A Canadian in the Middle East on 9/11

9/11. Unless you live in a cave—and perhaps even if you do—you remember exactly where you were when you first heard what happened on that world-altering day. You probably also remember the following days and weeks in stark, vivid detail. The terror attacks on the US that day were the JFK moment of my generation. Until then, we saw the world in a certain way; afterwards, we never saw it that way again. I am amazed by how vastly different and yet so much alike people’s experiences of 9/11 in Western countries were, save for those who lived the horror directly and who therefore have a deeper, darker experience of it. The rest of us, less directly impacted, learned of the tragedy in different places, at different times, yet we all felt—and still feel—remarkably similar emotions: rage, sadness, confusion. I felt those same emotions, but I also felt additional emotions that most Canadians did not. I was not in Canada on September 11, 2001; I was living in the Middle East.

With the time change, the events of 9/11 took place for me in the middle of the afternoon. I’d just returned home from Abu Dhabi Men’s College[1] where I was in only my second week as an English teacher teaching male Emirati soldiers. After work, as always, I got a snack from the kitchen, sat down and turned the satellite TV to The Today Show, which I watched daily to keep up with North American news since there were no Canadian channels. As I switched on the TV, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer were discussing reports that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Like most people, I thought in the initial moments that they were discussing a small private plane that had accidentally crashed, perhaps after the pilot lost control. I watched the story wondering about the safety of the pilot, the crew and the passengers. I had no idea then that the pilot and the crew at that moment were hijackers or that the world would be changed by that crash and the three that had not yet happened. Watching live footage of the flaming first tower, it soon became apparent that the plane in question must have been large, perhaps a jet, but even then it didn’t occur either to me or to the announcers that the crash was intentional. How could we, at that time, even envision such a thing? An act of terror would be our first thought now, but it certainly wasn’t on that day, before we learned so tragically about international terrorism.

Within moments, my husband Roland returned from his job at Abu Dhabi Women’s College and asked what I was watching. He was standing in the living room, so I looked away from the screen to relay the story. Seconds later, he said, “What’s that?” I returned my gaze to the TV just in time to see the second plane smash into the second tower in a blazing burst. It was then that it first occurred to me that these events were not random. The idea of terrorism was difficult for my brain to process, but what I was seeing could only have been premeditated, in spite of one person’s speculation that perhaps there was an air traffic control problem. Hearing Matt Lauer suggest “something deliberate” out loud crystallized what had previously been only a faraway concept into something close up and real. So real that I sat in my chair, watched the news coverage and cried in disbelief and despair for hours. I was, of course, crying for all the victims inside the planes and the buildings—later including the Pentagon—and their loved ones. I didn’t know that I should also have been shedding tears for all the other things that would be lost that day and in its aftermath: our sense of peace and security, our belief in the goodness of the world, the Canadian soldiers, and others, who lost their lives in the ensuing wars, the other innocent victims who were not soldiers but who lost their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere fighting for peace and freedom in their homelands where the terrorists had grown roots.

I couldn’t eat dinner that night, and I didn’t want to go to bed. I was riveted to the screen. Some time before midnight, Roland pried me off the sofa and made me try to sleep. I could not. I was consumed by my shock and sadness—but also suddenly concerned about the now-scary Middle Eastern world outside my safe apartment and about teaching my Middle Eastern military students the next morning. I don’t recall whether I heard “Al Qaeda” that first day, but the idea of Islamic terrorists being responsible for the attacks was already circulating, as was the name Bin Laden. As I tried to sleep, questions surged through my mind. Who could I trust and who couldn’t I? Who that I might see or talk to on the street might sympathize with the attackers? Would these attacks spur other massive attacks on Westerners, this time here in the Middle East? What if some crazed Islamic fundamentalist was so buoyed by the attacks that he decided to attack a Westerner randomly on the street?

When I woke the next day, my stomach twisted like a stick of black liquorice. My palms perspired. My heart hammered hard against my ribs. I had to take a taxi to work, and the driver was a Middle Eastern man. On the surface, the ride with him should have been the same as any other, but it was not because the world—and the way I saw it—had changed. I didn’t know what to expect anymore from the people around me, and I was scared. In retrospect, I see that my fear was irrational, but back then fear felt like a reasonable response to a suddenly unreasonable world. When I arrived at college, the Western teachers spoke with shock and sadness and shared their experiences of the previous day. My friend Arthur had a brother in New York and was trying, so far unsuccessfully, to make contact to confirm whether he was safe OK. A few American co-workers took a sick day, and I wished I’d have taken one as well. The closer the time came for my first class, the more strain I felt. Will the students say nothing? Will they say something? Will they laugh? Will they brag? How will I respond if they behave or speak unkindly?

