What 9/11 Did to My Life
S1: My colleague Aymann Ismail has always felt different. All his life, even though he grew up in Newark, New Jersey, playing basketball and mixing it up with the other first generation American kids in his neighborhood. He felt different. And it’s because his Muslim community told him he was different and told him to be confident in his difference.
S2: Feels like stupid stuff like, well, you guys are Muslim, so therefore you do not drink alcohol, you don’t eat pork and you don’t curse and that you respect your parents and you don’t date and then have sex and then get married, you get married first. For us, it was very much you’re Muslim, you live life this way, and that’s very different than anybody else that you’re going to meet out there.
S1: Aymann is a staff writer at Slate magazine. I love it when he tells stories about his parents. They’ve popped up in his journalism from time to time. His folks came to the states from Egypt. They worked really hard. Raised four kids. Sent them all to a private school that would teach the kids Arabic and make them study the Koran.
S2: The school I went to was called 11:30. It’s this private Muslim Islamic school out in the middle of the hood in Jersey City. In a lot of ways, it was like this insular, separate community from the rest of like civil society at that time. You know, we did everything there, from learning to read the Koran to, you know, like we have like a basketball league between all the other Islamic schools. We also had like a karate league. I got first place. I’m not showing off. I’m just saying it’s true. And we also had like camping and we had like Islamic Boy Scouts. I mean, financially, it made no sense to send any of us there. You know, my dad worked as a driver in New York City. My mom actually had to take a job at that school to be an Arabic teacher just so that she can get us the discount, you know? And still, it was like a struggle. It was a struggle. But that’s just, I think in my parent’s mind, all worth it to raise Muslim kids in America.
S1: So was your family expecting you to graduate from that school?
S2: Yeah. Yeah, my whole family. All of us, all the siblings were all expected to graduate from that school. But but I didn’t. My last day there was September 11th,
S1: the day of the 9-11 attacks. Aymann was 11 years old. He remembers being evacuated from a school building, getting into a school bus, going down a highway, seeing the smoke from the twin towers. He remembers going home, waiting to hear from his dad, who spent his days driving people around in lower Manhattan. He remembers watching the news on TV or watching.
S2: I remember what it might have been. ABC or something. This is as close as we can get to the base of the World Trade Center. You can see the firemen assembled here, the police officers, FBI agents, and you can see the
S3: two towers, a huge explosion.
S2: And they were streaming from the street. They had live shots of people running from the debris in this huge cloud of smoke chasing people and me being glued to the TV set looking for my dad, I’m trying to find a. And it wasn’t until the next day, like a full 24 hours later that my dad did eventually walk through the door. He walked from New York, which is crazy to think about.
S1: After that Aymann school didn’t reopen right away. There was a fear that it would be unsafe, a target for anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of the attacks. So Aman’s parents gave him an option to start going to his local public school in Newark, and Ayman took it, and he never set foot in his Muslim school again.
S2: Never. Not for anything.
S1: What was the discussion about that?
S2: I mean, it’s hard to say because my parents never sat me down and gave this like a 911 talk like that never happened, but I could tell that they were thinking this school is going to be closed. The nature of going to a Muslim school in this country is going to be different. What are we willing to roll the dice on?
S1: People talk about the U.S. losing a sense of stability on 911. What did you lose? As a kid, as a as a Muslim-American,
S2: what did I lose on 9-11? I mean, everything. Everything. No, seriously, like everything, the Muslim community that I was a part of. It was a community that I’ve been part of since I was born. And I would never see almost any of them ever again. Because I’m not the only one who left, so I would say the community never fully recovered from 911 in that sense, where there was this huge earthquake beneath the ground that just pushed everybody out.
S1: Stay on the show. The flip side of the war on terror and how it shook the life of one Aymann Ismail, a Muslim and Arab-American kid. I’m Mary Wilson in for Mary Harris. This is what next? Keep listening. You have written about listening to President George W. Bush in the weeks after 911, and he made these speeches ensuring the country that, you know, the war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs.
S4: The face of terror is not the true face of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.
