Twenty Years in September – By SHIBLI ZAMAN

My Reflections on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

I woke up. Everything was spinning. The fading blue sky was spinning over my head as the sun had just begun to set in September 1991.

Where am I?

I was sleeping in the backseat of my friend’s Jeep Cherokee going north on I-45 from Galveston, TX. We had lost a tire and were spinning out of control. I peered up at the driver’s seat and saw my friend calmly trying to control the car. I looked at the passenger seat and saw my other friend, equally calm. Their demeanor was chilling because it was a calm that is only brought about by shock. Approximately 3 seconds had passed since I opened my eyes. In the fourth second I looked over the side of the open Jeep. You see, it was a late 80’s Jeep Cherokee and that Jeep is a wide open vehicle. No windows. No roof. It was a recipe for death.

It was a beautiful day —well, almost evening— as the daylight was slowly waning. It was probably 7:00pm. I’m sure if I searched some records, I would find out the exact date and time. I’ve never wanted to revisit it, until now.

THUD!

Thank God. We landed in the emergency lane and just hit the freeway wall, I thought to myself. I looked over, in what was probably the seventh second, and there was no emergency lane. We were perpendicular to the wall blocking northbound traffic. I saw the headlights of the oncoming car, the bulbs of that dark green Toyota Camry glowing dull in the daylight. There was simply no chance of survival. I had reached the end of my life, and it was one great adventure of a life, though I had no time to realize that in those few seconds before impact. In the eighth second I raised my right index finger to the sky and declared in Arabic, “I bear witness that there exists no deity other than God, and that Muhammad is His Messenger.”

CRASH!

I did not feel myself flying in the air, but felt the earth move out from under me. I did not yell or scream. I did not utter a sound. Instead, I felt the wooooooah! one is unwittingly compelled to exclaim when riding a roller-coaster due to the enormous gravitational force. I do recall that the breeze was pleasant and the sky cloudy and a beautiful pale pastel shade of indigo.

In the 11th second I hit the concrete landing on the right side of my hip destroying my pelvis, seriously damaging my femur at the acetabulum —a word that always stuck with me because it just sounded so utterly hilarious— and bludgeoning my organs. The internal bleeding was substantial. I hit the concrete so hard that I bounced back up into the air and was headed face first for a second impact into the asphalt concrete. I raised my arms to shield my face as had become instinct from years of training in martial arts —something I highly recommend every parent bequeath their children with— and landed on my elbows instead of my face thereby shattering my bones. To this day I have metal in my arm. The X-ray looks like something out of the Uncanny X-Men. Once at the airport, when the security wand repeatedly squealed when passed over my forearm, the puzzled TSA agent asked me, “Yo! You Wolverine, dawg?”

Where was I?

I rolled onto my back. Ah! There was that beautiful pale blue Texas sky again with its cotton-ball clouds. I survived. I don’t know how, or why, but I survived and I wondered if it was only to then get run over by an 18-wheeler. I never lost consciousness, or sense, so I picked myself up and rose to my knees —the doctors never understood how I did that since I wasn’t supposed to be able to move— and began to talk to God. It was a private conversation. I soon fell to my back and wouldn’t rise up again on my own until many months later. I wasn’t to get run over by a truck. Against all odds and the laws of physics, I wasn’t to die that day. I never even lost consciousness until I was put under for surgery to fix up the damage done. As a kid I always wanted to be a Rock star —truth be told, I still do — and that was the closest I had ever gotten as I would make the 10 o’clock news that night.

Both of my friends, in spite of wearing their seat-belts, likewise, flew out of the Jeep, but both broke their necks upon hitting the ground. Every mosque in Houston, TX prayed for the three of us even though my friends were not Muslim. Why wouldn’t they? I’m proud that they did. Miraculously, all three of us not only survived, but fully recovered and flourished. In spite of the doctors telling me that I may not walk again, after much physical therapy I was walking again a year later. It was an amazing testimony to the power of prayer from complete strangers, many of whom —praying ardently in those mosques around Houston — I would never meet.

Having stared death in the eye — and it wasn’t the last time I would, but those are many a story that shan’t be told here — I wasn’t about to chance meeting my Maker unprepared. Thenceforth, I immersed myself in my faith for the next 10 years traveling many lands far and wide in search for the Truth. Again, those are valuable stories saved for a later date.

10 years later…

I woke up. Everything was spinning. The blurry ceiling fan spun with a slight wobble over my head as the sun was at its peak in September 2001. There was a forceful rapping upon my door.

Shibli, hurry downstairs! Something is happening!

Hearing such alarm in my otherwise notoriously stoic father was enough to jolt me out of the bed. I rushed downstairs and saw my Dad sitting on the couch with jaw hanging, mouth agape, staring at the big screen TV. In his life, my father has seen it all. In his youth, he and his friend, armed with shotguns on a motorcycle, had rescued dozens of families from a blood thirsty crowd during an anti-Muslim massacre he lived through in his early 20′s. Aside from the carnage he witnessed there, he had seen it all. Seeing him in such shock terrified me because I knew that whatever it was, it was serious.

