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by Ilana Masad
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I MET ORIN (pronounced O-reen) in nursery school in Israel when we were both 3. We circled around a tree avoiding one another and then became friends. We did weird things together throughout nursery school and then kindergarten (played games with a broken radio; collected little seeds in a cup until a boy started throwing them at us; scratched chalky stones onto a big rock and then collected the chalk powder), but by 2001, we were both huge fans of Harry Potter and much of what we talked about or did was related to Harry Potter things.
On September 11, 2001, Orin was over at my apartment and we were playing a Harry Potter board game in the living room. The floor of the living room in that apartment was a deep, dark red, worn lighter where chairs and tables had chafed the tiles. It was afternoon, after school, around 3 p.m. A friend of my brother’s called him and told him that a plane had crashed into a World Trade Center building. My brother told my mom, and the two of them rushed into the living room and turned on the television, to CNN. Orin and I looked up, distractedly; there was huge burning building far behind a reporter, who had one hand constantly going up to his ear.
I didn’t recognize the tower on TV. But as Orin and I playing our board game at a slower pace because we kept glancing back at the TV, we saw a plane fly into the second tower and a mushroom cloud of flames erupt from it as the reporter turned back in shock, completely unprepared for what was happening.
My mother was crying. She told us it was the World Trade Center. Orin understood a lot of English because she, like many Israeli kids, watched lots of television shows that were in English (Israel tends to use subtitles, except for some children’s cartoons) and because she hung around with me a lot. She could understand some of what my mom was saying, and I translated the rest. My mother had been to the top of the World Trade Center once, and she had wanted to take my brother and me there one day. Now she never could, especially as we watched the floors of the building crumple down, collapsing in slow motion.
Orin and I stopped playing soon, and her mother picked her up. We weren’t traumatized. We didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Yes, it was terrible, but we’d seen such news footage already. Many times. Buses, markets, cafés, and buildings look remarkably similar when they blow up.
We had newish tall buildings in Tel Aviv, then, about half the height of the World Trade Center but still mind-bogglingly huge (before an even taller building was constructed in nearby Ramat Gan). These buildings were part of the Azrieli Center, two towers of which were complete (the circular and the triangular ones; the third, the square, wasn’t completed until 2007). There was a mall at the bottom of one of them, a mall we weren’t allowed to go to, because in 2001, during the second intifada, we weren’t allowed to go much of anywhere. These towers now became what everyone in Israel began to worry about. When were the “Arabs” going to fly into OUR towers?
There’s a self-centeredness to Israel that is fascinating to watch from the inside. From the outside it goes almost unnoticed — Israel is so often a target of statements by outsiders who are so ignorant of the facts on the ground that our own self-delusions get overshadowed.
After the September 11th attacks, there was an almost righteous feeling in Israel, as if now, finally, Americans would understand the daily lives so many Israelis led. As if now “they,” meaning the rest of the world, would comprehend the nature of the bombings in Israel and act to stop it. This wasn’t, of course, everyone’s feeling, and there were Israelis killed in 9/11 as well (many, many Israelis, after all, leave Israel for lucrative careers in the U.S.), but there was still a general expectation that now the world, or at least our allies, would understand our suffering.
ALL FLIGHTS were canceled for more than a week after the September 11th attacks. My family and I were supposed to go to Los Angeles, where my mother’s parents and my aunt lived, in late September for one of our twice-yearly visits, and we were very nervous that our flight would get canceled too.
It wasn’t, but the plane was emptier than any I’d been on before, and I’d been on many by that point. It was shocking. I spread out on a whole four-seat middle section to sleep.
What was even more shocking was arriving in California and knowing that suddenly it had turned into Israel: people were avoiding large crowded areas. People weren’t going to shows at the Hollywood Bowl. People were staying away from Disneyland. As an 11-year-old, I couldn’t understand anyone staying away from Disneyland willingly.
We went, anyway. It was not the magical happy place it’s usually supposed to be. All the walking plushies were still around, and the princesses were waving, and we saw the big Main Street Electric Light Parade in the evening — but the crowds were absent. I got to ride the Magic Mountain ride five times in a row, without waiting on line. Disneyland as a ghost town probably didn’t last for much longer, but I was there to witness it.
A NEW YORKER now --more so than my significant other, who was born in the state; I navigate the trains, buses, and crowds far better than he does — I perceive 9/11 in a completely different way. I used to be glib about it; it felt very much like my daily reality. There were the dead, the heroes, the shock, the fear, the aftermath. But it was a one-time attack, which is what made it seem like a lesser event to me — in Israel, we were guaranteed repeat attacks, constantly, for another few years.
I walk down to the Financial District and I see the new One World Trade Center, parts of which are still under construction. I know that the offices are filling up. I know that The New Yorker offices have moved there. And I know that it must be strange to work in a place that lives and breathes with the screams and panic of people who died or escaped. Everyone in the U.S. knows where they were on 9/11. Everyone has a story to tell about that day.
I will never be at the top of the World Trade Center that my mother remembers. Seeing an old episode of Friends or movies about New York City pre-2001 is strange because of the presence of what, to me, are those alien buildings. But the terror that was sown that day is easier to acknowledge now that I live in a country that carries out its wars as far away and as quietly as possible. I can understand how shocking the presence of that violent, alien sensation of vulnerability, just for being an American, must have been.
Yet I can’t forget the privileges that still exist here, especially for me as a white person. Not only am I not stopped and frisked, but I don’t need to walk through metal detectors, am not swiped with a magnetic stick, and don’t have my bag looked through unless I’m at an airport (or a rock concert, where all they want to know is whether you’re sneaking in booze). Even after such events as the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings, there is an element of either denial or bravado in the American idea that we do not succumb to terrorists, whether homegrown or foreign, by taking precautions or by restricting access to guns. That is not so in Israel: Even though the same “we-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists” idea applies, it is impossible to live in Israel without thinking about what some nebulous enemy has in store for us. We’ve been brought up to fear, and so we do.
Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.