S1: I mean, you were just a kid. But do you remember hearing those words at the time? And did they give you any kind of solace?
S2: Yeah, they did. Yeah, I remember those words very clearly. I mean, man, he gave that speech from an Islamic center just days after nine eleven. My parents, particularly my dad, talked about how relieved he felt, and he thought that we had just averted a whole disaster of a of a cultural phenomenon. He was incredibly relieved, and that gave me relief as his son. It’s just that that was before we knew about the Patriot Act and this idea of like the war on terror. And so our community felt great about those comments. But then when the Patriot Act came out, we were like, Oh man, this is going to change everything.
S1: The Patriot Act passed within a couple of months of the attacks on 9-11. It was meant to allow U.S. intelligence agencies to share information to prevent future acts of terrorism. But the law also made it easier for the government to surveil American citizens, and it relaxed the rules around federal law enforcement searching people’s homes
S2: a year after nine 11. This was like 2002 and like a whole squad of FBI showed up to our door in Newark, New Jersey, with guns drawn and flashlights in the middle of the night, like 4:00 a.m. My mother was already awake because it was like the dawn prayer time, and this is the time that Muslims pray before the Sun comes up. And so they must know this must be part of their handbook where like, if someone’s an immigrant, they’re going to pretend like they’re on your side and they’re just going to ask for permission very politely, can we come inside because they know they don’t have a warrant? And so my mom saw the guns, she saw the flashlights, she saw the jacket with the FBI written on them, and she was like, Yeah, we have nothing to hide. Come on in. And as soon as she said that they like Rush Pastor and they start just like tearing the place apart.
S1: Did you ever find out why they were there?
S2: I don’t know. They told my mom that they were looking for someone named Muhammad Mohammed, which is like the most common name in the world. So like even to us, it’s like cartoonish. Like, does this person exist? Who knows? But no, obviously, they’re not going to find someone like that, especially if they’re digging through like children’s clothes and like taking my toys and dumping the box and going through the kitchen drawers like they went through everything. And then when they were done, they left and didn’t really say anything. So, you know, I’m a little kid. I’m 12 at this point. I’m waking up in the middle of the night and people are shuffling through my room that I had no idea with guns. What am I supposed to think? How am I supposed to feel like? You tell me?
S1: I don’t know if that had happened to me. I would just be. I would go through my next year with like a cloud over me, like someone can come into my house at any time and I’m a suspect in something that would be very destabilizing. How did your parents go forward after that?
S2: You know, and I think a lot of parents can relate to this. They they must have hit it very well because they thought they had to like my my parents were very good at trying to protect us from fear. And like in all of those like bad feelings. So my dad was at least in that moment in front of us kids being like the overly co-operative person and being like, Look, kids, we have nothing to hide. Let’s help these people find whatever they’re looking for. They’re good people. Cops are here to protect us. And I remember very distinctly in that moment, my mom comforting us and can kind of like putting her arms around us while they were going through the rest of the house and telling us that this is like a good thing and they’re just trying to keep us safe.
S1: Did anybody in your family? Try to insist on getting an explanation for why this happened or or even in years after, try to figure out or bring it up, you know, just to talk about it, like, why did that happen? To us.
S2: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so, I mean, you got to remember like this is like one of many different kinds of experiences, so like it happens so regularly. And it also happened to people that we knew where it just felt like it was par for the course and part of like the American experience, right? And so we just wanted to move past it. I wanted to move past it, and at a certain point, I almost thought it was cool, you know, like the years later, like bringing it up to my friends and being like, Oh yeah, you know what? My family’s more bad ass look at what the cops did us. I know it sounds stupid and silly, but I’m a I’m a teen. I’m a little kid at that point, so I’m just being real. The hardest part, I think the hardest part was knowing it as a young kid that you can’t trust the cops for anything and that you never called the cops or anything. Because as Muslims, they’re going to assume that we’re perpetrators and are dangerous regardless of what’s true. So, you know, every time that I was like. And something in some kind of situation where I needed to call the cops, I never would, and I don’t know any other Muslims that would either at that time.
