While the events of Sept. 11 unfolded, thousands of Americans living abroad were sharing the nation's collective horror, shock and grief. Here, some "expats" describe — in their own words, and in their own way — what it was like to be time zones away when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.
• CASCAIS, PORTUGAL
• BERLIN, GERMANY • PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC • SAME VILLAGE, MANUFAHI DISTRICT EAST TIMOR • SINGAPORE • CAIRO, EGYPT • MADRID, SPAIN • JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA • PAPUA NEW GUINEA • TOKYO, JAPAN
On Sept. 11, my sister in Atlanta had called me in Portugal to complain that she had stomach flu and was home from work. We had a long, hilarious, homey conversation. We hung up. She called back immediately. "FYI," she said, "a plane just hit the World Trade Center."
I ran to turn on the news. Within seconds my Portuguese husband called from his office to tell me.
I watched the news for half an hour before deciding to take my 3-year-old son back to his nursery school. It was only his second day. I had not intended for him to go all day immediately, but I didn't want him to see the terrible images on the television, and I had to see them.
I drove him back to the little school on auto-pilot, left him there screaming and reaching for me, and returned home in time to watch the towers fall. I cried as if I had been wounded. My Portuguese baby sitter ran from the kitchen to see what had happened to me, but I couldn't answer her, could only gesture at the screen. She sat and cried with me. My baby daughter slept.
One of my closest friends is an Army officer, in Washington, D.C. I left a panicked message on his wife's cell phone. I sent a mass e-mail to other friends in NYC and in the D.C. area who may have been affected. "Check in, please," it said. Please, please, check in.
For the whole first week I don't think that I ever turned off the news. I was never so grateful for cable and e-mail.
The first shock faded. I began to get the e-mails about how this was a result of American foreign policy.
I sent them on to my siblings and to my Army friend, asking what they thought. They returned furious phone calls, referring to me as "Osama bin Holly." I played devil's advocate. I needed help in formulating responses.
I was not living in America, surrounded by flags and a great rush of warmth and solidarity. I was in Europe, with people who thought that what happened was a terrible thing but who did not feel so personally affected by it, and who in fact, maybe did feel a little bit that it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
America isn't the most popular kid on the block.
What has happened since? My husband's family, who are intensely politically aware, have been grudgingly won over by Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell. The feeling that I have from them and others around me who would not hesitate to roundly criticize the U.S. has generally been one of surprised approval.
I wonder when my husband and I will feel safe about taking the kids on an airplane to the U.S. again. I wonder how long it will be before I see my family. For the first time in many years, I am homesick.
My husband chastises me for striking up conversations with random strangers, since it inevitably comes up that I am American. Never mind that they are usually other mothers in the park with kids. You never know, he says.
The embassy sends out bulletins urging Americans abroad to keep a low profile, limit movements, vary travel times and routes, to not leave vehicles unattended.
They have been warning us about bin Laden, "who in the past has not distinguished between military and civilian targets," since long before Sept. 11. I do not fly my flag. I do not dress my children in the clothing that they have with American flags on it. I look askance at people whom I know are not American wearing fashion statements decorated with American flags. I think, "Are they idiots?"
Last Friday, my son asked to take a small American flag to school to show his teacher. He loves the flag. When he sees it on television, he shouts, "Tenho igual!" (I have the same!) He doesn't go to an American school. There are people of several nationalities there. Maybe it's not a good idea for people to know that he is American, I thought.
I let him take the flag. It is a small rebellion against fear.
—Holly Raible Blades
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Disbelief and disconnect. These were the first words that scurried across the brain as the World Trade Center crumbled. Television transmitted terror across continents in only a matter of seconds. It was the mind that took hours to catch up.
Instantly to the Internet trying to figure out who was making what of this horror. Jumbled words in fragmented calls to other expats living here in Berlin to make sure they were watching hell at home.
That evening, a group of Americans gathered to do nothing other than watch CNN and the BBC, the English-language news networks to which we had access. There was little chatting and lots of watching. Most everyone present had someone they loved in either New York or Washington, many in both cities. Frantic attempts to cross the Atlantic with the help of an operator. Checking e-mail over and over again in case someone had been able to reach a computer more rapidly than a phone. A group dinner offering a dash of laughter over a plate of shock. More television. More attempts to reach home.
