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, gracefully 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, and together, we sat cross-legged on the floor, and watched that small screen for hours. We were numb and silent until the build-up 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, and 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, huddling close, as if for warmth, as if a litter of small animals.
I don’t remember falling asleep that night, but I do remember the next morning, remember very clearly opening my door and finding the front of it had been vandalized, the words heavy and handwritten in black ink telling me in no uncertain terms, that I was to blame for what had happened, and that I ought to be punished for it.
“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.”
This is what I mean when I say I became Muslim that morning. I might 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 being seen as different, and not a good, harmless kind of different, either. 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 of 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 things would be different from now on.
I came to America as a student, to attend the University of Maryland. My family is Turkish. 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?” Followed closely by: “If this happened to me, who knows what will happen to the others, to the ones who pray and cover.”
In the days that followed 9/11, I continued to unravel emotionally. Feelings came to me suddenly and in 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 that important anymore. My classes didn’t seem that important anymore, either.
I approached my (Jewish) House Dean soon after the door incident, and when I told her what had 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 out across campus, asking for others similarly targeted to gather. “Come to Hill House!” I enthused. “I’ve ordered tons of pizza!” But nobody showed up, and I had to give the pizza away by the boxful.
“That you could, let alone should, be an ally wasn’t a conversation being had, at least not on the large, public scale that it is today.”
Eventually, I would come to write my dissertation about being brown on campus, and would unearth many stories of hate in the process. I would come to learn of the Sikh kid whose head was cracked against a flowerpot, would go to see the nearby houses of worship torched beyond recognition, giant swastikas spray-painted thick and still visible behind the soot. At the time, such things weren’t discussed that openly or regularly or enough. That you could, let alone should, be an ally wasn’t a conversation being had, at least not on the large, public scale that it is today.
It’s been 16 years since then, and things are different now, but sometimes I forget that. 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 the feeling of security I should have, 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; our last night there. We were in the parking lot of a grocery store when on a whim, I flicked the radio on 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 the news of it coated my insides with a heavy, grubby layer of dread. This feeling, it was very familiar. I knew it well. Instinctively, I powered the windows up for privacy and turned to my family.
“We don’t have our passports on us,” I said. “We don’t. We can’t prove we’re legal.”
“I was strange. An alien. Not fully American. A person…whose legality, whose belonging could be called into question — would be called into question.”
Motor running, we wondered out loud whether traveling inside the country was okay and was Turkey on the naughty list? We wondered whether we would be asked to produce documentation. Would we be held at the airport or questioned or singled out and 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 people to show up to the airport in Fort Lauderdale. It was still dark when we rolled the rental car into the airport lot, 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 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.”
“When we arrived in Minneapolis, another surprise awaited: thousands had gathered at the airport, waving signs and holding banners.”
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, and 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.
* * *
Hilal Isler is a blogger, and a freelance writer with bylines in The Guardian, O, The Oprah Magazine, Vogue India, and others. She teaches courses on youth culture, and social justice, at the U of MN. Her doctoral work offered an examination of Desi American youth in post-911 America.