As I reached my Istanbul apartment building, the young people who worked in the small shops outside my door yelled out, “Did you see the news? America is under attack!”
I laughed for a moment and asked them what news site they were watching, thinking to myself: They must be pulling a prank on me. They told me to go up to my apartment and turn on the TV, and I then realized my skepticism had been unwarranted.
It was a terrible day, but it seemed far, very far away from me, not just from living halfway across the world, but from my own reality, of building a new life in Istanbul. The truth is the sheer magnitude of it was just too much for me to grasp. Not to mention that 9/11 happened before the age of social media.
When, in 2003, two synagogues were bombed in Istanbul and then, days later, the British consulate and the HSBC building – with deadly, tragic consequences – it hit home more viscerally. Those attacks, too, were attributed to Al-Qaida. The Istanbul bombs shook up my world.
The shock waves of the U.S. response to 9/11 – its brutal occupation of an Iraq that then imploded – hit every corner of the Middle East, including Turkey. Lest we forget, for the West at the time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen as the model moderate Muslim voice they sought so fervently.
But while Erdogan’s subsequent rule has been characterized by deep polarization and the exacerbation of conflicts, both at home and abroad, the U.S. and Turkey are still locked in a skeptical partnership, with Turkey gaining traction from U.S. policy failures, with the latest example being Afghanistan.
On a personal level, I felt 9/11 when I started teaching at Brooklyn College and started to meet students who’d experienced it as young children. Whenever it came up in class, the anxiety on their faces was clearly visible.
Many of my Muslim students, mostly young men, shared with me privately in office hours the anguish and confusion they’d felt when, overnight, they were redefined as the enemy. Certainly, the fact that the NYPD had planted agents within our campus to discover “radical” Muslims did not help either.
It’s strange for me to imagine, but for the university students of the near future, 9/11 will be as distanced in time from them as the Holocaust was for my generation.