x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Lives forged in the flames of 9/11

Though separated by time and distance that day, two young women will be tied together in at least one way for the rest of their lives. Both are part of a generation that grew up in the shadow of 9/11.

Though shocked and confused by the attacks on the twin towers, 10-year-old Danya Ghaith decided to do her own research into the terror outrage. Today Danya, 20, is living in Brooklyn and studying political science at university in New York.
Though shocked and confused by the attacks on the twin towers, 10-year-old Danya Ghaith decided to do her own research into the terror outrage. Today Danya, 20, is living in Brooklyn and studying political science at university in New York.

WASHINGTON // Danya Ghaith is 20 years old. A decade ago, she was on her way to her fifth-grade maths class on the second floor of her Islamic school in Brooklyn when the first of two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

On the same day, two hours behind and thousands of miles to the west, Ashley Bright was making her way to school in a small rural community in northern Arizona. Fifteen at the time, she was looking forward to playing a volleyball match that night.

Though separated by time and distance that day, they will be tied together in at least one way for the rest of their lives.

Both young women are part of a generation that grew up in the shadow of 9/11. For most of their lives, they have only known their country at war, and in different ways, they are still grappling with the implications of events that day that were too large for them to comprehend at the time.

"I kept asking my father, 'What's going on? What's going on?'" said Ms Ghaith, recalling the events of the day. Her Islamic school closed early and students were sent home. She went to her father's travel agency.

"I felt like he didn't know how to explain it to a 10-year old. So he told me a bad Muslim guy did it, but we're not all like him."

She had plenty of time to consider his answer over the next week. For security reasons, her school remained closed.

On the other side of the country, Ms Bright was picking up a friend on her way to school.

"We didn't really know what the World Trade Center was. I just thought, 'Okay, it's probably an accident'."

The enormity of the events did not dawn on her and her friends until much later.

"Once we saw our teacher's reactions, that's when we realised, 'Oh wow, we need to pay more attention to this'.

"So we spent most of the morning watching it on TV, and kind of talking about it and then our volleyball game was cancelled. Everything was cancelled."

And everything changed. Both Ms Ghaith and Ms Bright began taking an intense interest in politics and global affairs. Ms Ghaith was not satisfied with her father's fumbling explanations.

She began instead, she said, "doing my own research", and that transformed her life. Ms Ghaith is now majoring in political science at the State University of New York's Empire State College.

"I'm always reading the news on my iPhone, always doing all that kind of stuff. I'm always on the news apps. I just want to know everything about news and politics. It's my thing."

Ms Bright also began questioning events, especially when she noticed how older generations seemed stuck for answers.

"After 9/11, I saw a lot of ignorance and hatred. There were a lot of hateful things said, especially by older people that I felt just didn't understand or were maybe ignorant about what happened.

"I think it strengthened my resolve to educate myself about what's going on, and maybe in a way that's why I decided to go into journalism."

As part of her degree, Ms Bright and fellow students at the School of Communications at the American University in Washington, conducted a survey on their generation and attitudes to 9/11.

Perhaps least surprising among the findings is that two-thirds of the so-called Millennials - respondents were all between 18 and 29 - consider themselves more likely to follow news and global affairs as a result of the 9/11 attacks.

A majority of the 1,021 respondents to the questionnaire developed by Ms Bright and her fellow students also said they were interested in learning foreign languages.

But while 71 per cent said 9/11 had impacted their lives in several ways, 70 per cent said they did not live in fear of becoming victims of terrorism and a similar number said they did not worry about more terrorism in the US.

That finding stood out for Amy Eisman, the course instructor and a former editor at USA Today.

"I thought that was a big deal, that it should be the top of the article," said Professor Eisman. "And they didn't see that. To them, that's just how they grew up, it wasn't a surprise".

It was just one of several differences between the generations that Professor Eisman noted.

On an issue like privacy, for instance, Ms Bright said that while she thought it important, she was "more concerned" about safety.

"The question of privacy means a whole lot more to me than it might mean to someone who has grown up with their visual identity on the internet," Professor Eisman said.

The class, "Growing up in the shadow of 9/11", started because Professor Eisman had concluded that the older generations had failed to properly understand the effect of 9/11 on a generation whose childhoods were cut short when 9/11 "brought the world into their lives".

"That was life changing, suddenly there was a planet beyond the end of the drive way and beyond school." On 9/11, Randa Serhan, director of Arab Studies at American University in Washington, had just arrived in New York from Lebanon to work on her doctorate, an ethnographic study of the Palestinian community in New York and New Jersey.

By the time she finished in 2009, she had observed significant changes among three generations of Palestinian immigrants.

Most notable, she said, was the idea of a Muslim identity being foisted on a community that had previously thought of itself primarily and without contradiction as both Palestinian and American.

"The first generation actually worried about that, because they were afraid that the Muslim identity would trump or sidetrack the Palestinian identity.

"That is really what the first generation wants to hold on to."

But the youngest generation, said Professor Serhan, had no choice: it "has to think about being Muslim". Before 9/11, fasting and praying was a communal event, she said, it was part of being Palestinian American from the West Bank. It was "mundane".

"It's no longer mundane and that's the problem, because where the older generation is very comfortable in America, the younger ones are not."

Ms Ghaith does not consider it a problem.

A devout Muslim, she began covering her hair three years after 9/11, when she was 13. She considers herself a "Muslim Palestinian", and said her faith only strengthened as a result of 9/11.

"Every time I go to Palestine and leave, it feels like I am leaving my home, and I don't consider New York my home at all."

And yet, "I love living in Brooklyn. I wouldn't want it any other way."

For Ms Bright, a long journey that began on 9/11 continues. Her class project ended on April 29, two days before Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan.

The news brought some closure, she said, and some hope that maybe these endless wars could have an end.

But if 9/11 had been an opportunity for the US to "take a closer look at what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong", she said, that process was hardly over.

"I don't think we're anywhere near sort of the end of that test."

okarmi@thenational.ae