mai abdul rahman September 11, 2014
Most Muslim Americans relate their life altering ‘aha’ moment to that fateful day on September 11, 2001. And I, like many of them hold my own truth of that tragic horrific day.
At the time I was a Washington, DC public school teacher- a third grade teacher. My 17 students were 7- 8 year olds who comprised a variety of faiths, but most were White Americans. That Tuesday morning, my students and I were engrossed with a set activities completely unaware of the events unfolding in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. By noon most of my students were called one at a time by their parents or caretakers, and I found myself alone with none of my students. Only then did I realize that something terrible must have happened, and I needed to make sure that my own children were safe.
My husband, like the parents of my students, had arranged for our children to be picked up early from school. My entire family was safe at home, with my husband glued to the TV, while all four of our children were playing in the yard oblivious to the world, and happy to be free of their usual homework assignments. I like every other American was shocked to learn of the magnitude of the death and destruction that took place early that morning in New York, Pennsylvania, and close to home at the Pentagon building.
That evening like most evenings, I was in the kitchen preparing dinner, while listening to my kids playing in the yard with their friends and neighbors. In the midst of my usual chaotic cooking ritual all of a sudden the president of the Home and School Association appears unannounced in my kitchen, who was and remains a family friend. Instantly I realized that he came with a message that had to be delivered in person. Without the usual niceties he nervously explained the purpose of his odd visit. He came to relay a message on behalf of my school principal. My principal wanted to inform me that she did not expect any of my students- not one– to attend my class after what took place early that morning. She also wanted me to be prepared for the likelihood that the parents of my students will not want their children to be instructed by me. He said that she wanted me to be mindful that such a possibility could develop into a serious problem that would require me to formally address it with my school administrators. Without a long discussion or fuss he swiftly left.
Soon after our German born neighbor and my friend, arrived with two small American flags begging us to place them on our front door. While I was open to her suggestion, my husband did not see the need to oblige her. That brief exchange and his few words are still seared in our collective memory. In a soft voice he thanked her for her kind and heartfelt gesture- but he clearly stated that we will not place her flags on our front door. Drawing a long breath and after a long pause he said “I am an American, I am a marine, my father is a WWII veteran, several of my cousins have served and are serving in the military, and my uncle was one of the first Tuskegee Airmen. We don’t have to prove our love for our country to anyone- not to you, or anyone else.” She awkwardly gave me her two flags and quickly left. After dinner I gathered my self with tears trailing my face to pray in the company of neighbors and fellow worshipers in the sanctuary of a nearby church; as I had done time and again during my many years attending boarding school, and while visiting Palestine.
When I returned to school my principal briefly met me to let me know of her position on the matter. She told me that from that day on I had to prove that I am not a “terrorist” to her and the school community. She said these words, which I duly wrote in a notebook I had brought with me “You owe this to your colleagues, school staff and administrators, and you also owe it to your students and their parents… today and every day after.”
Confused and hurt I entered my classroom expecting the worst- but the worst was not in the cards. As a matter of fact my class that day unusually had perfect attendance- not a single student was absent. During our daily class circle time I tenderly hugged each of my students for making me realize that not all Americans agree with my principal. I understood that the rare presence of my entire class so soon after 9/11 was an affirmation of the faith and trust placed in me by each of their parents, most of whom did not know much about me other than my name and faith. The simple compassionate action of the 17 parents so soon after the heinous 9/11 events was evident in the beautiful bright faces of my students. The physical presence of my entire class on that day offered me immense comfort and pleasure. They were like the wondrous lotus, whose root in mud and filth rises through muck, and dark polluted murky water, to blossom clean, pure white petals.
I will never forget that day that has influenced and shaped my American journey, identity, and that has since defined my purpose as an American Palestinian Muslim woman. I am well aware that Muslim Americans have considerably suffered as a consequence of 9/11, but that fact does not negate that the best of America was also on display on that day and soon after. My personal experience the day after 9/11, the following weeks, months, and thirteen years later makes me more inclined to see the good exhibited by average Americans towards Muslim Americans. These acts of kindness are clearly demonstrated by the unity that has since been forged by Americans of all faiths and non-faiths, where non-religous and religious leaders of every color, faith, belief, and affiliation are engaged in a host of activities to end anti-Muslim bigotry.
We still have a long way to go, but my personal account of the days after 9/11 has substantiated my belief that most Americans have the fortitude and desire to cleanse our society from hatred and bias. These principles draw us together, and brand our national identity; they are our common shared ideals that we aspire and wish to realize regardless of our faith, race, class, or national origin.
For thirteen years I have been indebted to the parents of my 17 students who defied the expectations of their school principal by simply allowing their children to attend school aware that their children will be taught on that day and for an entire instructional year by a Muslim American teacher. I am grateful that these parents authentically validated their willingness to banish their fears and break free from the whirlwind of doubt that was consuming many Americans. Their simple action defied the expectations of their school and community leaders, and liberated me from ever assuming that all Americans share the vociferous prejudicial views of the few.