S1: You know, there’s there’s a ton of journalism, there’s a ton of documentation about how mosque leaders felt there. They had to change after nine, they had to do more outreach to the non-Muslim community around them. Did you see that at your family’s mosque?
S2: Oh my god. Yeah. And like a very physical way. Afterwards, the mosque that I went to was Ali. They would do interfaith programming. They would ask some of the students at the school like to go to the synagogue or the local church, like just to meet other students and do like photo ops and like that kind of thing and do outreach and like, teach them about Islam and learn about Judaism and Christianity. And so they were very interested in like proving to the rest of the society that we were just like them and just as willing to to build bridges and into, like build a better society. Just after 9-11, they had brought a huge box of tiny little American flags to hand out to everybody. I think the mosque was aware that some people might be afraid to be the only ones not showing their their patriotism or how it would look if we were the mosque. We didn’t have a flag. That’s how I thought it was. I thought it was like a self-defense thing. I don’t know if, like the guy who brought the box was like, Yeah, go America. I don’t know. It’s possible, but in my mind, having experienced everything that day in the day after and all of that, I just knew that this was like a little bit self-defense.
S1: What was the fear that would be articulated in the mosque?
S2: The fear was we have to protect ourselves and specifically Muslim women who wear hijab because they were disproportionately being like harassed and being like physically assaulted in the streets. So there was there was this moment where the imam was like, Look, if you don’t want to wear the hijab, that’s totally fine. Like, we understand. Come to us and we’ll like talk you through that or anything. And so I know a lot of women who stopped wearing hijab after that moment, but there were also women who wore it even harder in war, like the more aggressive kind because they wanted to to to basically make their stamp and make it known that they weren’t afraid of being harassed. You know, so everybody was processing it in their own way. But I think the mosque was mostly worried about women who were vulnerable to hate crimes. And it happened on the mosque property. There was one woman who was going into her car in the parking lot, and a gang of people basically crept up behind her and punched her in the back of the head. You know, and then ran off like cowards and, you know, we all knew people that had like their cars smashed or people throwing stuff at us and even the mosque itself, like several times, had like bomb threats phoned in.
S1: How did it change the way you practice your faith?
S2: I mean, that’s a big question, right? I mean, especially since I don’t know what life is like as like an American teen who not outside of 911, you know, like, I don’t know, that’s like. So for me. I almost I almost wonder how different it would be to. And one of the things that I think is a consequence of 9-11 was that it it gave every pundit and every politician license to talk about Islam and Muslims as like this theoretical thing. They can talk about Islam without actually talking to Muslims. And it wasn’t until years later, so many years later, Mary, where people were finally bringing Muslims to talk on their programs about Islam. So for that whole period after 9-11, where Pamela Geller and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and all of these like anti-Muslim activists, they just had free reign to make their case. Basically, that Islam and America are at war with each other and that if we accept Muslims as regular Americans were signing our death warrant. And so I’m now as a Muslim, I can’t just respond to my faith. Ordinarily, I need to first respond to how people will respond to me as a Muslim before I can even get to how do I feel about this one verse of that verse? And so for Muslim women who wear hijab, who they’re not just responding to their faith anymore, when they’re when they’re wearing a headscarf now, they’re also responding to the ways that people observe their practice and what people might assume about them because of what they’re wearing. You know, it’s like a lot of work to get to the baseline where you can start responding to something on a spiritual level because of how politically charged everything you do as a Muslim is in this country.
S1: You know, what’s interesting is you refer to pundits a lot and not just in this conversation, in your work. You’ve interviewed many journalists and. You know, I really think about pundits to me, they’re highly ignorable, very easy to ignore, and it’s occurring to me that that’s a privilege because usually the pundits are not talking about me and they’re not talking about my community. Yeah. So I get to ignore them. And you probably felt like you had to keep tabs on what they were saying about you.
S2: I mean, how many people do you think watch Tucker Carlson tonight?
S1: I have no idea. Millions.