The strangest moment came upon emerging from our impromptu evening of adhesion to the television: Life on the city's streets rolled on as usual. Certainly the attack was the only topic in Berlin, both in the city's newspapers and on its televisions, but all the day's events remained physically thousands of miles away … no smoke snaked up Berlin's streets, phone lines worked without problems, subways ran and stores were open.
Struggling to grasp what it was that had taken our country's imagination hostage, fighting to feel what it was that Americans at home were enduring, seeking out American papers, watching more television, feeling guilty for not being there to share the mourning and the mornings to come. This was what life abroad became.
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This morning I arrived at the offices of the newspaper where I work in Prague to find a workman blocking my way. He was hunched over a welding tool that was throwing off a shower of sparks.
My first thought was: My God, that man isn't wearing safety glasses. My second thought was: My God, where did that giant steel door come from?
Then I remembered. Last week, our general manager pried the 3-foot Prague Post sign off the front of our building. The steel door being installed in front of the lift that takes people from the street directly to our floor was yet another attempt to make our largely ex-pat staff feel safe.
We all get shiny new keys on Monday.
The big news here is that the Defense Ministry has finally settled on who among them will give the order to shoot down a hijacked civilian plane. (There are no skyscrapers in the Czech Republic.) Parliament is debating whether to give the secret police more powers. Four armored tanks are parked in front of the headquarters of Radio Free Europe. The army chief triggered a gas mask buying spree when he suggested that an infected terrorist might suddenly appear in a Prague movie theater.
And the mild-mannered former-dissident president, Vaclav Havel, got so angry over nationalistic remarks made by the leader of the Civic Democratic Party that he chastised him in the press for trying to surpress Czech citizens' right to free speech.
From what I can tell, it's the same kind of stuff that's going on in America.
But it's hard to tell. I have a fractured idea. I read The New York Times and Washington Post online, check major news sites, scan Slate, peruse The Guardian and fall asleep to the BBC World Service. But I'm not experiencing anything close to what my friends and family in New York, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco are.
I'm glad. I hear it's awful. I hear no one can sleep and everyone is depressed. My sister e-mailed to ask if I thought she should buy a gas mask. A friend in New York is traumatized because his doctor told him the air in his neighborhood isn't safe to breathe.
When I walk through the cobblestone streets of this fairytale city, I'm secretly relieved I left New York last July. Here, I smell coal smoke, not burning cement rubble. Here, I see flyers announcing classical concerts, not the faces of the missing and dead. I haven't had to read what someone was wearing when they went to work Sept. 11 as I wait to cross a street.
We had three minutes of national silence after the attacks. Air raid sirens went off and I leaned out my window and wondered what I was doing here. Lately I'm wondering whether I'll recognize the place I left.
Everyone's buying flags? Journalists who criticize Bush have been fired? The "Star Spangled Banner" is the top song? Arab-looking people are being turned away from airport boarding gates?
I feel like going home immediately so I'm not caught outside the walls of Fortress America.
I feel like staying put so I don't have to get on a plane.
Faxes keep arriving in the newsroom with the latest State Department warning to Americans abroad. It's always the same. "Keep a low profile. Don't gather in large groups. Avoid Western hangouts. Vary your daily patterns."
Take the signs off your buildings. Hide.
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SAME VILLAGE, MANUFAHI DISTRICT, EAST TIMOR
A dialogue from East Timor between two American U.N. police officers.
MICK- You awake?…You up?
SULLY-Ya.…You listening to the radio?
SULLY- Voice of America?
SULLY- Anything new?
MICK- No, same crap.
SULLY- I gotta call home. I can't believe these friggin' phone lines are down.
MICK- I know.
SULLY- We haven't hit anybody yet?
MICK- No … Nothing. Or they just ain't talking.
SULLY- Friggin unreal.This is unreal.
MICK- I know.
SULLY- I know all kinds of guys on the job in New York. Fifteen or 20 of 'em ….whenever a Boston guy or one of there guys gets killed we throw a big time to help out the family. Softball … Golf Tournies…everything…My sister was supposed to be heading down there, after my mother's birthday on the 8th. From Logan too.
MICK- If we had e-mail, … ya know?
