I became Muslim the morning of September 12, 2001. The night before, I slept poorly and not enough. I’d been unable to turn off the broadcast and had watched hours of looped CNN footage of the most horrifying variety: those dense plumes of smoke, the ashes swirling like confetti, the smoldering metal, the people; so many people, launching themselves off the Twin Towers, sailing down to their deaths like leaves from an autumn tree.
I was in my second week of graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania at the time. I lived in a dorm and had this ancient, tiny television set with a potbelly and a cracked screen. I came back to my room on the afternoon of 9/11, it was a Tuesday, propped the door open as wide as it would go, and clicked on the TV. Gradually, my residents trickled in, all 60 of them, most of them freshmen, many away from home for the first time.
Together, we sat cross-legged on the floor and watched that small screen for hours. We were numb and silent until the buildup of things unspoken would weigh down the air and crack the atmosphere and someone would begin to sob.
When it was finally time to go to bed, a few asked if they could sleep in my room. I remember getting out the spare bedding, unfurling it against the cold, industrial floor, watching the kids as they curled against each other, looking even younger than they were. They were huddling close, as if for warmth; as if small animals sharing a litter.
I don’t remember falling asleep that night, but I do remember the next morning. I remember very clearly opening my door and finding the front of it had been vandalized, the words heavy and handwritten in black ink. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was to blame for what had happened — and that I ought to be punished for it.
In the days following 9/11, I continued to unravel.
This is what I mean when I say I became Muslim that morning. I may have been born into a certain family, at a certain moment in time, and been raised a certain way, but it wasn’t until I saw my front door after the Twin Towers collapsed that I began to understand who I might be in the world and what sort of place I would occupy. I realized in a way I hadn’t before that I was seen as different.
And not a good, harmless kind of different. I was suspect. We were all suspects now.
Of course, I couldn’t have understood the full extent of it then. I couldn’t have anticipated what was to come in the months and years that followed: the wars entered, the dictators toppled, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, the profiling, Guantanamo, all the crimes of hate — thousands upon thousands of them. But even still, even in that new, deeply unfamiliar moment for which I had zero personal precedent, I could sense the ground I’d been standing on was neither steady nor guaranteed to me anymore. I could sense that things would be different from now on.
My family is Turkish. I came to America to attend the University of Maryland. We wear our Islam loosely and sometimes not at all. In fact, one of the first thoughts I had after seeing my front door was, “But how did they know I’m Muslim?” The thought was followed closely by, “If this happened to me, who knows what will happen to the others, to those who pray and cover.”
In the days following 9/11, I continued to unravel. Feelings came to me in sudden waves, rushing and unbidden: rage, disbelief, guilt, sorrow, confusion, and other strong, foreign feelings I didn’t yet have the skills to identify. I had enrolled at Penn to get an advanced degree that would help me earn lots of money. Now, money didn’t seem important. Neither did my classes.
I was strange. An alien. Not fully American.
I told my (Jewish) house dean about the door incident shortly after it happened. She immediately encouraged me to organize. “See if others want to talk about what they’re going through,” she said, so with her blessings and house funds, I ordered a bunch of pizzas, sending mass emails across campus, asking to gather with others who were similarly targeted.
“Come to Hill House!” I enthused. “I’ve ordered tons of pizza!” But nobody showed up. I had to give the pizza away by the boxful.
Eventually, I wrote a dissertation about being brown on campus. In the process, I unearthed many more stories of hate. I came to learn of the Sikh kid whose head was cracked against a flowerpot. I saw nearby houses of worship torched beyond recognition, giant swastikas spray-painted thick and still visible beneath the soot.
At the time, these kinds of hate crimes weren’t discussed openly or regularly or enough. The word “ally” wasn’t something people said — at least, not as often as we do today.
It’s been 16 years since then. Things are different now, but sometimes I forget. I forget that I don’t have to be quite so frightened, to come so undone anymore. I forget about the allies, vocal and strong and many. Sometimes I forget my feeling of security, of protection, now that I am finally, legally American and can lay claim to certain rights. I forget sometimes.
There was one day in particular, last winter, when I forgot. My family and I had taken a flight down from the Midwest for a few days of sun in Florida. The weekend had ended and it was late.
We were in the parking lot of a grocery store when, on a whim, I flicked on the radio and heard the news. President Trump had just issued an executive order banning Muslims from traveling. Or maybe he hadn’t done that. Maybe it wasn’t a “travel ban” on Muslims — or maybe it was — but either way, news of it coated my insides with a heavy, grubby layer of dread. The feeling was very familiar. I knew it well. Instinctively, I rolled up the windows for privacy and turned to my family.
We wondered whether we’d be asked to produce documentation. Would we be held at the airport, questioned, or singled out? Who should we call if detained?
“We don’t have our passports on us,” I said. “We don’t. We can’t prove we’re legal.”
Motor running, we wondered aloud whether traveling inside the country was okay. Was Turkey on the list? We wondered whether we’d be asked to produce documentation. Would we be held at the airport, questioned, or singled out? Who should we call if detained?
I stared down at my thin, flimsy sandals and wrapped my hand tighter around a cold bottle of Kombucha, which suddenly seemed extravagant and pretentious and strange. I was strange. An alien. Not fully American. A person who turned Muslim on September 12, 2001 and so whose legality, whose belonging could be called into question — would be called into question — indefinitely and independent of the firm and fierce loyalties of her heart. I turned the radio off and we drove back to our hotel in complete silence.
The next morning, we were among the first to show up to the airport in Fort Lauderdale. It was still dark when we rolled the rental car into the airport-sized carpark, leaving the keys in the ignition. We were nervous and quiet, but we were together. I had saved the ACLU’s number in my phone, and deleted several Tweets that were critical of President Trump. At security, with fingers trembling slightly, I handed over my driver’s license.
A cheerful, round airport official glanced casually at it, at my boarding pass.
“Minneapolis!” she smiled, a slim gap between her front two teeth. “You’ll miss our Florida weather.”
I said I would, and managed a shaky smile, and that was it. She ushered us through. The flight was smooth and when we arrived in Minneapolis, another surprise awaited: thousands had gathered at the airport, waving signs and holding banners: “No ban” and “No Bannon” and “I stand with Muslim travelers.” It was glorious. Glorious and completely unexpected.
Even still, it wasn’t until we were inside our house that it truly sunk in. We were safe. “It’s over,” we said to each other in the living room. “I love you so much.”
That night, I peeled off my clothes and stepped into the shower. It was only then that I began to cry. We’re okay, I told myself. It’s okay, I said. And then, I said it out loud.
Because sometimes, I still forget.
A version of this piece can also be found on The Aerogram.