As A Millennial Muslim, 9/11 Is A Sad Day In More Ways Than One

One of the most vivid memories I have from my childhood is that of my mother telling my eight-year-old self about what it was like before September 11, 2001. I was walking with her on the way to our mosque on the streets of Queens, New York. It was then that a car full of white men passed by us, slowing down just enough for them to spit at my hijab-wearing mother and yell slurs that I didn't yet understand.

Without much reaction, my mom turned and said, “It’s so sad. Before 9/11, America was the most welcoming place I’d ever been. I wish you remembered what that was like.”

My parents moved to the United States from Egypt in the year 2000, when my father was offered a fellowship in New York, and I was only three years old. I don’t remember much about the year 2001, but here's what I do remember: I was in preschool, my favorite cartoon was Clifford The Big Red Dog, and there was a couple-month period when my mom stopped picking me up from school and coming out to family events.

There were days when we would go to the mosque just to scrub off the graffiti. I got used to the hatful stares on the bus, and my mother taught me to make sure to stand a far distance away from the subway tracks.

On 9/11, our school was evacuated, and my father took me home. He huddled with my mom in front of the TV, and told me to go to my room and play. After that day, it was strictly from school to the apartment for me, without any stops at the park or weekend outings. It was always my dad who would take an hour off of work to walk me home. My mom wouldn't leave the house.

I never asked my mother why she didn't leave home in the months following 9/11, but even at four years old I knew something was horribly wrong. She told me a couple years later that it was because she had heard about a hijabi woman in our area who was pushed onto the subway tracks the day after 9/11. Apparently, it was a woman she knew, but it was never reported.

I grew up in New York City, and even now, after moving away, I still consider it my home. But New York was also the epicenter of so much pain for my family, my community, and myself. Hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed after September 11th; from attacks on Middle Eastern-looking men, to women wearing the hijab, to mosque vandalism and terror threats, the New York Muslim community bore the brunt of the nation’s sadness, pain, and misguided hatred.

Attacks on our community came so quickly that we were not even given the chance to mourn the attack on our home, our city, our country, and our own losses. Muslims were immediately put on the defensive, desperately trying to prove our peacefulness, apologizing for crimes we did not commit, protecting our lives every day from people who saw justice in the act of hurting — or even killing — us.

There were days when we would go to the mosque just to scrub off the graffiti. I got used to the hatful stares on the bus, and my mother taught me to make sure to stand a far distance away from the subway tracks.

When I was younger, I used to dread being at school on the morning of September 11th. I despised the accusatory stares I would get during our moment of silence, and always knew someone would tell me something about “going back to where I came from,” or about Osama bin Laden being my dad.

The first time I got called a terrorist in middle school, I froze and didn't know what to say; silent stares and murmurs surrounded me and I ended up running out of the room. That evening, I went home and started preparing all the comebacks I would give, for I knew it would not be a rare occurrence — and it wasn't. I eventually got so used to calling people out on their bigotry and racism that it's become second nature to me; answering shallow and ill-intentioned questions about Islam is so common that my monologues about the history and reality of Islam are almost memorized.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I were just viewed as another American.

Every year, September 11th comes and passes with tension and weary anticipation — especially since I started wearing the hijab at age thirteen. The day is a very complex time for millennial Muslims like me. Our pain is layered; we feel for the losses our country faced, cry for the destruction our parents’ homelands endured as a result, stand in the face of hate crimes and bullies, speak out against Islamophobia and bigotry, and this year, on top of it all, we have to deal with a man running for president who wants to ban us all.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I were just viewed as another American. If I didn't have to work twice as hard for half as much; always trying to be extra friendly, kind, patient, and helpful in order to just be validated as an equal among my peers. Though I am who I am today because of the difficult experiences in my life, I also see myself under these imaginary circumstances as a much happier person.

This year, Eid ul-Adha, which is the Islamic celebration of the completion of the haji pilgrimage, falls on September 12th; as we prepare for a day of celebration with family and friends, we are also hyperaware of the dangers it will pose.

A couple days ago, my father told me the mosque was hiring extra security this year for the large Eid prayer (when over a thousand Muslims gather at once) because “the day is just too close for comfort.” It is frustrating to think that we have to fear for our safety as we celebrate a millennium-old tradition because of the crimes of people who desecrated our religion. I am tired of this; tired of my life and happiness being invalidated due to the warped expectation that I should spend my life being guilty and apologetic about something I have nothing to do with.

I wait for the day when my mom does not worriedly ask me to stay home on 9/11, when my sorrow is not invalidated by my identity, and when I can experience the America my parents knew for a brief year, and long for again. But for now, I plan to spend 9/11 remembering its victims, both the dead and the living. And I will have to do it looking over my shoulder when I go out, keeping my head down.