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, 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.
Together, we sat cross-legged on the floor and watched that small screen for hours. We were numb and silent until the buildup 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. 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. They were huddling close, as if for warmth; as if small animals sharing a litter.
I don’t remember falling asleep that night, but I do remember the next morning. I remember very clearly opening my door and finding the front of it had been vandalized, the words heavy and handwritten in black ink. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was to blame for what had happened — and that I ought to be punished for it.
In the days following 9/11, I continued to unravel.
This is what I mean when I say I became Muslim that morning. I may 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 seen as different.
And not a good, harmless kind of different. 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 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 that things would be different from now on.