Twenty years ago, precisely on 9-11-2001, I was booked to fly from NYC to Tehran. All flights were cancelled, so I was forced to delay my journey until the airports reopened, and I witnessed the aftermath of the gruesome attack here in Manhattan. I wrote about what I saw and what I felt, drawing on what I then understood about the world. Mine was hardly a deep understanding especially about the Middle East, Iran, or Islamism, I admit. I would learn the hard way in the decade to come that I was woefully unprepared to navigate the tumultuous waters of Middle Eastern geopolitics - which after 9-11 began churning with a new intensity. My essay “September 11: An Iranian In New York” was published in English in November. It was then published in Persian in the magazine section of one of Tehran’s major newspapers. I have appended the Persian at the end of this post.
I ended the essay with an expression of hope, Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America be America Again.” Today I know more than I did then about both the contradictions and the unfulfilled promises of America in the Middle East, but if I was to write it today I would be in some ways less critical of America’s role on the world stage. Despite the passage of two decades and much hard-won experience, I still feel the power and hope expressed in the poem, which captures, unflinchingly but in the end lovingly, the unfulfilled promise of America. I feel that promise even more strongly today is worth striving for. I share the essay here to remember that grim day and its victims.
September 11: An Iranian In New York
By Kian Tajbakhsh
November 28, 2001
On Sept 11th, I was staying on the Upper West Side in New York City. My suitcases were packed and I was preparing to have a leisurely day with my family before departing later that day for a year's leave from the university where I teach, to work on a book about urban life and transformation in Iran. At about 9 am I got a call from a friend telling me that one of the towers of the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane and to turn on the TV. I then saw the huge gashes in the side of both buildings billowing smoke and flames. We talked about what could have happened and agreed that I should leave even sooner for the airport since security was sure to be beefed up. My friend, who had lived in Brazil for several years, said JFK was now sure to resemble Latin American airports bristling with soldiers carrying guns and questioning everyone. I in turn called my cousin who lives on Canal St. He said he didn't have a TV and so went up on his roof where he had a clear view of Wall St. "The world has changed: things will be different from now on," he told me from his cell phone as he witnessed the towers collapse less than a mile away.
For the next four days I did what most New Yorkers were doing: stayed glued to the TV, trying to figure out what was happening, who the hell had done this and why. Almost all the stations were focusing on the first of these questions, showing the footage of the airplanes crashing into the building over and over and over again, increasingly turning to the second, immediately naming Bin Laden as the mostly likely suspect, and saying very little or nothing about the third, the why. There is a news cycle of course, with hard news dominating the initial coverage as the networks see "how much legs" the story has. Almost all stations, including the BBC and ITV in the UK, went "open-ended" as they say in the news business, with continuous coverage with no breaks.
I was switching between stations, mostly CNN, BBC World (which was carried selectively by a local public station), and Peter Jennings on ABC, in the hope of getting less of what I was expecting to be shoot-from-the-hip commentary. I was watching the TV with my mother when unbelievably the first tower collapsed. I recall now one of the commentators saying "oh my God" in shock and then, in what seemed to me in a more matter of fact way, something like, "and there goes the building." I felt a jarring disconnection between the two registers, the first personal the second more observing. In the ensuing days, I came to notice this in many people including myself many times, whereby New Yorkers who weren't involved in the rescue operations, were either dissociating from the event in one big denial (it's hard to think they were indifferent, although in NY you sometimes have to wonder) or appearing to be by just getting on with their routine lives, even if just on the outside.
Most of Tuesday I think I stayed indoors glued to the box but also because of rising concern that, being a Middle Eastern man, especially one with a beard, to go outside would be neither prudent due to possible questioning by police nor safe. People who had experienced the backlashes after the hostage crisis in 1980 told me this, so I figured I'd play it safe. Trying to explain that I was trying to model my facial hair after my dervishy-style Persian music teacher, rather than after a fanatic hiding out in Afghanistan seemed, well, best to be avoided. This also caused a fight between my mother and I. Worried about me, she insisted I cancel my flight to Iran or shave off my beard. I was torn between my security, my pride and her worries, and now I can see, my concern about my immediate plans of going to Iran. Calming her seemed the most important thing; I didn't tell her that the day after the attack, I was getting very strange looks from many people in the street, something that went away when the beard did. Oh well.
