On Experiencing Distant Tragedies

The phrases “9/11” and “The War On Terror” have become permanent fixtures in our vocabulary just as they have become irreversibly embedded in our culture and consciousness. The world as it existed beforehand is, in many ways, an archaic and prelapsarian state. We have new phrases now. Operation Enduring Freedom. Operation New Dawn. Operation Iraqi Freedom. Overseas Contingency Operation. The diction may have evolved, but the actions they were intended to express — as well as the values and beliefs that both shape and are shaped by them — continue to exist. Ground troops may have been dislodged from certain regions, and Bin Laden may be dead, but ISIS walks among us. If it did not, another incarnation of the same impulse most certainly would. More poignantly, the geopolitical realities — and the perception, misjudgment and deliberate exploitation of them — that gave rise to these groups and the conflict they foment have not changed. America is America. Jihad is Jihad. Israel is Israel. Others are who and what they are.

I was living in the Middle East on September 11. For 14 years we’ve sifted, with meticulous and thorough detail, through the wreckage of that day. We know what happened in New York and we know what happened, later, in military actions across the Muslim World. What we don’t talk about is the space between New York and Kabul, the time between September 11 and October 7.

When it began, I was an English professor at a government university for Emirati girls in Dubai. I’d only been in the country two weeks. My colleagues and I lived in a luxury apartment tower on Sheikh Zayed Road — we couldn’t agree if it looked more like a psychedelic tea cozy or a drunk spaceship. At approximately 5:40 pm, I elbowed and rucked my way onto the elevator. Colleagues, from New Zealand and Britain, discussed rugby and the Booker Prize. The No Smoking sign was savaged with cigarette burns. I was vaguely aware, as the elevator rose, of someone discussing an act of violence or terrorism, but I tuned it out.

I debarked on the 13th floor. Many Emiratis believe in the evil eye, witchcraft (Harry Potter was banned) and the healing power of leeches, but they’re dumbfounded by our triskaidekaphobia. As I clacked down the marble hallway, keys jangling, I could hear my two-year-old daughter on the other side of the door. Daddy! Daddy! Daddy’s home! I stepped inside and scooped Annie into my arms. Pure joy.

There should have been music playing, but there wasn’t. My wife, Maura, should have been wielding a spatula, book or, better yet, gin & tonic. Instead she was quite uncharacteristically watching CNN. I squinted at our new flat-screen — compliments of a $10,000 furniture allowance from the Emirati government as the first tower crumpled and fell.

My first thought was of Lud, an old friend who worked in the Towers. He was dead, I sensed. The next day, a salvo of emails bearing an ominous subject line would confirm this. Maura and I didn’t bother to sit. We stood and watched as the second tower collapsed. The newscasters and correspondents struggled for language to describe what they saw. Bombed was the wrong verb. Flew into didn’t sound quite right. I remember looking out the window at dozens of skyscrapers. The Emirates Towers was within sprinting distance. A few minutes before, it had become the 10th tallest building in the world.

My father called to assure me that my brother was safe. He worked in the Pentagon, near the impact at Corridor 5. My father and grandfather had also worked there, collecting heart attacks almost as often as paychecks. Maura’s brother worked in the Towers, but we couldn’t get through to New York. There was a knock on the door. Aida, an Egyptian woman we hardly knew. She brought casserole and comfort. Her ministrations were unusually warm and heartfelt.

That night we walked to the Bunker, a semi-legal bar in an empty lot of sand and scrub. Only health clubs and hotels could serve alcohol — at the Bunker there were a few barbells in the corner, but I’d never seen anyone use them. In Dubai, everything is shiny, new and completely lacking in character. The Bunker was an exception. The Harry Dean Stanton’s Face of bars. It would soon be demolished to make way for the Burj Dubai. When the developer — essentially, the Crown Prince and the prodigal city itself — went bankrupt, Dubai groveled before his older brother, Abu Dhabi. Abu loaned him money, as always, but the structure was renamed Burj Khalifa in honor of the country’s leader, from the ruling city of Abu Dhabi.

We huddled with friends, drank stale beer, whispered and became tactfully drunk. A man called Dr. Love from Health Sciences drank from a Texas flag coffee mug, which seemed slightly inflammatory. A Filipino band played “Hotel California” while backup singers danced with synchronized moves and skimpy costumes. Emirati men in full regalia — dishdasha, ghutra, agal — drank at the bar. It’s illegal to serve a Muslim, especially a local in traditional garb, but they would make trouble if you didn’t. We were quietly afraid.

