After 20 years, US expats in UAE recall 9/11 horror

Saman Haziq /Dubai Filed on September 11, 2021 | Last updated on September 11, 2021 at 12.10 am
People walk near Ground Zero at the September 11th Memorial in New York City. — AFP

The destruction of the Twin Towers left not only a glaring hole in the New York City skyline but also left an indelible mark on the lives of Americans.

It has been 20 years since the horrific 9/11 tragedy unfolded in the heart of New York City, and yet American expat Naiema Zaki, who was just 13 at the time, remembers every single scene that unfolded in front of her eyes. The destruction of the Twin Towers left not only a glaring hole in the New York City skyline but also left an indelible mark on the lives of Americans.

Recalling the fateful day, Zaki, who now lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and children, said she vividly remembers that morning as it was the start of a new session of her Grade 8 at school, which was barely 10 miles from the scene of the attack in New York.

Calling it one of the scariest moments of her life, Zaki narrated: “It was my first week at this school that I had recently joined. At around 8.30am as we waited for our teacher to take our class, I just happened to see outside from my classroom window and what I saw seemed “unreal” to me. I could see plumes of smoke surrounding the World Trade Centre towers.

“We all thought this was some movie being shot as what we saw was unbelievable as smoke filled the air, casting a grey film over the city’s financial district. Just then our panic-stricken teacher entered the class and broke the horrific news to us that shook our very existence. We felt we were under attack and that our life was in danger.”

Zaki said she and her friends were petrified as many of her classmates had parents who worked in the vicinity of the WTC.

“As young teenagers it was something so dramatic that happened to us. We always thought we were living in the US, the strongest country in the world. Which is why the 9/11 tragedy was very disturbing. But even as we watched the whole thing in horror, we were oblivious that the worse was yet to come,” said Zaki, who used to wear a hijab because of which she was insulted by people in neighbourhood, who kept cursing her saying “your people attacked us, get out of this country”.

“That broke me. We were mourning as Americans, there was already a deep sense of grief for our safety as a country and then to see someone come up to me and say ‘go back to your country’ when the US was the place where I was born and raised, was heartbreaking,” said Zaki recalling the pain she experienced as a young teen as she faced fear and pain induced by the turn of events.

However, Zaki said that phase got over and things got better after a couple of years as more and more people realised what the truth was and actually decided to know more about Islam. “It was beautiful when people later came up to me and apologised and confessed they always had an incorrect perception about Islam and Muslims but it is actually such a beautiful religion of peace.”

Another American expat, Natalia, who is a Dubai resident, said the day is etched as a painful memory in her mind.

“We all lost something that day. More than 20 years later, I still find it difficult to talk about or even view footage. Every September 11 I spend a quiet reflective day alone. I was still a young adult in San Francisco about to start university when 9/11 shattered the world. It was an event that changed my life profoundly and later led me to work on Iraq. There is still so much pain that surrounds that day. It did show me the spirit of the American people though I remember complete strangers hugging me and I in return did the same.”

Just a mention of 9/11 brings a series of flashbacks in front of Abu Dhabi resident Satierra Hudon’s eyes. Hudson, who was studying in a college at the time, said: “I was asleep in my dorm room in college when someone woke me up with this news. I thought it was just a bad dream and I remember sitting up and really focusing to be sure it was real. As I switched on the TV, I just watched in disbelief and tears rolled down my face as my family lived in New York and I was worried for their safety. Thankfully, everyone was safe.”

Hudson, who has lived in New York for 12 years, said although initially the tragedy exacerbated the already existing race tensions but it also ignited the best in people as they opened up for a dialogue.

Talking about her visit to the Twin Tower memorial, Hudson said: I have only visited the Ground Zero monument once. It is simply beautiful, aesthetically pleasing and an appropriate gesture I guess. But it was emotionally tormenting knowing the devastation it caused and the lives it claimed.”

Saman Haziq

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