Dinu Ahmed – Feeling Human

I never think what if it didn’t happen? I can’t entertain those questions of what my life would have been like, what my politics might have been like, had the tragedy that transpired ten years ago not taken place. Honestly, it’s impossible to wander down that road, when nearly all of my adolescence took place in a post-9/11 America. It was within this historical moment after all, that foundational aspects of my identity as a visibly presenting Muslim American teenager born to Bangladeshi parents and raised in the Lower East Side were cemented.

Ten years ago, I was a 14-year old sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks north of the World Trade Center. There are so many images I will never be able to get out of my mind. To this day, I cannot look at photos and television coverage of the towers without being overcome by intense nausea. A year later when my family moved close to an airport, I would freeze every time a plane flew overhead. These are the things that I have not been able to voice to others because it is too inside of me.

In second period, we all hovered around the window as we watched people frantically running north, towards us, and then past our window, but I didn’t understand what I was watching. The tower closest to us seemed like a moving sheet of dust. Initially, there was an announcement over the PA system, where it sounded, to me at least, that a plane had accidentally flown into the tower. When the tone of the message became more serious, we were told we would have to evacuate our school. I passed students sobbing as I walked up to my homeroom on the tenth floor. Somewhere in the midst of feeling in a fog, wondering if this was it – the end for us, if our lives were going to end that day, if my family knew just how close I was to the epicenter of it all – somewhere in that swirl of emotions and questions, I vividly remember thinking, I hope it wasn’t a Muslim.

Nearly half a lifetime earlier, my third-grade class was interviewed on Good Morning America regarding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Perhaps this is what spurred that thought of what it would mean for my own faith community to be implicated in these events. I don’t know…it still surprises and troubles me that this feeling of “please, don’t let it be us” came up so quickly.

As one of the last classrooms to head out of the building, we felt the thud of one of the towers falling down. The air was dark with smoke, so much smoke. Somewhere in the mass of students I linked arms with two different people and we walked. When I turned, like so many of my peers, to stare at the wreckage directly behind us, adults told us not to look back. Even now, I still feel so grateful for all that I did not witness because they tried to shield us from that.

A young Muslim boy who was a year or two older ran up to me and said, “If anyone says anything to you, just let me know.” I nodded blindly, not understanding, wondering what he was thinking of, how he could project a feeling of toughness in the face of something beyond all of our comprehension as just another youth himself.

We walked. We walked and walked. Trains were out, I didn’t have a cell phone, and even if I could borrow one, networks were out too. Despite living in the Lower East Side, the journey felt so long. It was over the course of the walk that people began to mutter racial epithets and obscenities as I walked past them – comments about Afghanis and Pakistanis. I’d never had people speak at me in such a way. There was no frame in my head for how to contextualize these comments. Many years later – yes, those historical linkages with what other communities had experienced would begin to be made – but in the moment, I had no way to process these remarks.

When I finally made it to a payphone to call my family, I was sobbing – but I didn’t know how to understand everything I was feeling, let alone explain anything except that I was okay, I was not hurt, I would be coming home.

I came home. The entirety of that day, the phone rang and rang as family and friends contacted us to track down where everyone we knew who lived, worked, and studied in Lower Manhattan was, to see if they were safe and found.

How do you assess the impact of a tragedy? In the short term, my parents asked me to think about removing my hijab, the covering I wore over my hair. I couldn’t do it. I remember my dad asking me to consider changing the color of my hijab so as not to appear dangerous or threatening or unapproachable. I never thought of myself in the eyes of someone else in that way before. They didn’t want me to leave the house all week. That was actually feasible since our school was converted into a triage center and we ended up being relocated to another school a week later. When I finally emerged, I briefly experimented with wearing my hijab bandana-style, but couldn’t get comfortable with it, and reverted back a few days later.

When we returned to our regular school a few weeks later, I will never forget the sight of people walking for months with gas masks. The stench in the air, the constant sound of debris being moved to the barges neighboring our building. Most horrifying was a breezy October day when the air was filled with pieces of particles. Walking out of class, we walked and we had to keep on spitting out these things in the air, and I shut my mind off from wondering what those pieces were.