SULLY- Ya, I know…e-mail…phones…anything. We gotta get to Dili…This is wacked Mick. This is unreal.
MICK- I know…I'm supposed to be in Bangkok in two days. I'll make calls from there.
SULLY- Two days?!!! Bangkok? We should be able to call from the station! Right here, now! These friggin' phones.
MICK- Ya…You know a lot of guys on the job in Manhattan huh?
SULLY- Ya…Manhattan, Brooklyn…the gang unit down there…all over. My cousin Maureen is married to a firefighter…Brian or Bobby Coffey…Something like that. I can't believe this…We need to go to Dili...Take a patrol down there…Do any of the prisoners need to go to court? Are there any warrants or other paper work that needs to be picked up?
MICK- I don't know, I'll ask Captain Bill.
SULLY- You should just tell him that we need to go…You just say "Billy-boy,…Sully and I are heading to Dili. We need to check our e-mail and make some calls." Make calls, find out if everyone is OK.
MICK- He knows I'm not from New York.
SULLY- So what!…Give me a break. We just got attacked! This is war Baby! This is no joke Mick…This ain't The Gulf or even 'Nam. This is legit…Bill will let us go…he's an Aussie, he gets it.
MICK- Ya, we need to go find out what's going on.
SULLY- No crap we do…I hope to God my sister wasn't on one of those planes…I know she wasn't, but…I don't know…all those people.
SULLY- The reception on this radio sucks!
MICK- Ya…You want to listen to it anymore? You want me to turn it off? It's the same reports over and over again.
SULLY- Nah…go ahead. Turn it off.
MICK- Turn it off?
SULLY- In a minute…one minute…This is unreal.
MICK- I know…
—William G. Smith
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There have been two times when I've been singled out as an American in Singapore. One was during the past presidential election debacle, when I found myself struggling to educate co-workers on the historical significance and justification for the electoral college. The second was the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
After living abroad for two years, and often finding myself as the only American — or even Westerner — within a working group, I began to assume that I was some sort of "global" citizen, fully adaptable to whatever culture I might be dropped in and above nationalism of any sort. After all, I readily drink kopi, eat kway teow and have learned to say "thank you" and other handy bits in Mandarin. I've developed friendships across the multiple races and religions — including Islam — found in Singapore. But when something happens in America, I discovered that, for most colleagues, even those who've lived in America, I am one of the few Americans that they actually know. While my thoughts immediately turned to friends and family in New York, my colleagues' thoughts turned to me as the sole person they knew who could potentially be impacted by the attacks.
E-mails arrived from ex-colleagues that I hadn't spoken to in months. Co-workers stopped by to share their grief and trepidation with me. I found myself placed in a role similar to that of a news analyst or political spokesperson on behalf of my country, analyzing how Americans would react, how the government might carry out reprisals on the terrorists and what the ultimate impact will be on the stock market (if there's one thing that all Singapore investors have in common with their American counterparts, it's a vested interest in the movements of the Dow and Nasdaq).
Given the option, I would have preferred spending time explaining the importance of the Super Bowl and why we've adopted baseball as our national game, than to have assumed the role of diplomat and talking head for all Americans.
The other odd occurrence was realizing the technological wonders of e-mail and satellite TV. Unsurprisingly, I found myself watching CNN — the same reports at the same time, as my family back home saw.
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On September 12 America enjoyed a palpable sympathy in the streets of Cairo. In the next two or three weeks that sympathy was somehow squandered, that door slammed shut — and this before American planes struck Afghanistan. Now there are only "U.S. attacks" and "innocent Muslims;" and when Osama Bin Laden's Kalashnikov-patting sound bites are played on the news, even decent, moderate intellectuals nod partial agreement. What happened? From my very limited vantage point as a student at the American University in Cairo, it sounded like this:
In the first few days, shock and condolence.
"Haram! It's a sin! God be with you, God be with you."
"Did you call your family and make sure they're OK? Thank God, Alhamdu lillah, alhamdu lillah."
"My uncle works in New York. But he's OK."
Then, the typical Cairene black humor.
"A cloud of smoke and ash? You mean New York looks like Cairo now?"
"No way man. That was no Arab group. Could we ever be that punctual and organized?"