Walking to class, everything inside me tensed like a guitar string. Before entering the classroom, I tried to affix a normal expression on my face, to seem unfazed by the previous day’s events. In the class, one or two students approached me and said, “Sorry for what happened, miss.” I was grateful for their concern, and I relaxed a little. I began the class as I normally do: said hello, got their attention, took attendance and introduced the first part of the lesson, which was a vocabulary game. I explained the game to the class and split the students into two teams. I asked the team on my left for a team name. “Sharks,” they shouted. I turned away, wrote the name on the board and then, without turning back to face the group, asked the other team for a name. “Bin Laden,” several shouted.

My stomach and shoulders tightened further. For a split second, I paused, upset and unsure what to do. I took a deep breath and quickly decided to ignore the whole thing. Relieved they couldn’t see my face, I said, “Come on gentlemen, I need a name,” as if I’d never heard what was shouted a moment ago. “Tigers,” was the answer. I wrote that name on the board, re-affixed a neutral look on my face, turned around and carried on. Over and over, I kept thinking, “Never let them see you sweat.” So I didn’t, even though I left the room three hours later feeling sicker than ever. After class, I taxied home again and locked myself in the apartment for the whole weekend[2], not wanting any further contact with people who might feel a kinship to the attackers or who might pose a physical threat.

On September 12, 2001, I thought some of my students admired Bin Laden and that’s why they shouted his name at me. I was scared, hurt and horrified. I didn’t want to go on teaching them, although I did because I was under contract. I also refused to leave the country out of fear and distress because I refused to let the terrorists terrorize me. In time, and with more experience of Abu Dhabi, its culture and its lifestyle, I realized that those students only wanted to see what I would do, how I would respond. They were testing me to see if I would scream, cry or collapse, in much the same way all students test the boundaries of their teachers. When I didn’t respond, they carried on as normal because I did. Perhaps my present perception of their actions is naive. Perhaps I don’t want to see the situation accurately. Perhaps some of the students secretly harboured feelings of pleasure and triumph over the attacks. I will never know for sure.

What I do know from my continued experience interacting with Arabs and other Muslims over the years is that most Muslims and most people in the Middle East do not feel joy at what happened on 9/11; they feel sadness like we do, and many of them feel shame. They feel the negative impact these attacks have had on the images of their countries and their religion; they understand that many Westerners now blame “them” for it and, as result, hate Islam and Muslims. As someone who lived in the Middle East for eight years in the post-9/11 era, this aspect of the aftermath saddens me along with all the other aspects. In the West, many people, politicians perhaps most of all, have used the attacks as an excuse for a blanket hate response to everyone from the region and everyone of that faith. I think this is a terrible, unfair response.  When the school rampage at Columbine happened, did we hate all teenagers and blame them all? No. We understood that it was an evil act by two troubled youths. When the bombing and shootings happened in Norway this summer, did we hate all Norwegians and turn against all of them? No. We understood that it was an evil act by a crazy man. I cannot comprehend why, then, so many people have used 9/11 to blame and to hate so broadly.

What I do know is that this hateful response from so many people only aids the aims of the terrorists. If they can get most of us to hate Arabs and Muslims indiscriminately, it justifies their indiscriminate hate for us and helps them recruit more followers to their despicable cause. The terrorists have effectively turned our response to the 9/11 attacks against us, and many of us have become unwittingly accomplices. In that respect, the terrorists won something more than the 2972 deaths that occurred that day. But now, after ten years, it’s time for the West to leave this hate in the past. It’s time to accept that the attacks on 9/11 were perpetrated by a group of appalling people and to blame them and only them. It’s time to show the world, especially the terrorists, that we are a civilized society, that we will no longer be consumed with hate like those who committed this heinous act. It’s time to steal that part of their victory away from them.  


[1] in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, near the more famous Dubai

[2] At that time, the United Arab Emirates observed weekends on Thursdays and Fridays.

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