S2: Yeah, over four million every night. He has that many people watching. And you know, his conditioning these people to feel a certain way about me and my mom and my kid and everybody that I know in my community. So that matters. And that means something because on a regular basis, I interact to the people who watch that show. You know, I was at the Jan. six Capitol riot. Mm-Hmm. Not as a participant. I swear I was there as a journalist and you know, there was one family that were there. They were from Greece, actually. And I like approach them because they were doing like a Mediterranean dance that it was looked familiar to me because my family’s from Egypt. It almost looks like a dagger. And so I was like, Oh, what’s their deal? So I started a conversation with them. And I told them that looks like a familiar dance to me. And they basically engaged me with my identity because of that. And they asked me if I was Muslim. I said, Yeah. And the response I got was, well, something we don’t really understand. Could you please explain this to us? I said, sure. They said, Why were you celebrating after nine 11? And I was like, Hmm, where did you hear that? And they’re like, well, it happened like Trump talked about it, and Tucker Carlson said that it was true and Sean Hannity had like, VIDEO. And I was like, Hmm, OK, I was in Jersey City during that time. My whole family had tears in her eyes because we thought our father had died. And I could tell you that for a fact that nobody in our community were celebrating. In fact, many people from our community had family who were first responders and we weren’t clapping. We were looking for places to donate blood. We weren’t cheering. We were too busy trying to see how we can help our community that was being under attack. And this is just a side of the story that they’ve never even once considered because they’ve been conditioned to think of the Muslim community as this organism that is feeding off of their society. So it matters to me because I need to know how to argue against those points that are being made on this show because that’s part of my lived reality as an American Muslim.
S1: We’re going to take a quick break. More with Ayman Ismail in a minute. In the years after nine, 11, you went to high school and then college and you started a career in journalism, and in those years, you also you also kind of had a rebellious phase. You you write about, you know, being really interested in pop culture and kind of a more secular life. I’m thinking of the photography you did earlier in your career. It has this kind of rogue feel to it. You even got arrested for trespassing in the course of one photography shoot, I think. Yeah. You know, it just has all the hallmarks of a rebellious phase guided in part by youth, but perhaps by something else. And I was just curious why you felt safe enough to rebel.
S2: So going to a private school and then going to a public school, all of that really had an effect on me. Obviously, I couldn’t just be a kid in your class. I needed to also like, be ready to like, argue the tenets of Islam because so many people had like crazy ideas of what they were. And so like, you had like 11, 12 year olds being like, Aymann, what is jihad? And like, why does your family want to kill my family? Like questions like that and you sort of need to be like ready to answer those things. It’s a lot of responsibility. So. All of their responsibility at a certain point gets really, really, really heavy. And when I got to college and I was just like surrounded by all these really interesting opportunities to do all these new things that I’ve never tried before. I just wanted to dump all that weight off my back and just dive into something new
S1: and not be the Muslim ambassador anymore.
S2: Yeah, I was tired of it. I just couldn’t care less. At that point about being your Muslim. So, yeah, and with that came like a taste of a new life, and I just kind of dove headfirst in a like I was never really great with the keeping up on the daily prayers at that point, I just like just given up. I was like, I don’t, I don’t even I wasn’t even thinking about it anymore. I was just thinking about what’s the coolest thing I can do today and how do I get like a really cool photo that nobody else has ever gotten before? And I really got into, like graffiti culture. It’s really hard if you grew up in the state to not get into graffiti. But this was my moment where I was like, I had the coolest camera. I was able to like skate so I could keep up with these kids and like, go to places where most other people like only see after the fact. And I was going to the city every night. And I met all these like, really awesome graffiti writers that I look up to. And so I just got like. Thrust into this like really crazy, like illicit underground culture. And I loved every second of it. Like, I was obsessed. I thought that like graffiti and photography gave you the keys to the city.
S1: But grabbing the keys to the city was more dangerous for him, and he was breaking the rules, for sure. But he was singled out for harsher scrutiny. He remembers one story he did that landed him in especially hot water.