"You're American? Well don't put my name on your list, I didn't do it."
On television, footage bought directly from CNN, sometimes without even an Arabic translation. (Americans broadcasting for other Americans are heard by the whole world.)
By September 16 or so, people discuss it like sports: another topic for kalaam farigh (idle talk) over tea and cigarettes. For instance, a conversation in my landlord's office. My landlord, a lawyer, says he doubts the attackers were Arabs because they required some skill and education, flying planes and calculating tower resistance and such. (Yesterday's joke, but he said it in earnest.) His young assistant Saeed, a law student, maintains it was a Japanese group retaliating for Hiroshima — or maybe Iran. Another assistant, Mustafa, thinks it was some kind of state intelligence agency, for sure: some power "commensurate with the U.S.," as he says. But then he admits it might have been Iraq. Some other guy sitting in the office insists it was Israel creating a smoke cloud under which to 1) blame the Palestinians and 2) reinvade them without media glare. (A pretty common theory, on the streets and in the papers.)
They speculate about consequences, too: what if the U.S. bombs Pakistan, which is a nuclear power; whether the attack will change U.S. policy toward Israel; or whether the U.S. government is too far under Israel's thumb. (The "Israeli conspiracy" guy tells me the United States is 25 percent Israeli-Americans. You mean Jews. Yes. Try 2.5 percent. He doesn't believe me, of course.) But underlying all the chatter, surfacing when they remember me in the room, is a strong desire to believe it was some "inside job," a group internal to the U.S., like Oklahoma City.
That is the line I hear most in the first week after the attacks; protesting too much, over-certain or slightly desperate. Basically every Egyptian I speak to, among both intellectuals and street vendors, spinning all possible wheels to identify Egypt with the "civilized world," against the crazies. (Indignation about Americans who are biased against Arabs: "Here in Egypt we can distinguish the innocent from the guilty." But horror at the name "Mohammad Atta," an unmistakably Egyptian name.) Several people also tell me Egyptians are kind and nonviolent people, suffering with the Americans. My cab driver takes offense that the American University in Cairo was closed for two days. "Do you feel unsafe here? We are peaceful people." On television, reports about Montana militia groups.
Around September 18 an Egyptian friend of mine tells his little sister, who is exactly my age (27) and a PhD student in Montreal, to take a leave of absence and "come home" for a while. Many Arabs studying in North America do just that. Suddenly all anyone can talk about is the negative image of Arabs in the American media, the dangers for them in American streets. The fear feeds partly on the good intentions of those very media, which have dutifully reported and described so many of the bias crimes. On television, dubbed-over footage of Arabs not allowed on American flights, etc.
In the late teens of September: "But how can the United States condemn terrorism against civilians if it keeps supporting Israel's killing of Palestinians?"
"I want to emigrate. Do you think they'll give me trouble if I come to the U.S. with this beard?"
By Sept. 28: Suddenly it's all about Israel. On television, special Intifada anniversary reports. Some include Stars of David dripping blood, etc. The nightly news alternates reports of American coalition-building against Afghanistan and the escalation of Israeli violence in Palestinian-controlled areas of the occupied West Bank. Israeli embassy employees, attending Yom Kippur services at a specially opened and very well-guarded synagogue in a leafy Cairo suburb, trade Mossad conspiracy rumors. Sympathy for the United States has evaporated. "It's the Palestinians, stupid," my Egyptian friends tell me — the rhetorical tripwire which all too often means, around here, that thinking has stopped altogether. And then: "Why are Americans so surprised that people hate their government?"
October 1: the catchphrase du jour is "thousands of Bin Ladens." On all lips, the idea that the United States can kill one but many more will sprout. Said with increasing admiration. Osama is becoming a kind of Arab Zorro.
October 7: U.S. planes strike Afghanistan. In Cairo, tightly controlled anti-U.S. and anti-Israel demonstrations at Cairo and Ayn Shams universities — but not at the American University in Cairo, where all eyes are on the student council elections or something. Widespread scorn of the "drop food with one hand, bombs with the other" policy.
That night, downtown traffic is briefly closed as President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak makes his way to the Opera building for a ceremony commemorating what Egypt considers its victory in the Oct. 6, 1973, war. He makes no immediate comment on the U.S. strike.