On the morning of September 12, police with automatic weapons stood guard outside the apartment building. The air was hepatic with construction dust, even more than usual. The local authorities said not to worry. This had nothing to do with a recent outbreak of respiratory maladies.

My work email was crammed with Warden Messages from the American Embassy — Avoid crowds, gatherings, airports, political rallies, assemblies of any kind — and the University administration, which assured us we were safe, despite the rumors. Emirati banks filtered al-Qaeda money. Emiratis were involved. We didn’t know what, or whom, to believe. There are no facts in Dubai. Local politics, by law, cannot be printed or discussed. PR and journalism are inseparable. Each morning the newspapers certify that everything is fine. A color photograph will depict a smiling sheikh on a brightly colored sofa. By his side a foreign dignitary sits like a schoolboy outside the principal’s office.

Some of the expatriates pulled runners or holed up in their apartments. Some fled to Europe, when flights were available. The provost, an Oklahoman with enormous hands, appeared in my shared workspace for the first and last time. We were free to break contracts and leave, she said, but not without first repaying the Furniture Allowance.

A woman from Ohio — I barely knew her — was scared for her family on the outskirts of Toledo. She left. She also left me a cheap synthetic rug from Carrefour, the French K-mart, and a book of poetry by Pope John Paul II. Why me? The New Yorkers and Washingtonians did not leave. We read emails, sent from airport bars and cafés, that spoke with horror of delays and dystopian security protocols. They were hard to believe, at first, but we quickly became inured. Everything becomes normal if it must be endured. It doesn’t take very long.

Aida stopped by after dinner. She was sympathetic and kind, at first, but there was something she wasn’t saying. “You know,” she said, after several false starts. “America deserve this thing.” Maura was too stunned to reply. We were still uncertain if her brother was alive. It was too early for cultural analysis or the assignment of blame. I walked Aida to the door.

On September 13 the University had grown more uncertain and agitated. Rumors spread like kudzu, but fact remained scarce. Dr. Love wore a cowboy hat and Texas flag shirt. He did not realize that endangering yourself, and everyone within your blast radius, was different than patriotism. A PhD, apparently, does not teach you everything. His wife, that evening, would parade around our building’s rooftop pool in a microscopic Texas flag bikini that had been retrofitted with macroscopic breast enhancements. We joked and laughed, arguing that Dubai was a playground for both sides, a Switzerland of the desert, but in truth it felt as if we lived between the crosshairs.

The Hard Rock Café was under attack. Strafed by gunfire. It was a spectacularly garish structure: three-story Stratocasters crisscrossed the front doors like bandoleers; a Daliesque goiter of an Empire State Building grew from the building’s neck. It was an American franchise selling hamburgers, Coke, demon rum, and it was decked out like a parody of American culture. Just like Dr. and Mrs. Love. A young Emirati was “questioned” by the CID and Army intelligence. Why do you hate America? They are friends, like this. You are al-Qaeda? Which cell do you belong? More colleagues absconded.

September 14. Newsflash: the shooter had recently failed out of the police academy. For the third time. It was hard not to find this darkly amusing. The man’s grandfather had died. This was less amusing. On the plus side, the shooter did not hate my way of life. Like most Emiratis, he was a pious adherent to the principles of Disney, Starbucks, Microsoft. His shooting, moreover, was inept. Police Academy-inept. The only bodies harmed were those of nearby cars.

In the English Department we discussed the oblique borderlands of tragedy and comedy. It took another day, maybe two, but we eventually learned to accept the threats and warnings. We remembered a place called normal. We returned to our lives and tried to forget that we’d ever been afraid.

Not that we could, or can. Not entirely. 14 years later, it’s still September 11. The fighting continues. The bombs, retaliation, threats, videos, the call for more troops. The names and places change, somewhat, but the facts remain the same. We are Bill Murray stuck in a Groundhog Day of politics, culture, economics and war.

Featured image via Flickr.

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About The Author

Andrew Madigan

Andrew Madigan

Andrew Madigan spent 20 years working in Asia – Okinawa, Al Ain, Tokyo, Korea, Dubai – as a writer, magazine editor and professor. He's now a freelance writer/editor in the Washington, DC area. His first novel, Khawla's Wall, was recently published by Second Wind.

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