I tried reaching many of my friends, but the phone lines were unreliable. Exhausted by watching so much TV and speculating constantly and shadow boxing with the TV commentators over the quality of the coverage, we went to sleep. Neither my mum nor I slept well that night.
Wednesday was day 2 and as soon as we got up we switched on the TV, searching the stations for news and reasons and motives and names and places and survivors. The precise chronology is a blur; because of the TV repeats I can't remember which images I saw when, but we occasionally saw more human dimensions, such as the awful sight of people jumping out of the towers before they collapsed, hearing about desperate cell phone calls made from the hijacked planes. As the focus of the entire media turned to an Arab/Muslim connection, with many stations showing the same ten second clip of several Palestinians apparently celebrating the news, our own worries of a backlash against immigrants (and embarrassment) grew. Still it has to be said, the media were generally very restrained. In fact the city as a whole was restrained. Mayor Guiliani as many people noticed was terrific in rising to the occasion and being just right type of leader and manager in the catastrophe.
Around lunchtime I had to go out and to my surprise it looked like a normal day in the city. The weather was gorgeous, sunny and warm and many people were walking around shopping and in Central Park the usual crowds of cyclists and sunbathers and walkers and tourists were there. Well, I was there too, taking in the beauty and amenities of the largest park in the city and walking down Poet's Walk, one of my favorite areas. I stopped to read the brief biography of Walter Scott, the Scottish nationalist, by his statue. I felt some awkwardness at allowing myself such a serene and recreational experience; on the other hand, I felt that perhaps I might see a special significance in the man that I might have missed on a more ordinary day. I read that this writer had transformed the way Scottish culture was perceived even by the Scots themselves and thought, now there's a constructive way to struggle for a cause! But throughout the park people sat around, talking, laughing, the roller blade dancers were doing their pirouettes and jumps and tourists were taking snaps of the magnificently renovated fountain and lake. Someone told me they went to the Blue Note and heard terrific jazz on Saturday night. Was the city too restrained? Was the question I kept asking myself. Were these seemingly normal people just getting on with life as a way to defy the terrorists? Since I didn't know what else to expect I could not find a convincing answer.
Thursday was much the same although I was beginning to feel restless and irritated by all the TV. Some of my friends went off to volunteer to cook meals for the rescue workers, and I tried to compose a tune appropriate to the occasion but couldn't concentrate (I'm not really a composer but I've started to dabble). The news was staggering, revealing the full extent of the carnage and the extremely large number of people who had been killed. The previous evening the wind had shifted northward bringing the acrid smell of the smoke hanging over the site almost four miles away into our apartment; so strong it was that we had to close all the windows. My mother recalled the same smell during the Second World War in Abadan and someone telling her gruesomely that it was the smell of burning wood and dead bodies. I thought to myself that this was probably again the case here in NY. In the evening I went to Mount Sinai Hospital to see a close friend whose wife had just given birth to a boy on the day before. Here was a family engaged in life at its most elemental, while everyone else was preoccupied with death. The birth had been overdue for more than a week and had to be performed via Caesarian section. The baby, the essence of life affirmation, I speculated, had refused to come out on time and be a witness to a life-quenching calamity. On the bus on the way back, I saw several candlelit vigils being held in the streets.
At noon a colleague at Columbia called and invited me to a special panel on the bombings with three specialists on the Middle East. The speakers were Gary Sick, President Carter's National Security Advisor during the hostage crisis; Richard Bulliet, a history professor and specialist on Iran; and Lisa Anderson, the Dean of Columbia's School of International Affairs. The room was full. The most striking questions raised by the presentations was first whether the attacks should be seen as an act of war on the US and thus the US should respond in that light and second the extent to which US policy in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian question were relevant to understanding the overall context of terrorism. I was quite surprised by the complete marginalization of the question of US unconditional support for Israel . Only a couple of students who spoke in the question time suggested that the combination of American bellicosity and ignoring the US role in the Palestinian issue seemed to add up to self-righteousness and willful ignorance. Still, the session was informative and like the general response in the US, restrained, measured and thoughtful. At the same time, the dirty dealings in the world of oil interests and during the Cold War were not really touched on. If they had been, it would not have been so easy to paint a black and white - good vs. bad - picture of the US role in the Middle East. Afterward I went to several bookstores to buy some books on Afghanistan. To my surprise there were very few titles on the Middle East available compared to other areas of the world. Does that say something about the public’s interest in a region in which the US has been involved militarily for over two decades?