Oct. 12: A cloud of humid gray-yellow smog has settled over the city. I'm told it may stay for weeks. My Arabic class has learned the words for "airstrikes" and "anthrax" and "panic" — but not yet "demagoguery" or "radicalization."
On television, Al-Jazeera's tapes of Bin Laden's statements are shown once in full, thereafter edited down to the justice-for-Palestinians and stop-killing-Iraqi-children parts with which no one here disagrees. Close acquaintances are no longer embarrassed to say, as they never would have said a month ago: "You know, Osama has a point."
— Margaret Litvin
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PAPUA NEW GUINEA
The events that took place on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States unfolded before me live via CNN at approximately 11 p.m. Papua New Guinea (PNG) time.
Shock and sadness immediately filled my heart. Before my current job in PNG, I attended school and worked in New York City for seven years. Both of my parents were born in the Bronx so NYC has always been an important place to me and the skyline with both WTC towers has always been a part of my memory of NYC. Last December I took my fiancée to the top of the WTC towers. It was her first time overseas and she was very distraught about the fact that the huge building she visited is no longer there.
I feel very helpless because I am literally on the other side of the world and can do very little to help the city. Conversations with friends and relatives via telephone and e-mail frighten me. The nation seems jittery and many folks have admitted to me that they believe more attacks are on the way.
The American community in PNG is small. I have had little opportunity to commiserate with fellow Yanks. The expatriate scene here is dominated by Australians and all Aussies I've spoken with are outraged. The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was in Washington during the attacks. I want to thank him and all Australians for their support. The comments PM Howard made from the Australian Embassy in Washington only hours after the attack were the most supportive and endearing comments any world leader made in response to the attacks.
Papua New Guineans are equally outraged. A memorial service was held in Port Moresby and Papua New Guinea has pledged to support the United States in any way possible. Papua New Guineans have not forgotten the thousands of American lives lost during WWII on PNG soil during battles in Rabaul, Bougainville, and the Buna campaign. I thank them for their support.
Finally, I want to emphasize to Americans that it is incredibly important that the civil liberties of Arab and Muslim Americans are upheld. It saddens me to see people persecuted and the United States must rise above persecuting what some might call suspicious-looking citizens, residents and visitors. We made a mistake with the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and we must not repeat the same mistakes.
While living overseas as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Congo in the early '90s, and during my current stay in PNG, I have always reflected upon what it means to be an American and how special the United States is. Living overseas inspires such thoughts. My prayers go to the victims and the survivors. God bless the United States of America and God bless all peace-loving nations and people of this planet.
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"Where were you when the towers came down?"
I had just arrived on a flight from Spain to Portugal to attend an American Club of Lisbon board meeting. Halfway through the meeting, the Head of the Portuguese-American Chamber of Commerce received a call from his office: "a commercial airplane has been hijacked and they've crashed into the Twin Towers" he exclaims. A few minutes later the Council General of the U.S. Embassy receives a call "The hijackers have also crashed into the Pentagon". Needless to say, the board meeting was adjourned and we all scurried away in each direction, mobile phones worriedly trying to make the connection with those back home — to no avail.
Both Portugal and Spain were with the rest of Europe as they honored the two minutes of silence two days later, and it was heartening to see these major cities come to a virtual stop, with cars pulling over on the highways, at precisely 11 a.m. Lisbon time/noon Madrid time.
That Friday, a Portuguese friend held a candlelight vigil on her balcony at midnight to coincide with the vigil held in America. A dozen or so of us — a mixture of Portuguese, American, Brits and others — stood together in silence as the candles flickered in the wind and the sorrow swelled up in our hearts.
The American Embassy in Portugal has a Warden Program (as do all European countries), which aims to keep American citizens advised on what to do in the case of emergencies and updated on ongoing Security Warnings. We had our first meeting after the attacks several weeks ago. The head of security thanked us for our participation in the meeting and applauded our courage for attending a meeting on Embassy grounds at such a precarious time. We continued to work towards compiling a comprehensive list of all American citizens living in Portugal and their contact information, so they can be informed of any urgent messages or instructions that the U.S. government might need to divulge.
I'd say the oddest thing about being over here — aside from the obvious of feeling deeply separated from my family and friends back home — is the severe contrast of sentiments amongst the Europeans.
