Being Able to Smile on September 11

09/09/2011 11:53 am ET | Updated Nov 09, 2011

A decade on from the fateful Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001 every American still remembers where they first heard the news or were when America came under attack. Most of us remember the horrific images and the accompanying feelings of fear, horror, panic, rage, and sickness. Despite having experienced all of these emotions in different ways on 9-11, I must confess I had a very different experience from most of my fellow citizens. As a result, when I think back to September 11th, 2001 I am left not just with knot in my stomach thinking about the tragedy, but a sense of hope and hospitality that was given to me by who I spent that fateful day with on the other side of the world in an area that many Americans would also come to equate with that day, but for all the wrong reasons.

At the time, I was on a study-abroad program in Europe as a junior in college and I had decided with another American friend to take a week off to visit Morocco. On that Tuesday afternoon at just past 3:30pm local time word reached us in the form of an out-of-breath British journalist who informed us that the King had ordered a state of emergency and closed the airport because of attacks in America. Not knowing what else to do given that our hotel no longer would take us and our flight back to Europe was not for another few days, we set out walking to find a place to watch the latest news.

At every teashop and restaurant images of falling, burning corpses and debris filled the screens. Staring blankly at the smoldering tower of the World Trade Center I distinctly remember watching the second plane appear in the frame and strike its target live on a CNN broadcast. A collective gasp went up, soon followed by clamoring and shouting in Arabic. Not knowing what they were saying and becoming the object of the shouting we no longer felt welcomed. My redhead Jewish friend's prominent Star of David was buttoned up and eyes began to burrow into us. Questions about where we were from as the only non-Moroccans wearing cargo shorts and carrying backpacks became uncomfortable. Rather than answer, we ran away out of fear.

Escaping the hustle and bustle of the downtown we found a hole-in-the-wall soup shop with no one else around but a kind old woman and television set. Saying "Salam allekum" (peace be with you) seemed like a joke as we ordered lentil soup and fresh bread in a transformed world in which our homeland was under attack, by assailants we could only speculate on at the time. As our food arrived two men pulled up on a motorbike. Dark with beards they walked in smiling and approached us. Bracing for the worst, we tried to ignore them and started to speak in the broken Dutch we had just taken an intensive course learning to no avail.

"Americans?" They stared inquisitively beginning to speak in both broken English and French. Mohammad and Ibrahim introduced themselves and sat down uninvited. Through sign language and four different broken languages we carried on a conversation about the events of the day. We speculated about what had happened, they informed us that it wasn't just New York that Washington and some place with a "field" was attacked. They told us missiles had been launched and that America was at war. They offered their condolences and insisted on hosting us.

"Where will you go? We will show you Morocco, yalla." Against both of our better judgments, and our mothers' subsequent horror, we left with them in our shell-shocked state. Entering the half-finished home of Mohammad we found his entire family in a large room on the outskirts of town. As the sun went down we had no idea where we were, but the home cooking and conversation did not end. Seeing a Q'uran prominently displayed along with Islamic calligraphy I engaged our hosts in a series of discussions on religion. Having a pastor as a father sharing and discussing faith has always been a natural part of my life that no one in Europe had even once attempted to engage me in.

Referencing the attacks of the day in America our hosts informed us that no Muslim could or would do such a thing since it was without honor. At the time we all assumed it was a country who had orchestrated the attacks given how surgical and devastating they had been. Looking back on it now, its ironic I came of age on September 11th, but in a very different way than many of my peers in the US. I learned and debated the similarities between Jesus and Mohammad's teachings and was amazed at how much we shared. The level of hospitality, kindness, and warmth shown by Mohammad and Ibrahim and their families that would not take anything from us was overwhelming. They kept saying that it was "the right thing" to do and that by accepting their hospitality and kindness we were honoring them, in turn thanking us. It all seemed so backwards given the American logic that "there is no such thing as a free lunch." Turns out that on 9-11 and for three subsequent days we had free fellowship, food, and shelter.

For a brief moment in the aftermath of 9-11 we were all united as a global community and citizens. Americans felt the outpouring of concern from people across the world that had also lost loved. Individuals, not countries or political movements, expressed these feelings across cultural, national, and religious divides. Unfortunately these moments were short lived and negative stereotypes towards the proclaimed faith and region of origin of the terrorists prevailed.

My 9-11 experience taught me that these prejudices are just as false as conspiracies and stereotypes about America shared around the Muslim world. What I know to be the truth about faith is that we must never believe anyone who claims to speak for God and yet acts out violently. Terrorism has no religious affiliation. Its only affiliation is evil.

We must come together as individuals first to model and understand what it means to have community and be peacemakers. I often think back to September 11th and how formative it was for me as an American, Christian, and individual. As a result of that experience I went on to read the Q'uran for the first of four different times, and embarked on a journey towards understanding one of the most important countries of the Muslim world that eventually led me to my lifelong passion for the Republic of Turkey. Looking back on the devastation and subsequent prejudice that many mistakenly feel towards Muslims because of this day, it saddens me that not everyone could individually experience what I did ten years ago to counteract the horrific events that we collectively experienced. Interfaith community and dialogue is necessary in the wake of a tragedy like 9-11, but we must take the first step as individuals to truly love our neighbors as ourselves as part of the healing process and solution.

What I learned on September 11th was not just the depths of 19 hijackers' depravity but the capacity of total strangers in a far-off-land to accept me as family and show me what true faith and Islam was all about. I mourn the loss of that day, but I smile at the memories of Mohammad and Ibrahim who taught me a far more important lesson on September 11th, 2001.