Earlier that day I watched the memorial service for the victims held in Washington National Cathedral. The President Bush as well as members of Congress and other influential persons filed into the pews of this imposing structure. The altar area was full of flags and large crosses. I was interested to hear what the men of the cloth were going to say. I didn't really know what to expect but the service turned out to be a very interesting event, little commented upon in the press as far as I am aware.
As I watched the Imam (of Pakistani origin) walk up to the pulpit I sat up straighter. What was he going to say in front of all these Christian leaders in one of the most important churches of the US? He began with the usual invocation of the name of Allah in Arabic. My first thought: this guy has got guts.
Several clergymen spoke, representing the multi-cultural religious life of America: the Black bishop of the cathedral, a Jewish rabbi, and the head of a National Islamic Association-. The Black priest was impressive. Facing some of the most powerful politicians on earth, he told them that any action taken by the US in response to the attacks should live up to the highest ideals of this country, the respect for individual liberty and the democratic constitution. If the reaction of the US violated those moral and ethical standards - for example by the singling out Americans because they were Muslims -- then the US would be no better than terrorists themselves. This was a powerful and brave reminder, and it seemed perfectly suited to the occasion and delivered with just the right measure of authority. I can think of no better role for the guardians of the moral condition of the souls of the citizens to play in a democracy. The rabbi also stressed the need to have tolerance towards different religions and to distinguish between Muslims and terrorists; incredibly though, he chose a passage from the Bible about the building of the temple in Jerusalem, something I thought he could have left alone at this particular moment in history. As I watched the Imam (of Pakistani origin) walk up to the pulpit I sat up straighter. What was he going to say in front of all these Christian leaders in one of the most important churches of the US? He began with the usual invocation of the name of Allah in Arabic. My first thought: this guy has got guts. The reverend Billy Graham came next. He said that after all his years of preaching and contemplation he still did not have an answer to the question of why a benevolent God would countenance the existence of evil (and pain and suffering, I added under my breath). This I found pretty disappointing. I would have thought he would have something to say about it.
The fact that a powerful moral message was delivered by a Black clergyman was not a surprise to me: I have always seen Black Americans as the standard bearers of the best of American values. That a Muslim cleric would be asked to address national leaders at a time like this should be startling for other less tolerant cultures and nations.
Still the fact that this service took place, that a Muslim cleric spoke to the assembled (mostly Christian) dignitaries, and that it didn't seem too staged or artificial, says something very important about the degree of openness and tolerance of American society. The fact that a powerful moral message was delivered by a Black clergyman was not a surprise to me: I have always seen Black Americans as the standard bearers of the best of American values. That a Muslim cleric would be asked to address national leaders at a time like this should be startling for other less tolerant cultures and nations. There is of course a kind American open mindedness which Rorty has argued is so extensive "that our brains fall out," but the fact of this inclusiveness cannot be simply dismissed as public relations.
In fact, that there is an Abrahamic pact operating is attested to not only by President Bush's allegedly Christian fundamentalist beliefs, but also by another little-commented on story I read in the Guardian newspaper. Initially, the US response to the attacks was code-named "Operation Infinite Justice," presumably to capture the long-term nature of the response. In a letter to the White House, the President of the Islamic Association of America (I think this is correct) objected to this since, he claimed, infinite justice belonged only to the Almighty. The White House apparently reacted by denying its responsibility for such a blunder and blaming it on an inexperienced staffer in the State Department. They swiftly renamed the operation to Operation Enduring Justice.
Friday again started with switching on the TV. The local stations were running hard news from "ground zero," that is the (former) WTC site, seemingly unable to find space for analysis or intelligent commentary. In fact I was quite shocked at NBC's handling of the issue of determining the identity of the perpetrators. General Schwartzkopf, the commander of US forces during the Gulf War and hardly an unreliable observer, was pointing out that we shouldn't rush to judgment, as was done in the Oklahoma City bombing, and blame Arab or Muslim fundamentalists, when Katie Couric (I think it was her, so much channel surfing is not good for the memory) responded curtly and sarcastically along the lines of "Oh, come now General, flight manuals in Arabic have already been found," and so forth, as if she was more qualified than a five star general to draw conclusions about a piece of recently discovered evidence. This was quite typical of the tenor of the coverage in most stations. Even the BBC was not immune from sensationalism and hard news obsession: the (now reformed) Robert McNamara, when asked what the US response should be, called for quick action to find and punish those responsible in the short term, and, more importantly, for tackling the long term question of the "root causes." He was cut off abruptly by the interviewer with the rhetorical, "You are not really suggesting that we have time to develop a thoughtful response now?" And changed the topic to the difficulties of the US securing European cooperation. As it is, two weeks after the bombing (and now almost three months at the time of writing) no concrete piece of evidence linking Bin Laden with the hijackings has been announced, although there is mounting evidence to support that contention.