I've received e-mails from friends literally all over the world, checking to make sure I'm OK and expressing their condolences for our collective loss. A couple weeks ago I was in a café in Madrid. When the waiter found out I was American he immediately expressed his "solidarity" and said how sorry he was for what happened. Even now, over a month later, when I meet anyone new and they find out I'm from NYC, they immediately ask how my family is and if I'm doing OK. It's very touching, the outreach of support and caring from both old friends and strangers alike.
In Paris two weeks ago, I walked by the American Embassy to find yards of flowers piled up on the corner, under the watch of severely armed guards. There was a Condolences Book where people could write in their thoughts and support for the cause. "We are with you America," "We haven't forgotten what you did for us in Normandy" — note after note amidst the elaborate floral display, I felt an overwhelming sense of both emotional pain and supportive love, as the tears streamed down my face.
Contrasted to that, however, is the sentiment that has been continually trickling into conversation, that America deserved this. We are viewed as an arrogant, self-centered, hypocritical country by many of our European counterparts, to the extent that they celebrate in private that we finally got our dose of what they have endured on their soil for decades. I've had nobody tell me this to my face. But it's extremely prevalent in the press, in conversations overheard on the streets, and many of my European friends reluctantly admit that the conversation does take such a turn when there are no Americans around to hear. It saddens me that people could be so callous — dismissing the death of thousands of people because you don't agree with the government policies. Ignorance is so very dangerous.
I fear for my safety. And for the safety of my family and friends at home. But I'm determined to continue to live my life — more vigilantly certainly — but with as much normalcy as possible as the events continue to unfold. I look forward to spending Thanksgiving with my family in N.Y., but I will be flying a Spanish airline rather than an American one. I'll be visiting friends in D.C., but will drive rather than take Amtrak. And I'll spend some time with my precious niece and nephew, ages 5 and 3, in Florida, give them both an enormous hug that will likely last just a bit longer than usual, take long walks with them on the beach in the sunshine, wonder what sort of world they'll be growing up in, and say a prayer.
—Helen Grace Bannigan
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JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
It's just after the second plane crashes into the World Trade Center, about 3:30 in the afternoon here, 9:30 a.m. in NY. I think I'm writing at home when my friend phones me to tell me what's going on and I don't believe him. I phone my mother in New Jersey. She confirms it for me, describing the horrific images of the two buildings on fire, telling me about the people jumping from the windows. Even with the satellite delay on the phone, the trembling in her voice is unnerving. I jump in my car and race over to my friend's guest house because I know they have CNN — I don't realize that all four regular channels in South Africa are already rebroadcasting either CNN or Sky News.
I sit watching for the next 5 hours as the events of the day unfold. The images I'm watching seem so wrong, so impossible and the unemotional reporting from a rooftop in midtown makes the events seem even more unreal. There's a business conference going on in the adjacent room of the guest house. A few of the participants wander in to find out what's going on. I have to explain a bit about U.S. geography so they can follow. I'm racing back and forth between the small lounge and the garden outside for better reception on my cell phone. Calls are coming in from family in the States, from my friend Megan in Spain who's on holiday, watching TV in a small pub somewhere. Megan doesn't speak Spanish. I phone Andrew Jones who's busy shooting a commercial down in KwaZulu-Natal and isn't near a TV. Andrew tells me he has a nephew who works in the Pentagon. Suddenly I remember that when I introduce Andrew to friends as a fellow American, he always corrects me: "African-American," he says. I wonder if he would correct me today.
A single thought keeps resonating in my mind as I watch..."what next?" I remember explaining to puzzled South Africans why I've picked their country (and Johannesburg of all places) over the safety, security, and stability of the United States. I tell them it's somewhat refreshing to live in a place where you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Now that fundamental uncertainty has crashed into my back yard. Suddenly anything is possible in America today. After watching the two towers of the World Trade Center collapse — buildings I've always stared up at in a child-like sense of awe and wonder, buildings I stood atop as recently as 3 months ago — nothing else will surprise me. I feel a growing sense of horror, but no more shock.