I started using an inhaler that year because I could no longer climb a flight of stairs without wheezing. The doctor told me I had exercise-induced asthma. Later that year, asbestos was discovered in the school.

Emotionally, bigger questions about human nature came up for me. I remembered reading The Diary of Anne Frank years before, and how in the face of calamity she still believed in the inherent goodness of all people. But for me, I could not understand how people could commit the murder of a few thousand and be inherently good, and this was hugely upsetting, this shake-up of my own world view as a young person, and I would find myself spontaneously crying months after. It was a year where I became quiet, where I could not speak or even try to put words to what I was feeling. I felt so disconnected because I could not process the grief, I could not process the shifting of what it meant to be a part of a larger community that was being held responsible for what had happened. What did it mean that I shared a piece of that identity? What did it mean when people stared at me on the subway in an unkind way? What did it mean when having recently arrived to our new school, a man threw a beer bottle that landed a foot away from me and shattered into countless pieces? I did not know how to deal with everything in me and outside of me.

Young Muslim students exchanged strategies with one another about how to cope – about how to respond to the staring and the derogatory remarks on our commutes home. When I think about this now, about what it means for young teenagers to advise one another to “ignore it,” to “smile and disarm people” by returning kindness for their bigotry, a piece of me feels sad. I think it is not self-pity for what my peers and I experienced so much as it is an awareness that young Muslims a decade later seem to be steeped into a much more vitriolic Islamophobia today.

It didn’t take long for me to become much more cognizant of the different identities I carry – of the color of my skin, of how people perceive me as a woman that is Muslim, over the erasure of my specific racial identity as a Bangladeshi as I became swept up in this larger mask of the “Muslim Other.” The demonization of our brothers, the ascribing of victimhood to our sisters, these are the things we bore witness too as children coming of age in this period. And though I never anticipated that this would be the direction my thoughts and work would come to center on, I found the politics of race and faith and national identity taking over a huge part of my mind.

I started off interning at an advocacy organization focusing on the civil rights of Muslim Americans, and in my first week there, a Bangladeshi man was brutally assaulted. The police would not come to label this as a hate crime until after the man died in the hospital from the severity of his beating. I came home overwhelmed by work I could not leave behind in the office. I found myself consumed with all of the violence I had now seen – beginning with the attacks on September 11th, but then it just didn’t stop. It was like a machine that had been turned on and could only keep on wielding destruction – we as a nation were attacked, but then our nation took on the violence and turned it back upon its own people as families and communities were ripped apart through detentions, deportations, infiltration and surveillance, bullying and harassment, and so the list goes on – and of course the violence and slaughter we were perpetrating upon scores abroad as well. When it comes home – when my mom started being harassed by a neighboring resident for wearing niqab, when my uncles who drive cabs were beaten, when my little sister was cursed at and told to go back to where she comes from – I cannot explain how it rips at you, how you just want to restore a sense of living in a place you call home where you feel safe and human. And this is the struggle – because there is this belief that as some point as a child this actually was home and even as an adult now, perhaps this can be home again, even though my awareness of historical injustice for marginalized communities here has grown. That is why I struggle – for the hope of what I want for my unborn children, for the young people in my life, to restore purpose to why members of my community decided to come here to begin with – because it shouldn’t have been for this – and to help create a home that marginalized communities in this country have still never known or experienced before here.

Now I am a community organizer, and in many ways I have found this line of work to be healing for me because of its mission to restore community power and trust and combat injustice through the building of alliances that cut across identities and help us to recognize the humanity in one another. What we are experiencing now is wrong, and at the same time, it is not new. Though this too is saddening, it is important to recognize all of the kinship that exists through the experience of being marginalized, and all of the possibilities of triumph that exist as we as a collective make small strides towards the dream of the society we envision for our communities.

-Dinu Ahmed

Dinu Ahmed is a community organizer for educational justice in the South Bronx in New York City. Dinu also co-founded Khadijah’s Caravan, which connects people, places and communities through spiritually-based activism.