Being the Son of the 1993 WTC Jihadist

1 November 5, 1990
Cliffside Park, New Jersey

My mother shakes me awake in my bed: “There’s been an accident,” she says.

I am seven years old, a chubby kid in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajamas. I’m accustomed to being roused before dawn, but only by my father, and only to pray on my little rug with the minarets. Never by my mother.

It’s eleven at night. My father is not home. Lately, he has been staying at the mosque in Jersey City deeper and deeper into the night. But he is still Baba to me — funny, loving, warm. Just this morning he tried to teach me, yet again, how to tie my shoes. Has he been in an accident? What kind of accident? Is he hurt? Is he dead?

I can’t get the questions out because I’m too scared of the answers.

My mother flings open a white sheet — it mushrooms briefly, like a cloud — then leans down to spread it on the floor. “Look in my eyes, Z,” she says, her face so knotted with worry that I hardly recognize her. “You need to get dressed as quick as you can. And then you need to put your things onto this sheet, and wrap it up tight. Okay? Your sister will help you.” She moves toward the door. “Yulla, Z, yulla. Let’s go.”

“Wait,” I say. It’s the first word I’ve managed to utter since I tumbled out from under my He-Man blanket. “What should I put in the sheet? What . . . things?”

I’m a good kid. Shy. Obedient. I want to do as my mother says.

She stops to look at me. “Whatever will fit,” she says. “I don’t know if we’re coming back.”

She turns, and she’s gone.

Once we’ve packed, my sister, my brother, and I pad down to the living room. My mother has called my father’s cousin in Brooklyn — we call him Uncle Ibrahim, or just Ammu — and she’s talking to him heatedly now. Her face is flushed. She’s clutching the phone with her left hand and, with her right, nervously adjusting her hijab where it’s come loose around her ear. The TV plays in the background. Breaking news. We interrupt this program. My mother catches us watching, and hurries to turn it off.

She talks to Ammu Ibrahim awhile longer, her back to us. When she hangs up, the phone begins ringing. It’s a jarring sound in the middle of the night: too loud and like it knows something.

My mother answers. It is one of Baba’s friends from the mosque, a taxi driver named Mahmoud. Everyone calls him Red because of his hair. Red sounds desperate to reach my father. “He’s not here,” my mother says. She listens for a moment. “Okay,” she says, and hangs up.

The phone rings again. That terrible noise.

This time, I can’t figure out who’s calling. My mother says, “Really?” She says, “Asking about us? The police?”

A little later, I wake up on a blanket on the living room floor. Somehow, in the midst of the chaos, I’ve nodded off. Everything we could possibly carry — and more — is piled by the door, threatening to topple at any second.

My mother paces around, checking and rechecking her purse. She has all of our birth certificates: proof, if anyone demands it, that she is our mother. My father, El-Sayyid Nosair, was born in Egypt. But my mother was born in Pittsburgh. Before she recited the Shahada in a local mosque and became a Muslim — before she took the name Khadija Nosair — she went by Karen Mills.

“Your Uncle Ibrahim is coming for us,” she tells me when she sees me sitting up and rubbing my eyes. The worry in her voice is tinged with impatience now. “If he ever gets here.”

I do not ask where we are going, and no one tells me. We just wait. We wait far longer than it should take Ammu to drive from Brooklyn to New Jersey. And the longer we wait, the faster my mother paces and the more I feel like something in my chest is going to burst. My sister puts an arm around me. I try to be brave. I put an arm around my brother.

“Ya Allah!” my mother says. “This is making me insane.”

I nod like I understand.

Here is what my mother is not saying: Meir Kahane, a militant rabbi and the founder of the Jewish Defense League, has been shot by an Arab gunman after a speech in a ballroom at a Marriott hotel in New York City. The gunman fled the scene, shooting an elderly man in the leg in the process. He rushed into a cab that was waiting in front of the hotel, but then bolted out again and began running down the street, gun in hand. A law enforcement officer from the U.S. Postal Service, who happened to be passing by, exchanged fire with him. The gunman collapsed on the street. The newscasters couldn’t help noting a gruesome detail: both Rabbi Kahane and the assassin had been shot in the neck. Neither was expected to live.

Now, the TV stations are updating the story constantly. An hour ago, while my sister, brother, and I slept away the last seconds we had of anything remotely resembling a childhood, my mother overheard the name Meir Kahane and looked up at the screen. The first thing she saw was footage of the Arab gunman, and her heart nearly stopped: it was my father.