Lincoln Center was to host an Iranian Film festival all week capped by a conference at Columbia University. No films were shown on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Thursday had only a partial schedule. The conference, something for which probably a lot of time and effort has been expended, was cancelled due to the fact that the panelists could not reach NY from Iran or elsewhere. That Iranian culture was being celebrated at the same time as Iranian politics had - by association - come under suspicion reflected one more dimension of the contradictory presence and role of Iranians and Iran in the West and in world culture, a reflection no doubt of the contradictions besetting Iranian society (from which I am writing these lines). The area around Lincoln Center seemed busy and, except for the enormous American flag hanging on the façade of the Metropolitan Opera, normal for a pleasant summer evening. I tried to sense if my fellow diners, walkers, talkers, were agitated or different in any away, but it was hard to tell. After dinner I visited a close friend from Ireland whose brother had been on the Pan Am flight that had been blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and had been following the story keenly -- no doubt, I imagined, with the apprehension of reliving old pains. In his view the Lockerbie trial in The Hague had been a travesty. Rather than believing in a link to Ghadafi and the Libyans, he thought Iranian groups were likely to have been involved. As an Iranian I found this discussion embarrassing of course, but I didn't take it personally. There is simply no reason why I or anyone else should feel responsible for the action of homegrown terrorists. Speaking of which, another of the guests that evening who seemed quite well informed, told us that in Timothy McVeigh's written testimonies he had said that what he really wanted to do was "hijack a plane and fly it into the WTC" and that the two surviving students questioned after the Columbine High School shooting had apparently expressed the precise same sentiment. This was pretty startling to say the least. If true it would be a startling addition to the confusion of leads and speculations. My uninformed feeling from the start was that the WTC massacre was headed by Bin Laden with the support of the Taliban and Iraq and aided by American neo-Nazis. If there are cells and networks staying dormant in the US over a long period of time, it's plausible that these types would have bumped into each other at, say, a weapons fair.
That night I went to see an Iranian movie called Djomah, which was directed and written by Hassan Yektapanah. Coincidentally, it was about an Afghani young man working in Iran and struggling with exile, loneliness and prejudice. There weren't too many people in the theater other than three Iranians that I noticed. I wondered what was going on in the other viewers’ minds. After all the discussion about Afghanistan as a desperately poor, strife-ridden hideout for terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists (who had recently dynamited a thousands year old statue of Buddha because they viewed it is as idol worship) how did a New York audience juxtapose this with the simple story of the longings of a poor milk boy for a home and a wife far from his place of birth from which he had to escape? (Just as millions at this very moment are doing, only to find most borders to Iran, Tajikistan, and Pakistan closed to them.) My friends said they sensed a deep quiet in the theatre. Was that so? I don't know. Later, on the subway I struck up a conversation with the woman seated next to me; said she felt people were somber and quieter, more into themselves, reading or just thinking, there was less chatter. Moreover, how much did they know about Afghanistan? I recalled wincing, somewhat gleefully I admit, the night before as the BBC TV interviewer asked a former State Department official, "And will ordinary Americans tolerate war casualties, people in the Midwest who don't even know where Afghanistan is?" The American responded with admirable equanimity to a question that, while based in fact, would never have been put in that way on US television.
