11 September 2001 - In memoriam
On the sixth anniversary: an excerpt from a longer piece I wrote a few years ago, describing my experience of that September 11th.
In Durban, [at the World Conference Against Racism,] I had hoped that I would be able to talk to people, to exchange ideas with them about the Middle East conflict and come to some kind of mutual understanding. And I had succeeded, despite the poisonous atmosphere at the conference, in having several heartfelt conversations with some of the Arab and Muslim activists I met.
But watching the parade of thousands of anti-Israeli—and often anti-Semitic—demonstrators, I was overwhelmed. This wasn't reason; it was demonization, a thin layer of words atop an ocean of hatred and mistrust.
In Cape Town, my [Muslim] landlady and I had been struggling to figure out what the inflamed debate on the Middle East meant for our relationship. We could not avoid it; it beamed into our living room on television and made the rounds of gossip in the neighborhood. On national radio, an activist called for Muslims to root out the "CIA and Mossad agents in our communities"—whatever that meant.
Hearing that, I felt fear for the first time, and wondered if someone would attack our house on such a pretext. Was my presence a threat to her, as well as to myself?
She seemed inclined to let the whole affair drop: "They've been fighting over there for thousands of years," she told me once, "and it's never going to end, not until the world is through. You can't change the world, so you might as well forget about the whole thing."
But I often tried to argue that peace was possible. "They haven't been fighting for thousands of years," I would tell her. "The Arab-Israeli conflict isn't even a hundred years old. If you say that it's an ancient conflict, you're almost giving up on peace."
One night, she came back from her weekly religious classes, dressed in her black robe and white headscarf, beaming serenely. "Our sheikh spoke to us about anti-Semitism," she told me, "and he said that it's wrong to hate Jews. 'Just remember that there are good Jews,' he told us. 'And not every Jew is a Zionist.'"
I smiled—"That's great," I told her—but I was silently sad: could she not see that Zionism, for all its flaws, had pointed out the way forward for an embattled and persecuted Jewish community? That Zionism, like Black Consciousness, was a deeply flawed movement but one which nonetheless had progressive aims and positive achievements to its credit? That even if I were to reject Zionism and Israel, as a Jew I would always owe a debt to the umbrella of physical and psychological protection that Israel provided?
"It's all the Freemasons anyway," she declared, interrupting my thoughts. "The sheikh showed us a book that describes how Freemasons are secretly pitting Muslims against Jews so that they can control the world."
What could I do but laugh? We had several conversations like this, and began to see each other's point of view more and more clearly over time.
Sometimes, we found our roles strangely reversed. When Israel began surrounding Yasser Arafat's police headquarters with tanks and bombarding Palestinian police stations with missiles, I actually found myself shouting at the television. "The idiots!" I yelled. "What is that going to solve?" "Well," said my landlady, catching me by surprise, "there are idiots on both sides. Those suicide bombings are horrible." I was moved by her empathy—and amused that she had been more circumspect than I. Perhaps we had helped each other come to a deeper understanding of the conflict, after all.
But that was only a small, personal connection. Watching the thousands of angry people in Durban, I felt a sense of despair: I could never reach all of them. There were simply too many—these people would continue to believe strange and awful things about Jews simply because there were not enough Jews to go around. We would remain caricatures, figures from religious folklore, snapshots from international press reports, but in the grand scheme of things few non-Jews would ever be able to claim a Jew as a friend. I could never change that.
I returned home from the conference tired, hurt, and angry, fearful of how my neighbors would treat me after hearing all of the terrible rhetoric, and wondering how I would cope with living in my neighborhood after being exposed to the worst forms of Muslim hate for Jews.
But those questions were answered for me rather swiftly, as I drove slowly through the neighborhood for the first time since returning, maneuvering carefully through the rows of parked cars gleaming in the late winter afternoon sunshine. A bouncing ball suddenly flew into the street, and a child in a matching white robe and fez came bounding after it. I braked, instinctively. As I watched the boy retrieve his toy, I felt a certain joy flowing back into me: whatever illusions the conference in Durban had robbed me of, my innate human sympathy was still untouched. The compassion I had cultivated over the preceding several months in my neighborhood was still there, and still whole.
As I rolled on through the streets, I delighted in all the details of the place—the men calling to each other across open car hoods, grandmothers rocking their daughters' babies to sleep in the dim light of open doorways, paint flaking off the buildings and falling into the street, children playing cricket in the road with a taped-up bat and a tennis ball.
A few days later, a gale-force wind in one of the Cape's notorious late winter storms blew the corrugated-iron roof off of the two-story building opposite our house at five in the morning. With a tremendous roar, it flew across the street in the darkness, severed several power lines in a bright blue explosion of sparks, and landed on the low garden wall and roof of our house.
Half-asleep, I had imagined that the city was being bombed, or that our home had been struck by lightning. I opened the front door cautiously into the thrashing, wind-driven rain to find the whole street in darkness and great hunks of warped metal resting on our gate. Had anyone been walking outside at the time, they would have surely been killed. One of the sheets had barely missed going through the front window into the bedroom where my landlady was sleeping; only a small tree had blocked it.