S2: There was like this moment that the photography scene in New York was having where everybody was taking these really beautiful, breathtaking pictures from the tops of these bridges. And so I really wanted to do that. And when I found an opportunity to do so, I was a journalist working at this like graffiti culture magazine called Animal New York. So I met this kid who climbs bridges and I was like, Yo, let me just shadow you for a night. Show me how to climb this bridge. I’ll go with you and like, take pictures. We’ll do an interview along the way. He was like, Beck come through and it was amazing. And so that was that like a climb down publish. The pictures wrote the story. It was like quoted in a whole bunch of other articles, the New York Times, linked to it. It was like a big deal for me as a journalist. Ten months later, like this happened in November, and then like March next year, a bunch of detectives showed up to my apartment. I wasn’t there, but my my roommate called me in a panic being like, Yo Aymann. There’s like four detectives here. They’re like, They want to ask you questions. I’m like, OK, that’s weird. But like my whole life experience told me that for Muslims, this is normal. So at that time, I was just trying to calm my my roommate down, being like, Yo, I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry about it. I called the number that the that the detective left gave it to a lawyer. Talk to a lawyer or lawyer was like, There’s no way around that. You got there, man, you got to. You got to turn yourself in. So I do. I turn myself in that same night. But then they start asking me questions about like what mosque I pray yet and like if I know such and such person with like a Muslim name or am I involved in whatever organization? And I’m thinking to myself like, OK, they just really interested in the Muslim part of this, whatever is going on. And for people who don’t know, trespassing is a misdemeanor. So even if they had caught me in the act, they would have written me a ticket and give me a summons. Right? I would show up to the court date. In this case, they had slapped cuffs on me and they wanted to hold me overnight. And I was like, whatever. One night, maybe it’s going to turn myself in a night. No, it ended up being a 36 hour ordeal where they had kept me in the tombs,
S1: the downtown jail. And it’s awful. By every account.
S2: Yeah, it’s not fun. But what was special about that experience was that when I walk in, everybody has eyes on me and I’m like, I walk in and they take the cuffs off and go in the cell. And I’m like, Assalamu alaikum. There’s like the Muslim greeting. Everybody in the cell goes while Muslim like everybody there was Muslim. I was like, This is weird, but like a huge relief. You know,
S1: it’s like you walk into the cheers bar
S2: is kind of, yeah, everybody that everybody there was my brother in Islam, which is cool, not cool because of like how we all ended up there, but cool in the sense where I wasn’t, like, scared anymore.
S1: How did the arrest get resolved?
S2: So here’s what happened after asking me all these questions and then like asking me if they. One of them bluntly asked me if I knew about any terrorist threat that was coming up.
S1: An officer asked, You
S2: a detective, right? Plainclothes detective without a lawyer present, by the way. And I’m like, Listen, I live in the city. I have a job in the city. My family’s here. If I knew about anything, I would say something. So then after 36 hours, I get to finally see a judge and the judge goes, If you get in trouble like this again, we’re going to deport you. And I was like, Deport me. And I don’t know if people who haven’t been arraigned, you don’t know this, but you can’t talk. It’s not like law and order where you have like a representation and you can like, it’s not a trial, right? So I’m still cuffed and you can’t talk. And the judge just has their fact sheet and they’re supposed to make a ruling in like 30 seconds. Everything on that fact sheet was a lie. They told them that I resisted arrest and that I was making instructions for people on how to climb bridges. Which sounds crazy, right? Especially if the person is a Muslim name. Now it sounds like like something crazy. And then I find out later that it wasn’t just the NYPD, the FBI. I don’t know about the FBI. It was a Homeland Security Port Authority, and the NYPD all had interest in this case, and I needed to take fun prints for everybody because I was going into everybody’s database. And there was like a news story about it later on ABC. And they had interviewed a bomb expert like a terrorism expert who made the case saying that if I wanted to, I could have gone up there and blown to bridge up.
S1: That’s but see that whole story that’s like the perfect example of something that you know? I would never climb on top of a bridge to take a picture, which perhaps hurts my journalism, but it also like I’m just I’m kind of stunned that you after so many, after so much reason to think that the government would queue up if they caught you doing something anything remotely wrong. I’m surprised you did it. Like, I don’t understand that impulse. It strikes me as like. There’s something going on there like, yeah, yeah. Do you understand that impulse?
