September 19, 2001


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Asif Saleh

Diary of a broken spirit

Staying inside the apartment has become too claustrophobic. Normally my favourite little cosy retreat, it is now suffocating because of the television coverage and the non-stop phone calls. No matter how much I try to lift my spirits, the ghost of the World Trade Centre won't leave me.

It's been three days I have been stuck at home. My workplace, a financial bank located just three blocks from the World Trade Centre, is, I hear, surrounded by the National Guard. It is, apparently, being treated like a crime scene. Every three hours I get an update from work, regarding how the Securities and Exchange Commission is desperately trying to get the exchange up and running in a brave attempt to show that everything is normal. But can we go back to work and pretend everything is normal in Death Valley?

I attempt to log on to my workplace server to check my e-mail and, for the first time in three days, I can actually do so. Maybe things are actually coming back to normal. "Are you okay?" seems to be the theme of everybody's e-mail. So many people worried about me? Friends from college, friends from grade three, relatives from Bangladesh -- all wrote after failing to reach me by phone. Even the ex-girlfriend, the one who did not speak to me for four years, wrote a line.

Uh! Why am I choking? I don't know. I can't breathe any more.

Fifteen minutes ago, I heard of a friend who is still missing. He took classes with me. He was doing his MBA and, just like me, was into his second year while working full time for a Wall Street firm. His name was Rohit Verma. The name could have been easily replaced by Asif Saleh. Everything else remains the same.

There was Sallahuddin. His wife gave birth to a baby boy recently. He was working at the Windows of the World restaurant, saving a extra few dollars for the new arrival in the family. Where is he now?

Then there were Tumpa and Nurul Huq, my bhabhi's (sister-in-law's) sister and brother-in-law, who are both missing at work from the 97th floor. They were newly married, just like I was three years ago. All these names, all those faces on television, all those pictures are suffocating me. Any of these faces could have been mine. I can't take it any more.

I walk out of my apartment and get into a coffee lounge. A large television set is playing there constantly. Sitting with a cappuccino, I cannot help but pick up the paper. 'The Day After,' the headline blares, with a massive picture of a bulldozer lifting the remains of the WTC.

It's the same thing no matter where I look. All the faces around me are sad. Everybody around me is talking about the same thing. There's no respite. Some artist is sitting at the pavement outside with cards that you can paint free and wish for any friend who is missing. I see a little kid painting with her parents. Images of the kid who lost her mother pop up. Ah! Why can't I get this trauma off my head?

I look around. I see another poster... "Missing... 25 years old... worked at 107th floor."

"TAKE IT AWAY!" I scream in my head!

I leave the coffee lounge. Where can I go to get some peace? I see a note on the wall. "Vigil service at the church for all faiths," it says. I stroll along there. An old lady introduces herself as the pastor and greets me. "Can I sit here for a few moments?" I ask, with some reservation about the shorts I am wearing. She has such a reassuring face! "Sit as long as you want," she says.

I sit there for a few moments and pray for all those missing faces. Wherever you are, I hope there isn't another Windows of the World there. I don't want you to take a peek at this dirty world through those windows.

My concentration is broken by a "breaking news" announcement. There is a television set in the church?! I walk away.

It's such a different city today. I pass some women talking about how less motivated they feel since the incident. That makes me feel better. I am not the only one then. An ambulance starts screaming. It symbolises the state of the city today. We all look at it and sigh. Did another building collapse?

I notice a blood donation poster. No luck there either. They have collected more than enough for the day. I stroll along to Barnes and Noble. I am not interested in a book; I'm just looking for some quiet space. Shivers go down my spine on seeing the cops there. Each floor of Barnes and Noble's largest bookstore, where people once roamed freely, now has fully armed policemen positioned for possible suspects. People are walking up to them and shaking hands with the heroes. That's a new thing in New York. A few months ago, the NYPD used to be one of the most hated departments in the city.

It's a very different city tonight. As I am walking along the street, there are many different conversations I overhear; yet, all revolve around the same overwhelming topic. A young white woman animatedly protests against the singling out of an Arab American colleague just because of her name, even though she was born and raised here; a teacher points out how the media is making the job of the terrorists easy by constantly playing the events in detail 24 hours a day. An old lady says how she wants to hug New York for all its sorrows today.

This is a New York I have never seen. The sad faces of people desperately trying to act normal... But the surroundings don't help. Police cars are constantly plying the streets. The traffic is wafer thin. At 8 o'clock, the streets of the city that once never slept are almost empty. Most of the cars are displaying the American flag. Radio stations have abandoned the top 40 songs and are instead playing patriotic songs like God bless America. Nationalism is in full display.

Suddenly, for the first time in New York, I feel scared and lonely. I feel like a minority. Diversity and the open mind of its residents were my crown-jewel reasons for living in New York. But tonight, I am walking a safe distance away from the next pedestrian. Tonight, I feel like the unwelcome guest with whom the host does not how to act. I go inside my cage again, sparing the "host" of its embarrassment.

Asif Saleh wonders whether he, and New York, will ever be the same again.

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