I saw buildings emitting billows of smoke and nervous chatter that I was still too sleepy to make out. I distinctly remember the words “truck bomb”. I quickly realized it was the World Trade Center in New York and it was in flames. As we watched and listened to every “expert” offer as many contradictory assessments of what was happening as possible, suddenly, without warning, my father and I watched a jumbo jet —what we would later learn was United Airlines Flight 175— fly into the tower and vanish into a great waft of orange smoke incandescent in a way that one would think of hell.

Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!

My father’s exclamations rose in volume and intensity with each utterance. I know why my father was alarmed. This wasn’t a catastrophe that affected us immediately. We were in Texas. This was happening in New York. Yet, I knew why my father was alarmed and I dreaded the same.

Please God. Please. Don’t let this be an act committed by Muslims. For if it was, Your Wrath will descend upon us all.

Seeming to be reaching from cracks in the earth unleashing the denizens of hell, thick ashen smoke rose up as the towers collapsed. I saw images of people hurling themselves out of the building’s windows. Perhaps, they thought that in the building they had no chance and that if they jumped out, though remote, there might be a chance. Perhaps, they just thought it was a quicker and easier death. Perhaps, they didn’t think at all and some primordial instinct of flight emerged after eons of human evolution. As I saw them flying, I remembered how I had felt 10 years before as I flew through the air with an unflinching certainty of my own death. I remembered being calm and accepting of my fate with only God on my mind. For some reason —perhaps imagined, perhaps not— I saw that same calm in them as they fell through the air likes flowers dropped from a height. In spite of the agony of that day, and the agony that would follow, maybe they were at peace. They had more bravery and fortitude of spirit than the ones who flew the planes in the World Trade Center towers, and even more than those who would politicize them post-mortem to rouse fear and division amongst Americans. Muslims were stabbed and shot in the streets of America. Sikhs, following a religion completely unrelated to Islam, were slain simply because they “looked” Muslim.

I immediately set off to the birthplace of Osama bin Ladin, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to learn from those whom Osama bin Ladin had claimed were his mentors. I was surprised to find that they all hated him and had been active in refuting him for years. The man was a fraud. My relatives who had fought against the Soviets from the Afghan province of Paktia, where Bin Ladin supposedly participated in great feats against the Soviets, would testify that they had never even heard of him until his name became a staple of the Western media many, many years after the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan. I remember asking Shaykh Salman al-`Awdah, a scholar for whom — to this day — I have found no equal anywhere in the world, what the Muslims were to do as our lands were invaded. It was a question I had been hearing much discussion of in those times. Shaykh Salman told me that our obligation was to excel in our character and vocations, and contribute to society so that the world would know us as healers and builders and not destroyers. I saw in Osama bin Ladin’s birthplace, like nowhere else in the world, what kind of lie he and his ideology amounted to. I brought that home with me. I remember laying in bed in my hotel room — in a hotel allegedly once owned by Osama bin Ladin — writing up an apology to my beloved fellow Americans for the hapless events of 9/11. I stared at a blank page for hours. I typed a few lines. I backspaced. Nothing came out. These are the words I wanted to say then, but it took me 10 years to find them.

I am sorry, America. I am sorry that I couldn’t stop what happened. I am sorry that the murderers claimed to share my religion in some twisted and perverted way as they reveled in bars drinking liquor not long before the attacks they perpetrated. I am truly sorry. However, I will not allow anyone to blame me for it. I empathize and suffer with you, my beloved country. Yet please know this: If it was in my power, I would stop my fellow Muslim from causing even the slightest injustice against you, regardless of your race or religion, to the utmost of my ability. This is the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم).

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: انصر أخاك ظالما أو مظلوما. قالوا: يا رسول الله، هذا ننصره مظلوما، فكيف ننصره ظالما؟ قال: تأخذ فوق يديه

“The Prophet ( صلى الله عليه وسلم) said, ‘Help your brother when he is the oppressor and when he is oppressed.’ His Companions replied, ‘O Messenger of God, we do understand helping him when he is oppressed, but how can we possibly help him when he is the oppressor? The Prophet replied, ‘Seize him by his hands!’”1

I will do as my Prophet has taught me and do everything I can to protect you, but I will not allow you to oppress me and blame me for a deed that was not mine.

Those flying angels, flying out of the World Trade Center and to the next world, deserved more than to be used for the opportunistic political gain of fear mongers. They deserve more than bumper stickers emblazoned with over-marketed slogans of “Never forget” and “Support our troops”. Those slogans are meaningless without action. Let us truly “never forget” and love one another, for the murders of 9/11 were the illegitimate child of hate bred with fear.

I leave you with what God teaches us in the Qur’an:


“Evil and good can never be equated. Push back with that which is best. You will find that the one between whom and yourself was enmity will have become as a confidante and friend.” (Qur’an, 41:34)

Fight fire with fire and the world will burn. Fight hate with love and the world can be turned. Let’s “support our troops”. Let the next ones who fly through the air be our troops flying home far, far away from war. They’ve done their duty to their country. Now let’s do ours to mankind.

  1. Sahih al-Bukhari, narrated by Anas bin Malik []

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