Saturday morning I attended several meetings that were being held in the city by activist and progressive groups. The first group at the Brecht Forum was an assembly of leftist groups conducting a teach-in about the larger political economic context of US policy in the Middle East, an important dimension of the broader picture of the dynamics of US interests in Afghanistan, something I was not getting from the mainstream press. (How many people for example know that George Bush senior is closely involved with the oil company that is looking to build a pipeline across Afghanistan?) Later, at the Asian American Legal and Educational Defense Fund, I joined perhaps a hundred people, mostly of Indian, Pakistani and South East Asian origin, crammed into a small space to hear about the strategies for combating racist attacks that had already begun. Apparently, several Sikhs had been targeted and abused, a puzzle until you realize that in appearance (beards and turbans) they kinda resemble Osama Bin Laden in the footage shown on TV. One topic of discussion that drew some debate was the issue of the now ubiquitous American flag, which some considered too jingoistic and imperialistic, something that fueled resentment and aggression against immigrants. One person proposed an alternative flag or banner that would stress equality and universality. (This didn't seem to get much reaction, probably due to the difficulty of conceiving such an alternative.) Someone else said that being from Texas he was sick of seeing the flag everywhere; but he pointed out that for immigrants who didn't speak English well, it was the only sign that could display their patriotism and thus ensure their safety. Most of those at the meeting were young professionals and students in their twenties and thirties. There was however a group of older Sikh men in their fifties and sixties dressed in suits each with a bright American flag sticking deliberately out of their jacket breast pockets. One of these men related how, as a community leader in Queens and a member of the locally elected school board, he had met with local police chiefs to educate the cops on the beat about who was and wasn't an Arab or Muslim. I was impressed by the way in which this man, like many other immigrants, had moved into positions of responsibility and how the organization of the city allowed him, however difficult it might be, to contact his local representatives and officials. I wondered to myself how many of my neighbors in Tehran knew where their local police station was, and if they did, how to talk to them about a local problem. I left these meetings impressed with the ability and speed with which these groups mobilized to protect and inform citizens and the aspects of liberal democracies worth defending against the likes of the Taliban. (The effectiveness of the groups is another matter.)
On Sunday the 16th I went down to Canal Street, the lowest street in Manhattan that was open to pedestrians and non-residents. Police barricades were trying to keep the lower areas clear of people who apparently were swarming the site to get a glimpse of the destruction at close range. That I don't get. Why on earth would one want to go down there, where you'd only be in the way? But we live in a spectacular world and the TV live coverage proved that and just feeds a need to see. But from Canal Street, less than a mile from the site, the empty place of the tower could be seen, twisted girders stuck up into the air, a huge cloud of smoke hanging over the site.
Canal Street is the main street in New York's Chinatown, and business was thriving. The crowds of shoppers and merchants in shops and stalls didn't really betray the fact that just half a mile south, a huge cloud hung in the air where two of the world's largest buildings had stood just five days before. The north side of the street was jammed with people and I was surprised (oh naiveté) to see the merchants doing a brisk trade in WTC disaster memorabilia: T-shirts, buttons, and posters, emblazoned with the, former, Wall St. skyline. The sellers of these items seemed to be all first-generation immigrants from China, North and West Africa, and the Indian sub-continent. My guess is that very few would have spoken English fluently if at all, and I wish I had talked to them about what was going on in their minds: had their faith in the promise of America been shaken by this tragic event a stones throw from their shops? Or did they feel they were still better off than those they left behind in poverty, war and repression? For these recent arrivals their jobs were their anchor and rudder in America, even if their ships were their languages, religions and cultures, which New York so famously embraces and allows. If the WTC represented the American economy to the world, then these low-skilled poor immigrants were intimately tied to that. Perhaps the apparent insouciance of these petty traders was really the soul of the World Trade Center just carrying on. They were, in a sense, another type of world trade center.
Canal Street itself was jammed with traffic and construction crews laying new lines or pipes with broken concrete and drills and men in hard hats, in a strange reversed parallel to what was going on a few blocks downtown. At one of the intersections, a young Black female member of the work crew was directing traffic waving a huge red flag and swaying with the effort. Then I realized it wasn't the weight of the flag that was moving her; she was dancing to the music coming from her headphones, turning a normally dull job into something more tolerable. As I looked at her from the north side of the street, dwarfed by the remaining buildings of Wall St. and that smoky ever-present reminder of Tuesday's events, I couldn't help but think of other contrasts: on the one hand, a product of that very peculiar, saddening type of world trade that so marks America's past and present making the best of a bad job (literally) but affirming life through music and the body; on the other hand, the absence of the symbol of that and other American world tradings. (The fact that the young woman was Black and the big cloud white seemed to confirm this impression.)
I heard that some of the girders weighed over 40,000 pounds and had to be very carefully and expertly cut away from the pile because of the fact that, under strain, they were as taught as a spring, and could snap back with a terrible force. Men from the steel workers union were volunteering their skills to unbuild what their brothers had proudly built four decades before.
