Tuesday, September 12, 2006

September 11

I was going to try to post this when it was still September 11, but perhaps it is appropriate that instead of my memories of five years ago when it felt like the world was coming to an end, that I posted the article on the environmental disaster in Cote D'Ivoire--a reminder that the tragedy in New York was not the tragedy to end all tragedies and that there are still abuses and disasters that go on every day around the world--that are often lost and overwhelmed by the loud lamentations of America.

That's not to say that the events of that day were not horrific, and that the loss of life on that day did not have a lasting impact on their families our nation.

My memories of five years ago are still vivid. The blue, blue sky, the warmth of a perfect late summer day, the gaping holes one high one low in the silvery towers where the smoke roiled out, billowing in a stream over Brooklyn, the sound of voices shouting into bull horns over the water. That ripple of white smoke down the first tower, I thought that I had just seen about 20,000 people die before my eyes.

I was in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, about 5 blocks from my apartment where I had been packing up to go to Nigeria on the Fulbright. When we heard about the planes crashing into the buildings on another radio station (there was a staticky empty place on the dial where NPR usually was), Ruth had (daftly) headed off to work on the subway, despite all my protests. "No, no, I have an important meaning. I'm not going into Manhattan. I'll be ok." she said. We later joked about the insanity of her work ethic.

I ran down to the water to be, I now admit, a tourist to the latest world news. At that time, we didn't realize how serious it was. I stood there in the sun with the other people on the pier, mouth open, thinking of the Will Smith movie "Independence Day." I read now that everyone felt like they were in a movie, and I suppose I was caught up in that communal imagination. All of my actions felt staged, fake. When the ripple of smoke first traveled down the side of the right tower (right from our direction) and then the large white cloud covered everything, I thought another plane had come and fallen down, until I heard the people around me screaming that it was down, the building had fallen.

People have asked if I heard the sound of them falling. I cannot remember any sound. Later there were the bullhorns, people shouting illegible words over the loudspeakers. I cannot remember sound when the building fell. I do remember people saying, "Oh my God, he's going to go to War." And I remember wondering if I had just seen Job die--thinking that I probably had, and so this is what it is like to have a friend die (later found out he wasn't even in the towers just in the World Trade Centre complex in buildings nearby)--thinking that it was impossible for people to actually go down that many stairs.

When I covered my face with my hands, I felt like I had to pretend that I was devestated. I felt nothing but a kind of horrified excitement--an awareness of my body, and where my hands were, and of the people around me. "I just saw my friend die," I said melodramatically in a high pitched voice, stagily to the silent couple behind me, and left, hands on my forehead, making myself hyperventilate a little. I felt nothing. I acted like I did.

I had run down to the water, but I walked slowly back to the apartment. On my way back, I met the construction workers who had been on a roof of a brownstone I had passed earlier. They were running toward the pier. One of them dropped his helmet. "Just leave it," his friend yelled. They ran passt me. I continued up the street. One lone construction worker was left on the roof. He sat there, staring blankly. The streets were strangely deserted. I heard radios and TVs blasting out of open windows. By the time I got home, I heard them announcing on the radio that the second tower had fallen. I lay on my bed for hours--the sun traveling over my body, the radio loud. I eventually got through on the phone to my aunt in Georgia, crying. (Now she gives me 9-11 memorials every Christmas.) Ruth came back in the early afternoon while I was in the shower. The subway had stopped and she had walked back 70 blocks through the blinding gritty ash that blew across Brooklyn. She had to go into a deli and get a napkin to cover her face. She walked beside a man who had walked from downtown Manhattan and who was heading to Staten Island.

I don't know what I did for the next few weeks. For a few days, we just stayed in the apartment listening to the radio all day long, listening for news of survivors. That first night it was Ruth, and I, and our friend Erykah who had been staying with us while she tried to find a job. I think our friend Betsy and her friend also came and stayed the night. We didn't want to be alone. Eventually after a few days, they went back to work. I had quit my editing job a few weeks earlier to pack in preparation for Nigeria. I ventured out a couple of times to the subway where whole walls were covered with missing posers, the parks where little shrines with candles had been set up. The city felt very tender. Everyone was gentle with eachother. I looked after our landlord's children a few mornings (their parents were editors at major newspapers). When I went looking for boxes, the boy in the Rite Aid found me some and then offered to help me carry them home.

A week later, a fireman's funeral went by on 3rd avenue. The street was filled with bagpipes. I felt both cut off and connected. I did not want to leave New York.

But I did.

In Jos, there was a dusk to dawn curfew. My parents had lived through a political/ethnic/religious/whatever crisis that had started three days before 9-11 and lasted about 4 days after. They had a refugee camp of around 200 people in and around the house. They heard about the World Trade centre from a professor on campus who had CNN. There were no phones then, but they figured I was probably ok.

At home, I slept a lot for the first few weeks. I dreamed a couple of times that I was on the pier and that a missile came and blew me away with another fellow. But somehow we survived and ended up at a party together with the terrorists. They looked sheepish and apologetic, and we were all polite to each other.

After 9-11 my parents invested in a dish to pick up free Saudi Arabian satellite TV and I would spend hours watching Arabic-subtitled CNN. I was obsessed with the news of the clean up efforts, the new pictures of downtown New York. Until after a while, it began to feel like there was just a little bit too much news coverage, a few too many memorials. People around me told me stories of where they had been during the Crisis, of loved ones who were still missing. The U.S. embassy brought to the University of Jos a photo exhibition by a New Yorker photographer of the tower rubble, the volunteers; the flags hanging slantwise in morning sun, the strange beauty of the collapsed rubble, like a ruined cathedral. They were beautiful photos. I was hungry to see New York healing. But as I stood beside all the Jos folks shaking their heads and murmuring about how terrible it was, I felt a little uncomfortable. When would Nigeria send around the world an exhibition of the Jos crisis in which nearly 2000 people were killed? It wouldn't happen. News of the crisis hardly even registered with people in Port Harcourt during the Association of Nigerian Authors convention in November. Their theme was the crisis in the Niger Delta, and discussion of that occupied most of the public airtime.

So, while I was hungry for the photos, I also began to feel a profound dis-ease, about flows of information, about priorities for world grief, about the implied importance of recognizing one disaster in daily and then monthly and then yearly memorials--whereas the other ones faded into individual stories of the families who had finally found their father washed up on a river bank a few kilometres away--about those who had never found their loved ones but figured they must be somewhere in the mass graves out by the barraks--the soldiers just shoveled bodies in.

There are no large memorials, no loud speeches, but the echoes and reverberations are still trembling in Jos. Jos is different now, my friends in Kano tell me, we're afraid to go there now. And my friends in Jos tell me that they are trying to teach their children their own languages now because they don't want them speaking Hausa anymore. The mutual resentment hangs thick in the air. There are more armed robberies these days, and a few evenings before I left to come back to the U.S. our neighbor went missing, the former deputy vice chancellor, the last time he was seen was around the NASCO biscuit factory around 9pm at night. He was coming back from a condolence visit to the family of a woman in his church who had died in childbirth. They haven't found his car and they haven't found a body. You never know with all the politics these days, they say. But why him? He had no political ambitions.

So, it is now September 12, 2006. It is 2:21. I am 29 years old. The rain whispers outside, a low background static. The earth is big, the world is small. It erupts into explosions, and it rains for days at a time. In a month it will probably be snowing. The sun has not stopped. The stars still come out. Planets still hurtle through space, as they always have. Names change. Theories evolve. Light from other galaxies take centuries to reach us--just one blink and we're gone.

No comments: