9/11, 20 Years On: The Day That Changed My Life Forever

As an Egyptian immigrant in a small American town, I saw how the attacks changed everything for Arabs in America. We became walking targets. This article is part of a special Haaretz project marking 20 years to 9/11

Reem Abdellatif
Reem Abdellatif
The Twin Towers after being hit by hijacked planes on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The Twin Towers after being hit by hijacked planes on the morning of September 11, 2001.Credit: Diane Bondareff/AP
Reem Abdellatif
Reem Abdellatif

I was 14 when the Twin Towers collapsed. Here I was, a first-generation daughter of Egyptian, Muslim immigrants, in high school in Elgin, South Carolina, a quiet country town out of whose population of about 1,000 I was the only Middle Eastern kid.

On September 11, 2001, I was fully aware of what was happening and fearful about the nightmare to follow for Muslim Americans. After the initial shock, I realized that the quiet life my family had tried to create for us in this small town would never be the same.

This article is part of our special 9/11 project. Read it here

I was in theater class when I heard the news. My heart sank deep into my chest. At first, I was scared that such a deadly attack could happen on American soil. I could see the fear and shock on my teachers’ faces.

Then we found out that the attackers were Muslim and of Middle Eastern descent. In fact, one of the suicide bombers, and the plot’s ringleader, Mohamed Atta, was from Egypt – my parents’ home country.

That day changed my life forever. I dreaded the questions from my friends, classmates, even my own teachers. And I, too, was grieving, just like every other American in my hometown.

My parents moved our family out of Egypt when I was just 5 years old. South Carolina was the only home I knew. Yet, after the September 11 attacks, my life took on a new direction.

I'd had already lost my childhood to domestic abuse and sexual violence. Then after September 11, I found myself involuntarily becoming a hybrid spokesperson-cultural ambassador for all Muslims, Egyptians and people of Middle Eastern descent.

It wasn’t a role I wanted or even expected. Sometimes it was all too much to bear for a child. I was just a ’90s kid who wanted to read “Harry Potter” books and listen to Backstreet Boys, or hang out at the local pizzeria with my peers. But being the only Arab kid at my school, I had no choice but to speak up when my classmates and even teachers would make racist or Islamophobic comments.

Trauma makes people irrational and fear-driven. The collective trauma of the 9/11 attacks, coupled with Americans’ lack of cultural awareness, was a recipe for disaster. Arabs and Muslims became walking targets, and it was open season on Brown people who looked Arab.

I don’t regret speaking up during my childhood; I was actually respected and treated kindly by most of my peers and teachers at school. I feel lucky I had the opportunity to speak up about injustice and bigotry, a right not granted to many young people in the Middle East to this day.

The 9/11 attacks not only changed the lives of American Muslims; they intensified Western powers’ decades-long wars in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, slowly propelling the region into political and socioeconomic regression and chaos.

The aspirational U.S. talk about spreading freedom was always hollow. You can’t bomb freedom, reforms or feminism into a region. The effect of Western intervention, an old-new colonialism, has been the ongoing trauma, especially of women and youth, under the kibosh of autocratic leaders.

But there’s a thin line between educating others about our culture and defending ourselves because a handful of people who look like us committed a horrendous crime against humanity. I refuse to speak on behalf of others. I can only speak for myself. I will always refuse to let injustice and discrimination pass.

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