Irreality, 11 years after


“We must love one another, or die.”

                                                     –W.H. Auden

Shortly after the killing of 3,000 civilians (300 of them Muslims) 11 years ago in New York City, two giant (and expensive) cones of light were beamed each night from Ground Zero into the sky side by side.  I took my family to see them, sensing a work of art that would never be duplicated. Standing on a platform over the ruins with my wife and children and mother, I stared up and caught an irreal sight — a plane flying into one of the light cones mimicking a tower.  I winced.  It did not explode.  It flew through, neither tower nor plane hurt. The light remained. I hope my children saw that.

We live and write to uncover such light. When they awoke from their own irreal trance (“Irreal is the word,” Lebanese American poet Lawrence Joseph identified for 9/11), Arab American authors were quick to address the peril of the moment (which included an assertion in 2002 by a member of the Bush US Civil Rights Commission that Arab-Americans would be rounded up if there was another attack as had the Japanese in World War II).  Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, whose father was born and raised in Palestine, directly addressed the "would-be" hijackers in a prose poem read over National Public Radio: “Our hearts are broken; as yours may also feel broken in some ways we can’t understand unless you tell us in words. Killing people won’t tell us. We can’t read that message.” As the child of a Muslim, Shihab Nye also took on radical Islamism that colored the hijackers’ philosophy (or perhaps masked it): “I don’t believe you want us all to be Muslims. My Palestinian grandmother lived to be 106 years old and did not read and write, but even she was smarter than that.”

Mona Simpson (who shared a Syrian father with her late brother, Apple founder Stephen Jobs) was circling what such a heritage might mean shortly after the first WTC attack in her arresting 1993 novel, The Lost Father, in which she states, “Being Arab was not something you’d want to right away admit, like being a Cherokee or Czech.” The novel comes down clearly on the side of “everyday” love, rather than the romance that birthed her protagonist, a love that “was more fallen, of the earth, full of practicalities and chatter.” Sounds like a Cairo street. Or anywhere devoting itself day to day to the kind of outsider wound that began 9/11.  Love, after all, is the great insider, drawing even Pluto near.

Other Arab-American writers took on the dark event directly and sifted it for meaning.  Syrian poet Moha Kahf, who wears a traditional veil in her University of Arkansas classes, published a feisty, utterly imaginative and passionate collection, E-Mails from Scheherazade in 2003. Meditating on the couple who clasped each other when they jumped from the WTC, she declares quietly, “Our lives have always been as fragile/as dependent on each other, and as beautiful/as the flight of the woman and man/twin towers in my sight/who jumped into the last air hand in hand.”

In my own short story, “Get Off the Bus,” a character named Frank Matter is thrown off a city bus in Los Angeles, together with his African-American friend, after an older lady overhears their conversation about the lack of tall buildings in the Southland, assuming the worst. “It wasn’t what you said,” the black man tells Frank as they stand in the street. “It was the look of you.” As far as I know, no one was thrown off a bus in the wake of the attacks, but for me, a bus — and the resonant courage of Rosa Parks on a southern bus in 1955 — was a handy way of understanding those taken off planes a half century later.

Where are we now? After directly addressing the society’s misunderstandings and paranoia in their literature, Arab-American authors seem to be seeking out analogues far from the madding crowd abroad, closer to home. I find myself, for example, buried in the 18th century, writing a biography of the Franciscan founder of California, examining the often tragic relationship of empire, land, and religion.

As Americans with ancestral ties to the Arab world, we stand in awe over the upsurge of democracy half the world away (and are heartbroken over the Spanish Civil War-like bloodshed in Syria. When will Assad spare his people more misery and just leave?).  The “Arab Spring,” for all its difficult birthing (what might be called “the Arab Fall”) is still an enormously important accomplishment, certainly the greatest antidote to the phenomenon of Al-Qaeda.  After all, Osama Bin Laden’s oft-repeated (but rarely recorded in American papers) first reason for the gruesome attack on 9/11 was America’s backing of corrupt, despotic Arab regimes. On the second matter Bin Laden always cited, perhaps cynically — the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy — we have made no progress. Obama, whom most Arab-Americans enthusiastically backed (I canvassed homes for him in Virginia and Pennsylvania) and who did the right thing supporting the Libyan rebels, seems to wither at the sight of Netanyahu.

What visions will Arab-American authors create now after the Supreme Court’s "Citizens United" ruling in 2010 that pushed open the floodgates of corporate and special interest money in political campaigns, perhaps the biggest blow to American democracy since Jim Crow? All Americans are trying to cope with the sense that our system seems broken, that our votes mean little, that each day we seem less of a democracy and more an oligarchy of the privileged who throw us a few bones of multiculturalism here, plenty of soporific sports there, and two presidential candidates with their tired promises usually dead on arrival, who will have no more to say, much less do, on such diverse topics as Israeli (and therefore our) aggression, the cornucopia of guns in our society, the obvious danger of global warming, or the coarsening of our social discourse than any man on the street. Ironically, the revolutions in the Arab world may inform and inspire our own democracy to resuscitate and renew itself, as much as ours may have inspired yours. You have much to build; we have much to rebuild. The cause is the same: a voice and power for the powerless and greatest good for the greatest number. Not rule by the few for the few, or rule that favors one sect or religion over another. 

The heinous events of 9/11 shook Arab Americans to hide, at first, and then speak out in their literature against both hellish vengeance, as well as the insensibility of American policies before and after that black day.  Did 9/11 also shake the Arab world to the “terribly beauty” of its upheavals?  Perhaps.   

Gregory Orfalea is the author of several books, including the short story collection, The Man Who Guarded the Bomb.The co-editor of In Thyme: Middle Eastern American Literature,Orfalea is completing a biography of Junipero Serra, the Spanish priest who founded California. He teaches literature and writing at Westmont College in Santa Barbara.

A shorter version of this piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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