The entire neighborhood awoke and came to help us dig out from under the sheets of metal. But attention quickly turned to the Catholic family living in the building that had lost its roof, whose home was now fully exposed to the wind and rain.
The fire department arrived and went to work on the sheets of metal outside our house with crowbars; once we could move in and out, we joined in the efforts to help our neighbors. A chain had formed in the pitch darkness along the staircase in their building to move furniture and other valuables; people fetched extra blankets from their cupboards for the mother and her daughter, seven months pregnant. My landlady made tea and coffee for everyone, including the firefighters; no one else on the block seemed to have electricity.
Eventually the debris was cleared and the rain stopped. The Catholic mother cleaned and returned our teacups to us that same day, thanking us and adding the strange comment that she, unlike the other people on the block, was "a good Christian."
At this stage, my nerves were completely frayed and I decided that I needed a vacation.
I went to stay with my aunt in her apartment in Hillbrow [in central Johannesburg]. Hillbrow might have seemed an odd choice for a vacation spot. I knew the noise would be incessant and the chaos outside omnipresent, but at least no one would bother me, and I would be far away from political and religious clashes, as well as flying chunks of metal.
As it happened, the police shot someone on the street corner outside during the early part of my visit, and I came down with a horribly painful stomach illness that made it impossible for me to eat for two days. Still, I was managing to relax, spending endless hours sprawled in front of the television and sunning myself on the balcony, far above the hubbub in the streets below.
A few days before I was due to leave, I felt well enough to take a taxi to the Rosebank mall. The place was bustling with people of all colors, and I marveled once again at the rapid racial integration of upper-middle-class consumerist culture. I decided to take in a three o' clock movie, choosing a popular Indian epic that had been constantly sold out in Cape Town. Ah, Bollywood—at each point of dramatic crisis, a cast of thousands begins singing and dancing. If only real life were like that, I thought to myself.
Real life was far, far worse when I emerged from the theatre four hours later. The mall was almost completely deserted, save for a half dozen people huddled around a television screen. In the eerie silence, an unthinkable image appeared—the World Trade Center collapsing. My hand flew to my open mouth, in a posture I would see repeated in countless photographs of people's reactions to that same sight, the abysmal nightmarish awe of the collapse calling forth some kind of instinctive pose, as if we were all deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
I ran, ran, ran through the mall, searching desperately for a telephone. When I managed to I find one, I tried calling my parents in Chicago, but the overseas lines were busy. I finally managed to get hold of an operator in the United States; her heavy sighs bespoke a terrible feeling of loss and fatigue. Unable to help myself, I began asking her frantic questions: what had happened? Did anyone survive? Are we at war?
I eventually reached my mother, but the call was cut off midway through, so I hailed a taxi and returned to Hillbrow. The neighborhood was quieter than I had ever seen it before, day or night; the music of the shebeens was subdued, the gunshots less frequent. The city was in mourning—the great African Gotham was suddenly oblivious to its own horrors, bowing its head in sympathy with its sister across the ocean.
As the spectacle of the Septmber 11 disaster faded from the front pages, a slew of analysis and commentary began to emerge.
I tried to weigh the different arguments and find some kind of moderate path. But the mood of many South African media pundits was an irrepressible glee, barely hidden behind a facade of sorrow.
"It's a tragedy, but they got what they deserved," was the general line pursued in article after article. "We condemn terrorism in all its forms," was another popular tongue-in-cheek response from columnists and high-level policymakers, a criticism of American foreign policy disguised as sympathy.
Few South African leaders and intellectuals, other than Nelson Mandela, were able to offer a simple, unqualified statement of support and a condemnation of what had taken place.
Adding to my shock was a profound sense of alienation, the same feeling I had had at the Durban conference—the feeling that somehow, suddenly, I might not belong in South Africa after all. I was unwanted.
When I finally arrived back at my house in Salt River, I felt worse than I had when I had left. But I was quickly greeted by several neighbors, who walked across the street to see me when they saw I had returned. They were terribly sorry about what had happened in the United States: was my family all right?
The concern on their faces was genuine, and I was deeply moved. The world might have gone crazy, and the country's media commissars had lost the plot, but my Muslim neighbors cared about the welfare of my Jewish family in America. As strange as that might have seemed, it struck me as remarkably, wonderfully sane, a quiet affirmation of humanity when humanity was at its worst.
But things had definitely changed. There was a theory now making the rounds in the Muslim community that Israel, not Arab terrorism, was behind the September 11 bombing. My landlady's brother came by to visit, and as we enjoyed a cup of tea together, he posed what seemed like a cautiously innocent question: "I heard that there was a mosque in the World Trade Center; what do you think that means?”
I thought that he meant to suggest the futility of the terrorists' actions; in attacking New York, they had bombed one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and unwittingly destroyed a mosque and killed many Muslims.
But my answers to his questions seemed unsatisfactory to him, and it was only after he left that I had realized he was getting at something else. He had been hoping that I, as a Jew, would be able to shed light on the theory that Israel was behind the attacks—for in his mind, that was the only way that the destruction of the mosque could be explained.
My attempts to bridge the divide began to feel, at times, increasingly desperate...