Monday September 10, 2001, I joined American infrastructure engineering leaders at the 108th annual conference of the American Public Works Association (APWA) at Pennsylvania Convention Centre, Philadelphia. The event was also attended by several international organisations.
The next day, 9/11, I was late for a 9am public works executives meeting. I hustled through the convention centre doors where I ran into a group of delegates spellbound at a TV screen, watching a plume of dense smoke billowing out of a high-rise building. Not thinking much of it, I hurried up the stairs to the meeting room.
The person sitting next to me introduced himself as Khalid, a guest executive from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and asked if I had heard the news. I told him nonchalantly of people watching TV downstairs and the fire from a high-rise in New York City.
“An airplane crashed into the twin towers in New York,” he said. His expressions solemn, fear or concern or both reflected in his dark brown eyes.
I flicked my wrist in dismissal. “Some crazy guy seeking posthumous fame could have flown into the building.”
The chairman opened the meeting around 9.15, a short introduction and invited executives to introduce themselves and companies they represent.
Khalid shifted on his seat and shuffled his feet. “It’s a passenger plane, not small aircraft,” he whispered.
I sarcastically said, “Now, the pilot will be even more famous, bigger plane bigger notoriety.”
Less than 20 minutes into the meeting, a pale faced conference organiser interrupted and whispered into the chairman’s ear. He turned plum purple and abruptly adjourned the meeting.
Outside the hall, a much larger group was riveted to the big TV and black smoke curling from two high towers.
Minutes later, my heart flopped like a fish, gobsmacked as I watched live with other engineers, wide open eyes, slack jaws, one of the towers collapsing on its footprint. Dust clouded the streets and flared up like a nuclear bomb explosion. The only sound in the room was the plaintive whimper of TV reporters. Then, half an hour later, the second tower buckled and crumbled into a heap.
The conference sessions dismissed early and delegates returned to their hotels. A war atmosphere blanketed Philadelphia, shops closed and streets clear of cars. In the 15 minute walk, I pondered about the hijacked planes and the supposed Muslim hijackers. Airports in the US ordered shut, possibly for the first time in history, and I was stuck 3,500km away from home.
And somehow, I became guilty by association as strangers gawked at me in suspicion. Unlike most, however, my pain was two sided: Grieving the murdered Americans and indignant that the apparent perpetrators claimed to be Arab Muslims, like me.
In the hotel lobby, receiving more than my share of stares I retreated to the solitude of my room. I called home and talked to my 10-year-old son – his school dismissed early, too. At his age, my son was always conscious of his identity and proud of his Arab and Muslim roots.
“They say the terrorists are Muslims,” he said, tone confounded. His comment came across as if he blamed his own ethnicity for the action of those individuals.
“They could be, there are good people and bad people in every culture,” I responded. It was followed by complete silence.
This short phone call was an epiphany. My son’s unspoken response was stronger than any verbal reply. He couldn’t help feeling that he belonged to the guilty religious minority.
I saw it in the eyes of onlookers in the streets of Philadelphia, and at the APWA conference the following day. Unlike me, however, my son always lived as a minority culture, and now, it was in the prism of mistrust.
There and then, I understood the significance for a child to experience life as part of a cultural majority.
Four years later, we landed in Muharraq.
The growing pain experience is the subject of the next articles.