20 years after 9/11, an American Muslim recalls the costs of war you didn’t see on TV

A handful of merchants and workers gathered around an old TV in a dilapidated stall in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili souk as a friend and I walked through the marketplace during a visit to Egypt in the late summer of 2001. Although the picture was blurry and the sound didn’t work, the static displayed images of two planes that had crashed into skyscrapers. The scene was enveloped in flames.

Where is this happening, a boy asked urgently in Arabic. Palestine?

For the record:

5: 30 p.m. Sept. 4, 2021An earlier version of this article said Saddam Hussein was captured in 2006. Hussein was captured in 2003.

The older men didn’t know. But I knew. They asked me what it was. I said that it was the World Trade Center in New York. I told them it was the World Trade Center in New York. They looked at me for a while, trying to find context. But they didn’t understand where it was. The target was not a global landmark or beacon of freedom for them, but it would be later described as such by U.S. counter-terrorism experts. The only thing that the Arabs knew was that someone had provoked war and the Middle East would likely be the one to pay.

As a Muslim American, I was aware that I would have to pay too ..

The stark differences between how that horrible day was covered on television overseas and in the U.S. exemplified the cultural gaps between East and West — a gulf that would expand over the next 20 years. This chasm was the backdrop to my journalism career. It was a divide between widely different takes on the same event. A terrible day that I would rather forget than relive.

There’s no shortage of documentaries and specials commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terror strikes, when four coordinated attacks by Al Qaeda operatives were carried out via commercial jetliners on civilian and government targets: Apple TV+’s “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room,” NatGeo’s “One Day in America,” HBO’s “NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021 1/2 “ by Spike Lee, four documentaries from the History Channel. That dark day is explored from every angle possible, including the stories of those who lost their lives, the history of the World Trade Center, and more than one look at the now-adult perspectives of the kids of 9/11, including those whose parents died in the attacks and those in the classroom listening to President George W. Bush read them a book called “The Pet Goat” when he was interrupted with the news.

Mourning loss is critical, and the ongoing need to make sense of a senseless act like the one perpetrated by Osama bin Laden’s henchmen is understandable. Still, it’s hard to get behind the media’s ongoing canonization of the attacks after two failed wars, thousands of lives lost and millions of people displaced, including my extended Iraqi family. Although I am not certain if there is a “right” way to deal with such devastation, which has lasting consequences, last week’s withdrawal in Afghanistan is a reminder that it is wrong to treat it as a prelude to war.

This image shows the last U.S. soldier leaving Kabul’s airport. It was taken by a single man using a night vision lens. A war launched to eradicate terrorism, but ended in the Taliban taking power, there is no celebration at the end. Unintended bookends to America’s longest war are the anticlimactic end of a campaign and the televised anniversary that started it. These stories tell a story in reverse and are filled with moments that have irrevocably changed our lives, some more than others.

The last two decades have arguably been the hardest I’ve experienced as a journalist and the daughter of an immigrant who left the tribalism of his old country behind for the wide-open promise of the West. There are few things worse than having your countrymen defend your beliefs and loyalty. I was also raised on “Scooby-Doo”, reruns, and McDonald’s jingles. Isn’t that enough?

Apparently not, judging by the hate mail and threats, the trolls and profiling. I lost my high-profile journalism job, friends, and at times, my identity, and confidence. It was nothing compared to what my family lost overseas.

They had been scattered by war. I went to the Middle East to reunite with them. I visited Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates, then finally Baghdad, when it was safe enough to write about war reporting. They told me about the beginning of the bombing in Baghdad on my first trip to Amman (Jordan). In the U.S. we called it “Shock and Awe” and the press treated it like a Fourth of July fireworks show: “The night sky is lit up like a Christmas tree!” The U.S. and allied forces launched a war based on fake intel against a nation that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, under the banner of defending the free world from more terror attacks. My relatives were shocked to learn that I was watching from my Brooklyn living room while I was pregnant with my son. All I could think of was my children and the places I had spent my summer vacations in. After a long war against Iran, U.S. sanctions, and Saddam Hussein’s brutality, what had they done?

Nov 2011, Baghdad, Iraq, author Lorraine Ali's inside home of Uncle Khairy, age 79.

Lorraine Ali inside the Baghdad home of her Uncle Khairy in November 2011 while U.S. troops were withdrawing from Iraq.

(From Lorraine Ali )

My uncle Mehdi, and my cousin Afrah, recounted their attempts to hide in the basement under the bombardment. But getting my uncle’s wheelchair down was another matter. So they decided to take refuge under the stairs. They lived to tell the story and were fortunate. So did other family members, only to be killed years later in a suicide bombing that wasn’t covered on CNN and certainly won’t be part of a 9/11 retrospective. A 7-year old was one of the victims.

Even after Iraq’s Hussein was captured by U.S. forces during an operation named after the movie “Red Dawn,” his tribunal and 2006 execution were sparsely covered on American news, likely because it was so brutal, and that sort of ending doesn’t fit a tidy narrative of democratic nation-building. The entire execution of Hussein was broadcast live, uncut, throughout the Middle East. I watched it in full from Damascus (Syria). As ghoulish as it sounds, it is not uncommon for the brutality and violence of conflicts to be broadcast uncut on international newscasts. The true cost of combat is revealed to viewers. It was all I could do to honor my family’s commemorative anniversaries and yellow ribbons.

The objective of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was met in in 2011 when Bin Laden was hunted down in Pakistan by Navy SEALs and executed. The U.S. received footage from the operation that was captured by the body cameras of the SEALs. While there were many revelers outside of the White House there was no “Mission Accomplished” photo op, and no ticker tape parade. The enemy was never sufficiently well-defined to be defeated. Reports of new Al Qaeda offshoots and ISIS were a possibility. Conspiracy theorists maintained that the evil mastermind was still alive, but was hiding in a cave plotting his next move.

By the time Trump rolled into the White House, the wars triggered by 9/11 had spawned plenty of questions about America’s intentions, who we were supposed to be fighting and why there seemed to be an endless string of militant groups and their offshoot factions vowing death to America. Newer voices, often misunderstood or maligned, also joined the unwavering commitment not to forget those who were killed in the attacks. They weren’t coming from Lahore. Comedy Central’s Hasan Minhaj hosted the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Assn. Just in time for roasting the Muslim ban, one of the president’s first pieces policymaking decisions, dinner was served.

“Only here can an Indian American Muslim child of first generation get up on the stage to make fun of the president,” Minhaj said, speaking to the journalists. Minhaj addressed the room of journalists. It’s a sign for the rest of the globe. This amazing tradition shows that even the president can be reached by the 1st Amendment .”

Ramy --

Ramy Youssef, right, and Hiam Abbass in the “Ramy” episode “Do the Ramadan.”

(Barbara Nitke / Hulu)

And then there’s the Hulu dramedy “Ramy,” comedian Ramy Youssef’s semi-autobiographical series about a first-generation Muslim American millennial in New Jersey. In a flashback episode, the 9/11 attacks were shown from a totally different perspective — his. This was a pivotal moment in the story of the protagonist of the series, who is the school’s only Arab child. In essence, 9/11 filtered through Egyptian eyes. Imagine if the children in Cairo’s souk could see themselves.

I’m grateful my son was born after 9/11. It’s partly because he is American and it’s now part of our collective heritage and partly because of the color of his skin, ethnicity, and faith. I know that he will always feel its weight. He has much more than “Scooby-Doo”, he has “Ramy” and a lot of other pop culture icons that have generational connectivity. He has Minhaj, “Ramy”, and many other voices that add fresh perspective to an otherwise tragic story. Progress made by fire.

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