Rehan Ansari, Mid Days special correspondent, survives the first
attack on America only to find himself and his kind the new
targets of the Western world
On the night of September 10, I went to watch a live interview of Bruce
Willis, star of the disaster series Die Hard, Die Harder, Die Hard with
a Vengeance (I am not too sure about the titles of the sequels, but you
get the picture) and the sleeper hit (M Night) Shyamalans) The Sixth
Sense. The hall at Actors Studio of New School University, located on
12th Street and 6th Avenue, was filled to capacity. The audience was unanimously
white. It seemed impossible that anything that made sense to this audience
could seem sensible to the rest of the world.
Other facts of Bruce Willis encouraged this impossible thought in my head:
from his blue-collar adolescence in New Jersey, his father was a mechanic,
his grandfather was a mechanic, as a teenager he was expelled for a while
from high school for his participation in a race-riot (at the cost of
being redundant: he was violent against people who were of a
different colour), to his adulthood in New York and Los Angeles. After
college he came to New York City and readily found work in off-Broadway
theatres. Soon he was in television and then films. Disaster movies made
him extraordinarily rich. In these he was an ordinary man in an extraordinary
situation. In Die Hard he battles terrorists in a burning skyscraper.
None of this Bruce Willis biography can sensibly be transposed on someone
who is of Middle Eastern, Asian and South Asian origin in America. At
the end of the interview the famous interviewer, the principal of the
Actor's Studio, asked Bruce Willis the pronunciation of Shymalan's name.
So what was I doing there? As long as I had only consumed action/thrillers,
not getting too close to them, as in going to an interview of Bruce Willis,
I was sane.
Afterwards I went for dinner in Tribeca. I got off at Canal Station and
turned around. I looked up at the World Trade Center
Twin Towers, using them as a compass to figure out my direction. I had
a job on Wall Street with a brokerage house in 1993 and one of the brokers
used to think it was funny asking me how the Hizbollah was doing at least
once every morning. He used to like rolling the word around in his mouth.
My response to him was model minority. When the World Trade Center bombing
happened that year, I was no longer with the firm and wondered what he
would say if we were to meet again.
Post bombing, I cannot escape the drone of the media. I have tried by
making contrary comments. For example: if a reporter says ground zero
in the financial district looks like a World War Two bombing, I say out
loud, in the presumed safety of the indoors: why can't the reporter say
that it looks like Baghdad. At least when Mayor Guiliani said a similar
thing he remembered Dresden, a city that the Allies bombed. Edward Said
happened to write in The Nation, a week before the bombing: if you decide
to bomb a people then imagine them sitting across the table from you as
you are making the decision.
Baber, Ahmed, Rashid and me, independent of each other, decided to shave
after it sank in that New York City was attacked. Later in the day I overheard
Baber, my brother-in-law, speaking to his father in Lahore. He said that
this is like Ayodhya. Not exactly. It is as if the minority destroyed
the majority's mandir. This evening I have learnt that three women were
attacked at the Penn State University, a mosque in New Jersey was vandalised,
a mother who wears the hijab suggested to her 28-year-old daughter she
take it off, a lawyer friend, Sahr Mohammed Ali, encountered four separate
incidents of harassment in one day. From television I have learnt about
attacks on Arabs, Sikhs and other South Asians in Manhattan, Illinois,
Virginia, Texas, California.
Many from my school, Karachi Grammar School, work on Wall St. Many of
these people have worked for years and not gotten their green cards. Indentured
labour for our times. It will be days before I will know who survived.
None of us can empathise with the commitment, the planning, the training,
the principles of those that carried out the bombings. Earlier this year
in a Karachi neighbourhood I saw a poster of a masked man against a red
backdrop, holding a Kalashnikov, the inscription a call for support for
the Kashmiri jihad. I captured my response by remembering a line from
William Blake: "Your image of Christ is not mine."
Having won a scholarship from Vassar College, I left Karachi for New York
in 1987. I was to be going to a liberal arts college. I would not have
to think about my occupation for several years. It meant I would study
for the hell of it. I believed my college catalogue description of the
American liberal arts education. Studying History of Western Philosophy
seemed a good idea and I took a whole year of it with a professor named
Michael McCarthy, a big Irishman who gave copious notes and said the eyes
are the windows to the soul. During the Persian Gulf War in 1990, Vassar
organised many meetings and seminars. Michael McCarthy gave a public address
in which he called the war a just war. He handed out copious notes to
the audience. I think he had 30 reasons for why it was a just war. Road
blocks and spot checks in all boroughs on New York City. Karachi has plenty
of this, so I am used to it.Non-residents are not permitted entry beyond
14th street and the National Guard checks for four kinds of ID. An aircraft
carrier is in New York Harbor and F-14s are patrolling overhead. From
14th street and 6th avenue at dusk I look downtown and where the twin
towers once stood is a haze and shell of light from
the construction. It looks like a film set for a disaster
The attacks have pulled off a switcheroo of revolutionary proportions.
Where the hand of capital was invisible and terror located in rogue states,
capital became concrete (the military industrial complex became two buildings(!)
the Pentagon and the WTC and terror decentered, everywhere
and nowhere. The tools of the master used as weapons by the slave
the classic Hegelian paradigm. I have never seen New York commentators,
from the New York Times to The Nation humbled. I saw a film billboard
of an Arnold Schwarzenneger film and thought of the tired white men that
him, Travolta and Willis will seem in their films. It is true that the
studios are postponing their thriller releases, the ones with terrorism
angles. They say they are being sensitive about public sentiment in the
light of what happened. More likely reality overtook their imaginations
to the extent that it embarrassed them.
Many people are thinking about what has happened. About violence, cycles
of violence, the price tag of American foreign policy. Does it take this
to open their eyes? In Pakistan the word on the street is that the Americans
now know how it feels to be at ground zero: a group of aunties gheraoed
a gori at Lahore Gymkhana swimming pool and said as much. Qazi Hussain
Ahmed, amir of Jamaat e Islami has promptly said he does not support terrorism.
Pervez Musharraf wonders if he has the opportunity Zia ul Haq had to fight
the good fight for the Americans.