The south side of the street was, like a broken line on a graph, made up of the shops and police barricades closing off the streets going south to the site which had been erected, I was told by a policeman, to prevent curious people from swamping the area where rescue workers and construction workers (destruction workers?) were laboring to remove over two million tons of debris, a job that might take over a year. In a mournful ritual, the barricades would intermittently be removed to allow a heavy load truck to bring out what was left of the WTC, trucks filled with ash still smoldering and giving off an awful, acrid smell (the smell of dead bodies again?), large flatbed trucks carrying enormous steel girders, bent and twisted like macaroni. I heard that some of the girders weighed over 40,000 pounds and had to be very carefully and expertly cut away from the pile because of the fact that, under strain, they were as taught as a spring, and could snap back with a terrible force. Men from the steel workers union were volunteering their skills to unbuild what their brothers had proudly built four decades before.
At the barricades there were little makeshift shrines with candles and notes and pictures of "missing" people, a description increasingly euphemistic as the days went by and no survivors were found. There were also poems, quotes from famous figures such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Walt Whitman, and Khalil Gibran. There was a statement written in legalese on a legal court notice:
Prosecutor: The people of the World
Defendant: Capitalism and Global Inequality
Whereas the people of the world condemn the atrocity committed in NY against innocent people, they feel it is important to highlight the vast degrees of inequality suffering and exploitation perpetrated by American and other capitalist powers to obtain greater wealth and power.
And so on. In other words, “no justice no peace.”
I didn't take an exact count but there couldn't have been more than a couple of dozen notices. There were many copies of the same sign at each barricade. The shrines were makeshift, even crude; they did not strike me as the manifestation of a massive and overwhelming collective grief. They failed to live up to the occasion. Still, standing in front of them and staring at the face of a woman or a man who had been lost in the collapse, reading about how they had called or e-mailed a lover or husband to say goodbye, I felt the full impact of the calamity in my heart for the first time. Amidst the crowds of onlookers with their cameras bunched up at the barricades arguing with police to let them through, the crashes and shouts of construction crews behind me, the snarling traffic on Canal Street, I cried, as quietly as I could. I had lunch in a local Chinese restaurant with my cousin, who lived down here and had watched from his rooftop as the towers burned, then collapsed. By now I was tiring myself out looking for the signs of the tragedy in people's faces. But I couldn't help it. Life goes on yes, but so soon, so quickly?
Is New York just too big, too dynamic, too individualistic to stop doing what it does even for such a tragedy? What did I expect? My friend asked me. I don't know. But I expected something different, perhaps less normal. Perhaps maybe people were all mixed up inside. I for example tried to do my walking exercises, even practice my singing lessons, but couldn't concentrate. In fact I couldn't concentrate enough to do even some necessary chores before I left. Were other people like that? It was hard to tell.
I arrived at JFK on Sunday night four hours before my flight departure. The terminal was relatively quiet. But the security at the main doors didn't seem to be very tight: despite the signs permitting only ticketed passengers to enter, many others were walking in and out, past the tired and inexperienced guards. I asked one of the airline employees what he thought of the new security. He rolled his eyes, and looked over at a couple of guards sitting next to an aging x-ray machine, chatting to themselves and apparently not paying much attention. He said the airlines were not willing to spend more money; if you pay McDonald's wages you get that level of competence. This was an ironic comment, given the circumstances, on the American strategy of economic globalization: the WTC, symbol of US economic might and globalization, was also connected with what economists call the "low road" to economic growth adopted by the US, i.e. through low wages, no/low benefits and very little training at the lower end of the labor market, and thus very little commitment. These security guards were very much an expression of that, now with chilling consequences -- economic blowback perhaps.
On the flight to Tehran via Amsterdam I read the British Guardian newspaper. What a delight, all things considered! I hadn't devoured journalism like that in a long time. Practically the entire issue was devoted to reports, essays, comments, and letters about the tragedy. It had breadth and depth, reflecting a much wider spectrum of opinion than the New York Times or US coverage in general, which it has been said covers the entire range of political opinion from A to B. Missing was the parochialism of the US coverage where one rarely got a story from how things looked from Pakistan, from Afghanistan, from India, from the Arab countries. Here another paradox about American culture and globalization and world trade and exchange: so much diversity, so little breadth. (This of course is not a novel observation: de Toqueville already had pointed out the paradox of America being at the same time both the freest nation yet having the most conformist culture.) I read that Tiger Woods and several others had refused to travel to Europe for an important international golf tournament, mainly because, they felt, it was wrong and trivial to be putting while their countrymen were being put in body bags.
