How September 11 Made Me a Muslim Writer
When I woke up on Sept 11, 2001 in my apartment in LA, it was still dark. I was a struggling screenwriter up with the sun. I was trying to be like Stephen King, who I’d heard somewhere woke up at 3 am to get his writing done by 7 am. Part of that routine was to not check email, turn on the TV or radio. Thus, in the silence, I jumped when my phone rang at 6:15 am. My caller ID said it was the person I’d had dinner with the night before. “See what your people have done?” he said before I could say hello. “What people?” I asked. “They flew into the World Trade Center.” “How is that supposed to be funny?” I replied to this aspiring comedy writer. By then, I knew who “my people” were, as anytime there was an explosion anywhere in the world, Arabs and Muslims first reactions have always been, “Please don’t let it be us.” But I thought he was in his inner Stephen King writing moment. “I don’t think this is a very funny set up,” I said. Finally, I gave in to his demand that I turn on the TV. There it was and like everyone on the planet, for one reason or another, my future changed. In the blurry hours that followed I remember checking on friends and family in the New York area and began anticipating the way the US would always be different, as it would be for those who would pay the price for this outside the US. The next day, I learned a person in my writing group lost her brother-in-law and my mom’s neighbor in Jordan lost her son, who had just started a job at one of the financial firms. In later years, I would meet a survivor of the towers, who has had respiratory issues ever since. He is Lebanese.
We were told to stay home, but there was something I needed from my car—the water bottles I had bought the day before but was too tired to carry up the stairs when I got home. I was thirsty, and I compared to the other crimes “my people” were being rounded up for that day, a trip to my car seemed fairly safe. Los Angeles had never been quieter. I got the bottles and climbed back up the stairs. An American flag now covered my door. My neighbor across the hall opened his door.
“I heard you going out. I put that up for you,” he said. “So if anyone comes looking for your people, they’ll know you’re one of the good ones.”
He was Irish, like from Ireland. He did not speak like an American because he was not American. I was. But at that moment, I knew that, despite his Irish brogue, he was more American than I could ever be.
“Thanks,” I said, because I knew he meant well. I also wondered how he knew my ethnicity or religion. Maybe it had come up in one of our rare small talk chats on the stairwell. I’d noticed the Honduran family downstairs also had an American flag on the door, but not as big.
“Did you give them their flag, too?” I asked.
“No, they were smart enough to do it themselves,” he said.
The next morning, I woke up at 3 am, not to write like Stephen King but to escape nightmares. I turned on the TV. The cyclical speculation of the media circus was unbearable. I went back to my computer, attempted to escape in writing. But no concentration. As I looked at the dialogue I had written just two days before about two white characters on a mad caper adventure in Baltimore, I knew I wasn’t going to finish their conversation for them. A few months earlier, an agent had told me, “Write about white people, that’s what sells.” But now I would be labeled a Muslim writer and expected to write on “my people’s” behalf, like “Muslim” was a one catch-all person.
“My people” have not always been my best friends—whether Arabs, Muslims, American, females, writers–because they are as diverse as white people and all other labeled groups. Still, I consider it a privilege to write scenes in which “my people” exist, whether good, gorgeous, bad or ugly. I still cringe when people ask me about Islam, as if being born as a Muslim means I know all there is to know about it, that I’m a reliable source, just by birth. No one expects such oracle skills of my friends of other religions. But my characters on my computer screen today do their best to speak as real humans, not merely as “my people” even if I still question if anyone really wants to hear our stories outside of the paradigms of terrorism and oppression of women. For me personally, other early morning phone calls since Sept 11 have shattered my world far more, in ways for which I do not have words, much like I imagine the families of the victims of 9-11 and the wars that would follow it must feel. But for me the writer, 9- 11 is when I acquired a voice as a Muslim writer.
Wonderful, Alia. I will link to this.
Alia I just saw this and I am sitting here crying. This beautiful❤️. I am such an idiot because I never thought of you that day and that is because I think of you as a person not a nationality.
Oh, Kami, just seeing this (I’m not much of blogger) I know I’m just Alia to you:)