Dear America ,
As a fourth grader, I could not even begin to comprehend the September 11th attacks. I would like to say that I am truly sorry for believing that it was all some show. I had only been exposed to doses of American media and up until that point I had been somewhat of a nomadic resident of the Middle East. I found the whole tragedy so incomprehensible that it was incredibly difficult for me to believe. I was delusional to think that the news was some form of entertainment. After my parents explained the situation to me, my first thought was not “How can anyone do this to America,” but “Why would my friends do this?”
Having both parents in the Foreign Service made me a world traveler before I was nine-years-old. I was born in a hospital in Amman, Jordan and was given the name ‘Lina’ not only because it was simple to write on an Arab birth certificate, but also because my parents wished to honor a close friend. I then moved to Syria and later to Turkey. I returned to America just before September 11th.
I found it hard enough to identify with other Americans after having lived overseas for so long, but when September 11th occurred, my deeply rooted connections with the Middle East felt criminal. I had only known a string of smiling faces and open doors, but now I could not hear any sentence relating to the Middle East without an implication of ‘terrorist activity’. I had never experienced prejudice, so when I was forced to face it as a young girl I could not help but reject every ignorant thought that crossed my path.
I wish to share three distinct memories with you. It may be arrogant of me to think that these memories will stamp out blind anger, but keep in mind that if I lined up every great Arab soul that has positively impacted my life, I would have a structure that could only be matched by the Great Wall of China. One of my oldest memories stems back to Syria when my mother was traveling alone with me for the first time. In a particularly gruesome battle with my stroller, she placed me in the arms of a fellow passenger for safekeeping. My mother did this without a second thought. Although he was quick to help, the passenger looked somewhat uncomfortable in his large overcoat with a briefcase in one hand and tiny me in the other. My mother still maintains to this day that that was the only place where she would trust a complete stranger to hold her world in their arms.
Immediately after we moved to Turkey, I had to have two of my lower teeth removed. After the extraction, I climbed into a taxi looking like a vampire that just had a very gratifying meal. The driver shared a worried look with my Swiss nanny and then started speaking as if in a panic. He immediately pressed his foot on the gas. Little did my nanny and I know, our driver was rushing me to the hospital. He was so distraught by the dry blood around my mouth, that he thought I needed emergency care. Showing him the cotton balls in my mouth while my nanny attempted to play dentist was a hilarious effort to inform the poor man. To this day, I have never known a stranger to fret over the existence of a fellow stranger in such a way.
My father had once given my brother and I a million lira to spend and had convinced us that it was the equivalent to $1 million. Feeling financially independent and quite grown-up, I approached a lady selling hand-crocheted handbags outside of my favorite park. I had been eying one purse for months because through the eyes of my younger self it always seemed that this accessory in particular epitomised maturity. She accepted that million lira with a smile and not only placed the bag on my shoulders, but sewed up the strap so it would fit across better. This woman and her establishment quickly became a regular stop-off-point in my daily trips to the park. I later learned that the million lira that I had paid her only amounted to $1.50, not nearly her asking price. However, she never brought it up, but only pinched my cheeks with every visit.
It is a natural tendency to fear or judge something that is foreign. We tend to measure the actions or thoughts of others based on our own moral code. Once judgment has been passed, a person is less likely to delve below the surface of the issue at hand. When my fellow classmates found out that I was born in the Middle East, I became a mysterious creature to avoid. When I was mature enough to understand this quiet alienation, I realised that I would have had to severe every emotional tie with the Middle East and then beg for respect.
I would have had to leave behind the kind stranger who was patient enough to help my struggling mother, the handmade bag that meant the world to me, and the concerned taxi driver who was prepared to take me to the hospital. It was not all some Wizard of Oz dream with its unique personalities, only to be told that I was knocked unconscious during a twister.
With everything that I have learned about American history, nothing is more reinforced than the idea that America does not lose; a superpower does not lose. The statues of past leaders scattered around my current home in Washington D.C. are practically scarecrows of democracy. There is nothing more dangerous than blind patriotism that makes people unshakeably confident in their convictions. Since I cannot truly recreate my experience overseas, I encourage all to squelch intolerance by remaining informed of the many aspects of an issue. When we make open-mindedness as viral as ignorance, then we have made great strides towards equality.