I did not come across too many examples of this type of response in New York. On the subway I saw a young busker set up his electric piano and of all things, play a jazz improvisation on the theme from the Flintstones (complete with drunk looker-on yowling Yaba-daba-doo). I recall a scene in a movie in which Steve Martin and John Candy, sharing a long bus journey, try initiating songs that everyone could sing. Only Candy singing the Flintstones song got everyone singing, the point being presumably that a TV cartoon was about the most common element in America's disjointed and patchy national culture. If so, then the young man was playing an American anthem of sorts, perhaps an unexpected and oblique, yet fitting celebration of America. These were the thoughts going through my mind as we touched down in Tehran and our Dutch Captain announced, "I hope you have all had a good flight, under the circumstances."
It is now nearly November, and in Tehran in the two months since Sept 11th, I have been less connected to the frenzied media news coverage, even of the Iranian variety due to the fact that until recently I did not own a television set. I read the Guardian Weekly several days late (bulk mailed to Tehran), get flashes of breaking news on the internet, and read analysis and some news in specialist e-mail listservs. This is probably more than the average educated Iranian who get their coverage from local sources or from satellite TV of the CNN variety. The response of most people in Iran is something familiar by now to analysts of the reactions in the Middle East more generally: condemnation of the attacks, deep sadness at the personal tragedies, but a feeling of "what goes around comes around," to use the Indian writer Arundhati Roy's phrase (did she know she was echoing Malcolm X's' "chickens coming home to roost" comment?). By now the events in New York seem only a distant cause of the bombings in Afghanistan. As the cause-effect logic loses clarity, America is being tested. Which set of ideals will it live up to? Military aggression? International arrogance and hypocrisy? Or balancing self-defense with consideration of human rights? Forging a vision for an equitable world? A Pax-Americana with all its international responsibilities for the US? Unfortunately it's not clear at this point which it will be. There are many signs of mistakes of past foreign policies being repeated. A recent article reported that the profit motive is alive and well in post-September 11 US. So much so that the White House opposes plans to waive the patent rights for the anthrax antidote and thus opening the way for cheaper alternatives, something other countries such as Canada have already done, because it would harm business interests. The fact that it would calm the near-panic of the population, not to mention provide affordable cures in the event of a biological attack, is trivial in the face of America's main business. As Bill Moyers, that rare American intellectual, put it "They [the corporations] are counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder. They're counting on you to stand at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket." Ralph Nader has had to point out that the US Congress is willing to bail out multinational corporations such as airlines and insurance companies, but has resisted help to the millions of the airline workers who lost their jobs as "un-American."
That this is how US citizens are being treated bodes not well for the rest of the world. This is not the only America but it is the dominant America. The other America that lives up to its own highest ideals seems more and more elusive, both to the critics of globalized capitalism in the West and the opponents of the US role in the Third World. For me, there is a tension between America's righteous need to respond to a violation of its territory and citizens and its often-poor record of hypocrisy and violence in the developing world. In central Tehran there is a big painted poster showing a Palestinian fighter, under which are the lines: "America does not have the legitimacy to fight terrorism." These surprisingly sober lines reflect perhaps the underlying sentiment in this part of the world and one wishes that the US had built a stronger reputation for itself for a time like this. But this frequent failure of the US to live up to its highest ideals in the international sphere -- lofty ideals that many people around the world admire - has also been a characteristic of the American domestic experience as well. In this regard, I have thought several times about writing to my congressman proposing to adopt Langston Hugh's 1937 poem as the American national anthem, which both laments and hopes.
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
But then he hopes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
I don't have much hope that my suggestion would be well received. But Hughes tells us to hope. So perhaps one day it will. Living in the US, the other America, Hughes' hope, was an ever-present potential, animating a life of critical inquiry and social activism. Living now far away in Tehran this social hope seems less and less plausible and real, and I feel less and less inclined to maintain the faint hope of a maturing and deepening of that culture. The "real" America asserts itself to the international community in a one-dimensional and aggressive way. America still needs to be America again, especially to millions of its citizens. But it also needs to become something new to the world outside its borders. Here's to that hope.