As a means of introduction: those terrifying few days after the 9/11 tragedy are still very fresh in my mind. Born & raised in DC with hundreds of friends working & living in NYC, I ended up being a point person for countless phone calls from friends in either place trying to get word to their families that they were OK. Philadelphia, where I was living at the time, was in no danger of attack, and the heroism of those people who crashed their plane in Shenksville PA, rather than have it continue on its deadly path to Capital Hill, is especially poignant to me. And in the midst of the grieving and confusion, poet Suheir Hammad sent out an email to her friends in the spoken word community with her reflections on the experience—as a writer, as a Palestinian-American, as a flesh-and-blood being. I was among the privileged group to receive her words, and have held on to them over this past decade as a reminder of the inherent humanity of us all. May they uplift and inspire you as well today, reminding us to always uplift the beauty and strength of spirit over the short-sighted failings of mankind.
NOTES FROM A POST 9-11 JOURNAL
by Suheir Hammad
1. there have been no words. i have not written one word. no poetry in the ashes south of canal street. no prose in the refrigerated trucks driving debris and dna. not one word.
today is a week, and seven is of heavens, gods, science. evident out my kitchen window is an abstract reality. sky where once was steel. smoke where once was flesh.
fire in the city air and i feared for my sister’s life in a way never before. and then, and now, i fear for the rest of us.
first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot’s heart failed, the plane’s engine died. then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now. please god, after the second plane, please, don’t let it be anyone who looks like my brothers.
i do not know how bad a life has to break in order to kill. i have never been so hungry that i willed hunger i have never been so angry as to want to control a gun over a pen. not really. even as a woman, as a palestinian, as a broken human being. never this broken.
more than ever, i believe there is no difference. the most privileged nation, most americans do not know the difference between indians, afghanis, syrians, muslims, sikhs, hindus. more than ever, there is no difference.
2. thank you korea for kimchi and bibim bob, and corn tea and the genteel smiles of the wait staff at wonjo - smiles never revealing the heat of the food or how tired they must be working long midtown shifts. thank you korea, for the belly craving that brought me into the city late the night before and diverted my daily train ride into the world trade center.
there are plenty of thank yous in ny right now. thank you for my lazy procrastinating late ass. thank you to the germs that had me call in sick. thank you, my attitude, you had me fired the week before. thank you for the train that never came, the rude nyer who stole my cab going downtown. thank you for the sense my mama gave me to run. thank you for my legs, my eyes, my life.
3. the dead are called lost and their families hold up shaky printouts in front of us through screens smoked up.
we are looking for iris, mother of three. please call with any information. we are searching for priti, last seen on the 103rd floor. she was talking to her husband on the phone and the line went. please help us find george, also known as adel. his family is waiting for him with his favorite meal. i am looking for my son, who was delivering coffee. i am looking for my sister girl, she started her job on monday.
i am looking for peace. i am looking for mercy. i am looking for evidence of compassion. any evidence of life. i am looking for life.
4. ricardo on the radio said in his accent thick as yuca, “i will feel so much better when the first bombs drop over there. and my friends feel the same way.”
on my block, a woman was crying in a car parked and stranded in hurt. i offered comfort, extended a hand she did not see before she said, “we’re gonna burn them so bad, i swear, so bad.” my hand went to my head and my head went to the numbers within it of the dead iraqi children, the dead in nicaragua. the dead in rwanda who had to vie with fake sport wrestling for america’s attention.
yet when people sent emails saying, this was bound to happen, lets not forget u.s. transgressions, for half a second i felt resentful. hold up with that, cause i live here, these are my friends and fam, and it could have been me in those buildings, and we’re not bad people, do not support america’s bullying. can i just have a half second to feel bad?
if i can find through this exhaust people who were left behind to mourn and to resist mass murder, i might be alright.
thank you to the woman who saw me brinking my cool and blinking back tears. she opened her arms before she asked “do you want a hug?” a big white woman, and her embrace was the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer. i wasn’t about to say no to any comfort. “my brother’s in the navy,” i said. “and we’re arabs”. “wow, you got double trouble.” word.
5. one more person ask me if i knew the hijackers. one more motherfucker ask me what navy my brother is in. one more person assume no arabs or muslims were killed. one more person assume they know me, or that i represent a people. or that a people represent an evil. or that evil is as simple as a flag and words on a page.
we did not vilify all white men when mcveigh bombed oklahoma. america did not give out his family’s addresses or where he went to church. or blame the bible or pat robertson.
and when the networks air footage of palestinians dancing in the street, there is no apology that these images are over a decade old. that hungry children are bribed with sweets that turn their teeth brown. that correspondents edit images. that archives are there to facilitate lazy and inaccurate journalism.
and when we talk about holy books and hooded men and death, why do we never mention the kkk?
if there are any people on earth who understand how new york is feeling right now, they are in the west bank and the gaza strip.
6. today it is ten days. last night bush waged war on a man once openly funded by the cia. i do not know who is responsible. read too many books, know too many people to believe what i am told. i don’t give a fuck about bin laden. his vision of the world does not include me or those i love. and petitions have been going around for years trying to get the u.s. sponsored taliban out of power. shit is complicated, and i don’t know what to think.
but i know for sure who will pay.
in the world, it will be women, mostly colored and poor. women will have to bury children, and support themselves through grief. “either you are with us, or with the terrorists” - meaning keep your people under control and your resistance censored. meaning we got the loot and the nukes.
in america, it will be those amongst us who refuse blanket attacks on the shivering. those of us who work toward social justice, in support of civil liberties, in opposition to hateful foreign policies.
i have never felt less american and more new yorker - particularly brooklyn, than these past days. the stars and stripes on all these cars and apartment windows represent the dead as citizens first - not family members, not lovers.
i feel like my skin is real thin, and that my eyes are only going to get darker. the future holds little light.
my baby brother is a man now, and on alert, and praying five times a day that the orders he will take in a few days time are righteous and will not weigh his soul down from the afterlife he deserves.
both my brothers - my heart stops when i try to pray - not a beat to disturb my fear. one a rock god, the other a sergeant, and both palestinian, practicing muslim, gentle men. both born in brooklyn and their faces are of the archetypal arab man, all eyelashes and nose and beautiful color and stubborn hair.
what will their lives be like now?
over there is over here.
7. all day, across the river, the smell of burning rubber and limbs floats through. the sirens have stopped now. the advertisers are back on the air. the rescue workers are traumatized. the skyline is brought back to human size. no longer taunting the gods with its height.
i have not cried at all while writing this. i cried when i saw those buildings collapse on themselves like a broken heart. i have never owned pain that needs to spread like that. and i cry daily that my brothers return to our mother safe and whole. there is no poetry in this. there are causes and effects. there are symbols and ideologies. mad conspiracy here, and information we will never know. there is death here, and there are promises of more.
there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting, but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has risen.
affirm life. affirm life. we got to carry each other now. you are either with life, or against it. affirm life.