It’s one in the morning by the time Uncle Ibrahim pulls up in front of our apartment. He has taken so long because he waited for his wife and children to get ready. He insisted they accompany him because, as a devout Muslim, he couldn’t risk being alone in a car with a woman who was not his wife — my mother, in other words. There are five people in the car already. And there are four more of us trying to wedge in somehow. I feel my mother’s anger rise: She’s just as devout as my uncle, but her children were going to be in the car with the two of them anyway, so what was the point of wasting all that time?

Soon, we are driving through a tunnel, the sickly fluorescent lights rushing over our heads. The car is crazily cramped. We’re a giant knot of legs and arms. My mother needs to use the bathroom. Uncle Ibrahim asks if she wants to stop somewhere. She shakes her head. She says, “Let’s just get the kids to Brooklyn and then let’s go to the hospital. Okay? Quick as we can. Yulla.

It’s the first time anyone has used the word hospital. My father is in the hospital. Because he’s had an accident. That means he is hurt, but it also means he is not dead. The pieces of the puzzle start clicking together in my head.

When we get to Brooklyn — Ammu Ibrahim lives in a vast brick apartment building near Prospect Park — all nine of us fall out of the car in a tangled lump. Once we’re in the lobby, the elevator takes forever to come, so my mother, desperate for the bathroom, takes my hand and whisks me toward the staircase.

She takes the steps two at a time. I struggle to keep up. I see the second floor blur by, then the third. Ammu’s apartment is on the fourth. We’re panting as we round the corner to his hallway. We’re ecstatic that we’ve made it — we’ve beaten the elevator! And then we see three men in front of my uncle’s door. Two are wearing dark suits and walking toward us slowly, their badges held high. The other man is a police officer, and he’s gripping his gun in its holster. My mother walks toward them. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she says, “and I will talk to you when I’m done.”

The men look confused, but they let her go. It’s only when she tries to bring me into the bathroom too that one of the dark suits puts his palm in the air, like a traffic cop.

“The boy has to stay with us,” he says.

“He’s my son,” she tells them. “He’s coming with me.”

“We can’t allow it,” says the other dark suit.

My mother is puzzled, but only for a moment: “You think I’m going to hurt myself in there? You think I’m going to hurt my son?”

The first suit looks at her blankly. “The boy stays with us,” he says. Then he looks down at me with a poor attempt at a smile. “You must be” — he checks his notebook — “Abdulaziz?”

Terrified, I start nodding and can’t stop. “Z,” I say. Ibrahim’s family comes through the apartment door now and breaks the awkward silence. His wife herds the children into the apartment’s one bedroom and commands us to sleep. There are six of us. There’s a colorful matrix of bunks for kids built into the wall, like something you’d see at the PlayPlace at McDonald’s. We lie in every available cranny, writhing like worms, while my mother talks to the police in the living room. I strain to listen through the wall. All I can hear are low grunts and furniture scratching against the floor.

In the living room, the dark suits have so many questions that it’s like my mother is caught in a hailstorm. She will remember two questions above all others: What is your current home address? And, Did you know your husband was going to shoot Rabbi Kahane tonight?

The answer to the first is more complicated than the answer to the second.

Baba works for the City of New York, repairing the heat and air-conditioning in a Manhattan courthouse, and the city requires that its employees live in one of the five boroughs. So we pretend to live in my uncle’s apartment. The police only showed up here tonight because of that little lie in the record books.

My mother explains all this. And she tells the policemen the truth about the shooting: She’d known nothing about it. She hadn’t heard a single syllable. Nothing. She abhors talk of violence. Everyone at the mosque knows better than to agitate in her presence.

She answers a barrage of follow-up questions, head high, hands motionless on her lap. But all the while one thought is banging inside her head like a migraine: She must go to my father. She must be at his side.

Finally, my mother blurts out: “I heard on TV that Sayyid is going to die.”

The dark suits look at each other, but do not answer.

“I want to be with him. I don’t want him to die alone.”

Still no answer.

“Will you take me to him? Please? Will you take me to him, please?”

She says it again and again. Eventually the dark suits sigh and put away their pencils.

Reposted from THE TERRORIST’S SON by Zak Ebrahim. Copyright (c) 2014 by Zak Ebrahim. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster and TED. All rights reserved.

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