S2: Yeah, I mean, it’s a push and pull, and every day it’s different. Right. And and this happens to any Muslim, and they’ll tell you this, too, that sometimes you forget that you are like some sort of pariah. To the community, because you don’t see yourself as a pariah. And, you know, Muslims, especially in the state, do so much charity work. They do so much good for the community. And when you talk to normal people who know us, they love us. And it’s not a big deal. So you sometimes forget that there are bad cops out there and bad judges and and bad CEOs who want to abuse you because they might, you know, have their own personal beef for who knows what’s in their heart. But like you sometimes forget, and I was so wrapped up into this like photographer community where the people who knew me had no problem with me. So I could sometimes forget that I’m like this dangerous person or I’m supposed to be like, my dad said right after he called me an idiot. He was like, How could you let them catch you? Like, why would you think for a second that this wasn’t going to happen to you? And I was like, You’re right, Bob. This is it was my fault in the sense where I forgot I let my guard down.
S1: I want to talk to you about how your family responded to the post-9 11 years. Did did they struggle with these years and question U.S. government actions the way you seem to have done?
S2: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I don’t think any of us got out of it unscathed. My sister has a worse experience than I do. It happened to her when she was trying to go to Israel as part of like a school trip when she was at Harvard Law School. And they they really messed with her out there, I feel really bad about what they did to her. They they like borderline tortured her by like refusing to feed her and like gave her only milk with tea with milk for like the several days that they held her,
S1: who held her.
S2: The Israeli Defense Forces because she wore a headscarf at the airport. That’s basically what happened. American Citizen American passport. But even she came back and she was like, I forgot that I’m a Muslim woman and that how how could I have thought that I was going to just go on this school trip? But I mean, we all tend to like, live our lives as best as we can and do as much as we can. And then something happens. We’re really brought down to Earth where we’re reminded that we’re just not ever going to be accepted as innocent by these like government agencies. We. Are inflicted with this like weight where we we have to carry this around now, this like trauma. But at the same time, in order to survive and move past it, we have to just. Like manage and make do because we can’t just sit around and think about how how life sucks for us as Muslims. That’s just we’re not going to get anywhere. I don’t know. We all handle it in our own ways. My parents are just. At this point, they’re still just like good people, they’re just so grateful to be in America. They love it here. They love the life that they’ve made here. They love the lives that their kids have made here. And I don’t know any Muslim parents that really resent the government or anything like that. They’re all just happy to be here.
S1: Yeah, it’s kind of an immigrant family cliche at this point that a lot of times the parents who immigrate are really happy to be here, you know, like big time, Ringo added. Dad, like just happy to be in the band, you know, like quite patriotic about their adopted country. And then it’s the first generation American kids. You see these first gen kids who view the U.S. through more skeptical eyes. It sounds like that’s true in your family, too.
S2: Yeah. And I think the reason why is because their mission was to plant roots here and to grow a family here. And by that measure, they’ve succeeded. They do matter what anybody says about them on TV, that doesn’t change the fact that they have a family here. But for us, for for for me and my siblings and for people who are born here, that’s not our goal. We’re already here, so we’re thirsting for something more. We want acceptance. We want truth. We want people to see through the bullshit in another way. You know, we want to help people who hate us to learn who we are. So we’re doing this for y’all. You don’t. I mean, we know that we’re not terrorists.
S1: Aymann Ismail, thank you so much for talking. Thanks, Mary. Aymann Ismail is a staff writer at Slate Magazine. For the curious look up his old video series. It’s called Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail? You can find it on YouTube. That’s the show. What next is produced by your heroes and mine? Davis Land, Elena Schwarze, Danielle, Hewitt and Carmel Delshad. Special thanks to Ethan Brooks for helping us out this week. Alison Benedict is Slate’s Executive Editor and Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts. Tomorrow in the Feed What next? TBD with Lizzie O’Leary. She’ll be talking about the Colorado River and the water crisis out west with Abrahm Lustgarten. I’m Mary Wilson in for Mary Harris. Thanks for listening.