I clearly remember the moment I heard the news on the morning of Sept 11th 2001: I didn’t feel anything.
It didn’t strike me at all. I could have heard “The stock market has crashed” or “There is shortage of flu vaccine,” and my reaction would have been the same.
I couldn’t understand why Americans were shocked.
Hadn’t they been warned by those angry men parading in the streets on the other side of the world–the part of the world from which I escaped? Hadn’t they heard over and over, the shouts of “Death to America?” Hadn’t they felt the heat of hatred burning from those grieving women draped in black chador, the heat so intense it turned to ash any illusions of peace? Hadn’t they smelled the stench of flaming flags and burning bodies? Haven’t they noticed men and women setting themselves aflame out of hatred and despair in their no-future-land?
Hadn’t they seen those children, blood dripping down their foreheads, smiling at cameras? Hadn’t they wondered why those hungry eyes weren’t crying?
Didn’t Americans watch TV?
I watched the TV, watched as again and again the twin towers tumbled to the ground, watched as again and again those planes hit the towers. I listened to the radio, to witnesses expressing their shock and horror, their deep devastation. I walked outside and walked the streets, counting the innumerable flags that suddenly appeared on car antennas and lawns and front porches. I tallied the American people’s outrage.
I knew I was supposed to feel something, but I didn’t, and so I wondered why those endless images of death and ruin weren’t moving me the way they should. Had I stopped being human? Had I lost my compassion for the world?
I began to search my memory, looking for the first image that had disturbed my sleep, the first news that had turned itself into a nightmare. And in my memory I discovered too many images and too much news. Then, suddenly, one image flared.
It was the summer of 1978, a few months before the Islamic Revolution, and I was 18 years old. August 20th 1978, the day that, for me, the revolution actually began, the day Cinema Rex in Abadan was set on fire. That day the Islamist opposition burned the cinema to spread their hatred of the Shah and all he stood for. I remember images of charred bodies, over 400 people trapped in the movie theatre with its locked doors and burned alive. The bodies, I remember, kept their human shapes and looked like black statuettes gasping for life. I remember seeing mothers and children clutching each other tightly; I remember half bodies of men, still standing. And afterwards, the whole country watched those innumerable images of grieving women, women sobbing, pulling their hair, hitting themselves, throwing their numb bodies to the ground and screaming their sorrow. I will never forget those images and the rage I felt—rage I still cannot express.
Later, in 1979, after the revolution, the new government executed anyone who was not one of them (in the name of god or, simply, for committing the sin of betraying undefined Islamic values). And so, still everywhere I looked I saw a parade of dead faces, soulless eyes half open and half closed, naked, bloodied bodies. Page after page in our newspapers were filled with the faces of fathers and brothers and sons, famous powerful people I had once, during their glory days, seen smiling. Rarely did I see images of women; I assumed this was against Islamic law. Killing women was acceptable, but apparently for those who dreamed of sleeping with nine year old girls in their heaven a dead woman’s shining black hair and bloody blue skin might titillate.
In 1980 the war with Iraq began–one more barbarian war, one more unfair war -as if a fair war might exist. Iranians, lacking high-tech killing technologies, instead used human shields and human landmine detectors. Iranian leaders amassed thousands of children from small villages and hung the keys of heaven around their skinny necks. Then they sent them out walking on mine fields while their fanatic mothers, dancing happily before the TV cameras, handing out pastry to dumbstruck neighbors, pushing their last son out into the fields to join that crowded heaven.
Every morning the radio announced the latest numbers: Ten thousands, fifteen thousands, twenty five thousands. All dead.
Then one day, I stopped listening. I went deaf. I was already mute, already blind, already numb.
Watching TV on September 11th 2001, the images of twin towers falling and bodies sailing through the air and the scenes of grief started to blend with those forgotten images of the past to transform themselves into one old wound starting to bleed again. An old familiar wound that wouldn’t hurt, wouldn’t bleed, wouldn’t shock as much as the first time it had ripped apart my soul. A wound as deep as my empathy toward the world, as painful as a silent sorrow, as old as the human agony… a wound that I had forgotten its existence.
Emotionless, rootless, tearless, and bleeding on September 11, I wondered where had disappeared – forever – that little piece of my supposedly eternal empathy?