The days following are like a haze. Getting up to go to work. I'm editing a car commerical with a guy from Ireland. Trying to stay focused, but it's impossible. Desperately searching for a copy of the paper on my breaks to injest every bit of news available. Getting home and staying up till 4 a.m. every night watching CNN...watching the same images, the same stories over and over. Till my eyes are half-closed and I can't absorb any more. I'm saturated. I'm numb. I feel the urge to cry as my mind begins to gain a toehold on the enormity of what has really happened. Only to find myself slipping back into the detached reality of the amorphous global news consciousness.
I feel like I'm in mourning. Although no one I know personally has been hurt or killed (although people they know have been), it feels like someone close to me has died. I'm uncomfotable around other people. It's as they know I'm grieving but are too embarrassed to acknowledge it. They'll come up to me and ask me how I feel about what's going on. They show support. They too are genuinely shocked and horrified. But I feel the divide. They are the outsiders now. And I crave the comfort of talking to other Americans. I'm dreading to see what my phone bill looks like this month.
The e-mails starting coming in the day after the attacks. At first it's just to see if everyone is OK. Mass contact lists from high school, from college, from circles of friends. After that, I start receiving people's experiences and reactions. Inspiration messages. Predictions by Nostradomus. Petitions for peace. One e-mail that lingers in my mind is from a schoolmate living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who came home to find a cashed check on her stoop — it had drited down from a company on the 79th floor of Tower One.
I feel touched as I experience my country pull together, even from the bottom of Africa, 8,000 miles away. Watching people queue to donate blood or to volunteer at the site. I feel moved watching other countries pay tribute to the loss of the Americans. Feeling proud to be an Amercian even though I don't feel any significant sense of patriotism. I'm deeply moved watching a news item on TV about local school children here in South Africa, sending a message of condolence and sympathy for the children of the United States. I go out to our local flea-market on the weekend with friends, just to escape for a few hours. I stop as I see a small memorial erected there amidst all the stalls of African curios -- it's an American flag with lit candles underneath. I pause to look, feeling shivers up my spine.
I takes me several weeks to emerge from my depression. I wonder how my friends and family in the States are feeling. Are they depressed as well? I feel very disconnected right now. And yet I feel relief to be so far from home. Relief not to be caught up in the anxiety. Relief not to be dealing with the devastation first-hand. Relief to have some kind of perspective.
And strangely, I feel safe. I'm not worried about being hijacked while driving, or having someone break into the house while sleeping, or being held at gunpoint, which account for the normal level of anxiety of living in Jo'burg. Not that I'm usually overly-anxious — after a while, you find a comfort zone within the fear. But you're always somewhat alert, mindful of what's happening around you. You feel it in the way your body relaxes when the plane lifts off from Jo'burg International, or you go away to the bush for the weekend. In the back of my mind, I've always been comforted knowing there was a patch of safe soil at home if things got too rough down here. And that's what's been lost for me, I think. There is no safe harbor to retreat to anymore.
It's strange to realize that because I've been in South Africa for two years, perhaps I know what it's like to live in America right now. But the stranger realization is that now perhaps my American friends know what it's like to live here.
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I was watching Ichiro and the Seattle Mariners play on NHK, Japan's quasi-public broadcaster, when my wife called me from upstairs and told me to change the channel. Did so and immediately saw smoke billowing from a World Trade Center tower. Didn't think at first that it was the result of a terrorist attack. Don't know exactly when reality set in, but I'm sure it didn't take long.
I eventually saw the towers collapse at the home of a fellow foreigner. Can't say I was shocked, because I wasn't. But I did feel helpless, anxious and ANGRY.
In the days that followed, I awoke each morning with an ache in my gut. Friends here say they felt the same way, and not just foreigners. Japanese too. All the reports were unnerving: 300 firefighters missing, people jumping out of windows, and all those poor people on the airplanes, flown to their deaths. I kept wishing it was all just a bad dream.
I was then overcome by a desire to do something, ANYTHING, to help. Wanted to just BE back home in California, or better yet, in NY, even if it was only with a broom in hand helping to clean up a dusty sidewalk. I guess I did the next best thing. I found a reputable charity (a memorial fund set up the families of the 300 missing firefighters) and donated some money. Felt a lot better when I did that. I think I started to heal a bit at that point.
But I'm still upset, and I'm still angry.
— Art Amor
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