greetings, and goodbye.