The Morning After September 11
“I need a shelter to build an altar away from the Osamas and Bushes”
– From the song 'Mouth's Cradle' by Björk.
Sometimes things are so straightforward they can't be seen. It had seemed unusual that of all the hundreds of people, and far away in Sydney, it was her that came to mind, that woman from Hatiya who can't speak. I haven't seen her for several years now. I don't know where she is.
Her sari was usually a little dishevelled; her hair similarly so: long, black and matted. She grunted and moaned to communicate, and whenever she'd be somewhere in the village where I was staying and we'd randomly meet, she used to moan excitedly with such an enormous smile, full of joy, powered with life. I guess she exaggerated her facial expressions to fill the space where words would go. She'd point to me and to one of my Hatiyan friends if he was there, and then mime carrying pots on her head, to see if we remembered. Of course we did.
It had been evening, one of the many times my friend and I had arrived at Hatiya Island on the Chittagong to Barisal ship. Though it depends on the tides, it is often evening by then. There was the usual turmoil: each and every one of the seemingly millions of passengers pressurised with an urgency to get down the narrow metal stairs, off one side of the ship, at precisely the same moment. There were boxes tied with string, plastic carry bags, baskets, machinery parts, fish nets and suitcases. It was as though a whole village was on the move down those stairs, as always.
Below, competing like dodgem cars to sidle into where the stairs ended in space, to take us ashore were old wooden boats, open and of questionable seaworthiness. Around them swirled the mighty brown sea that is the Meghna River.
Among the jostling crowd was that woman, who I hadn't met previously, but who my friend vaguely knew of. 'She can't speak,' he told me.
She had aluminium cooking pots and water jars, too many and in a range of sizes; in her hands and balanced on her head. She had an impossible task, to get down those stairs without losing one. The crowd pushed around her and she wailed as commandingly as she could to find space, clinging desperately to her cargo to survive the human torrent. My friend and I each took a pot to help, for she had no one.
Surely enough we were soon jumping from the small wooden boats onto Hatiya's muddy bank. When we reached the beginning of the road, we organised a baby taxi to take us the thirty-odd kilometres south to the village where I was staying, and we offered to give the lady a ride. It wasn't necessary to ask where she was going exactly, for everywhere is south of the ghat. There is only one main road. In any case, she was grateful for our small gesture, helping with the pots; her eyes were filled with happiness and relief, no words required.
I didn't think much about it; in Hatiya people usually help each other. It's no big deal. But that minor occurrence somehow created a tie between us, simple yet important in the way only simple things are. After that she would run to us if she saw us, and mime the pots. After that I'd have tea with her, much to the astonishment and slight disapproval of some of the other villagers; and sometimes I gave a few takas to help out. Though I didn't know anything about her life, it can't have been an easy one.
It's so obvious that it would be her who came first to mind on that day in a Sydney lift, on the way up to the policy section in the department where I was working. It was in that excruciating moment when I had also lost my ability to speak.
In many ways it had been like any other day. I must have woken late and drowned myself in the shower to rekindle a feeling of life. I must have squeezed into the peak hour train, and got off at Wynyard in the city centre. I would have puffed on a cigarette those last two blocks to where the office was. All the usual morning rituals must have been there, and yet the morning was far from ordinary. It was September 12, 2001.
The attacks in New York had occurred around midnight Sydney time. My parents woke me with news of the devastation and in my half-sleep I didn't appreciate what they were saying. 'I'm sleeping,' I told them, annoyed, 'tell me in the morning.'
Before work I had seen the TV images, played and replayed, and like the rest of the world I was stunned. I remember feeling numb on the train, along with every other commuter in the carriage. Normally people sat silently, and on that day there was silence too, but it had a reach to it, a connection shaped by the horror of events on the other side of the world. Everybody seemed nervous and haunted, and when eyes met there was a knowing look: as though we shared a horrible secret, except that the whole world knew.
I wondered if it really was the work of Islamist terrorists: thorough speculation had barely begun; and I was concerned there would be a backlash against Muslims in general. I thought of the victims' families and how suddenly life could be unexpectedly lost. I remember being grateful that my brother, who was living in New York, had managed to call before the phone lines got jammed. What was it like for him in New York, when as far away as Sydney it seemed that the world was forever altered? Those TV images, played and replayed, played and replayed…
I had been slightly nervous getting into the lift. I don't remember waiting for it; the doors slid open when I pressed the button. I got in, and a man followed me. He held the doors with his arm, and leaning slightly out the door, whistled like a sheep grazier to kelpies, Australian sheep dogs. I remember being slightly annoyed at the delay as I wanted to get the lift ride over with: to be heading up into a skyscraper was unpleasant on September 12.
Responding to the whistle two people came, a woman and a younger man, and when I thought about it later, they had come from different building entrances. The building had three entrances, the one I had used, and the two others from where they had come. Because of the nature of my job I knew many of the people who worked there: I had to coordinate information from across the department. It was a large building, but I remember thinking, slightly unusually, that I'd not seen any of those three people before.
I pressed nineteen; after that the older man pressed sixteen. The lift began to move. It was already a few floors up when the older man broke the silence. I don't wish to repeat his words directly, but he suggested rather firmly that all Muslims should be disposed of. 'Yes!' said the woman eagerly in support. 'Yeah,' said the younger man, with a little more hesitation.
There are occasions when I would have openly challenged such talk, but on that day? The three of them glared in my direction, waiting for me to agree. Their expressions were accusatory and demanding. I couldn't speak. In that small space of the lift I felt a great chasm had opened between us, and it just wasn't something to be regretted. Was this anymore Australia?
In a way, my silence was befitting, for the events in New York were the start of a long period of silence not only for me but for much of civil society. It was the beginning of my understanding of the new, secondary war: the War on Tolerance.
I couldn't wait for them to leave; it seemed an eternity to reach the sixteenth. It was in that void that the woman from Hatiya had come to mind. I had always admired her, facing her life without a solitary word given from it, so bravely. In my mind I saw her once more juggling metal pots and water jars amongst the crowd, struggling to negotiate down those narrow stairs. I saw her smile of life.
On that day, as it happened, going up in a Sydney lift were three Anglo-Australians wishing for her death. It's what it means, genocide, or more correctly, mass-genocide since Muslims belong to many nationalities. Goodbye to the Hatiyan fishermen who risk their lives at sea in splintery trawlers to support their families; no more day-labourers out in the fields; no bustling night markets throbbing with customers and sellers, their produce spread across the ground. There would be no doctors or teachers or police or blacksmiths or charlatans or miscreants. It would be the end of thieves, worm-ridden children and rickshaw drivers as well.
And for the record, the views of those three people in the lift are an extraordinarily poor representation of the views of the vast majority of Australians who, even on a day like September 12, are not advocates of genocide.
The world had changed. It did not bode well. Even today I wonder: after so much effort trying to deal with the catastrophe of September 11, have we, as human beings, even begun to approach the consequences of September 12?
(R) thedailystar.net 2010