I’m at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India this week. It’s a riot. Between the panels, the parties and after-parties, the crowds, the chaos and the competing theories about just what really went down with Salman Rushdie (and what happened to the writers who read The Satanic Verses in protest), the last several days have been action-packed. Not much time to write more just yet — still running around and taking it all in.
For a week or two now, it’s been inescapable: “Where were you when?”
My own September 11th story is unremarkable. At the time, I was in my first semester of college at the University of Virginia. I was in my dorm room, getting ready for class when my roommate’s best friend called. Her voice was so emotional I could barely understand what she was saying. Plane? Towers? Even after I turned on the TV, it didn’t make sense. All I really remember about the rest of the day is pressing redial on my phone again and again, trying to reach my brother, who lived in Manhattan at the time, or my mother, who was visiting him that week. My roommate’s parents worked in the Pentagon, and she couldn’t reach them either. I remember walking around Alderman Road and seeing everyone doing the same thing: dialing their cellphones again and again.
My mom and brother were fine — and so were my roommate’s parents. Everyone was a bit shaken but slowly, in media coverage and in our conversations with one another, a narrative began to emerge. The next day I attended a teach-in featuring Politics professors like R. K. Ramazani, Peter Ochs, and Michael J. Smith (who would later become my thesis adviser). The next week, I talked to minority groups on campus. A few months later, I visited my brother in New York. He told me about how his law school roommate, a volunteer firefighter (who would later be the best man at his wedding), had gone down to the World Trade Center site on 9/11. We went to an exhibit of September 11th photos taken by ordinary New Yorkers and hung by clothespins on the small walls of a downtown gallery. As we walked through the city, my brother pointed out which streets had been filled with dust. I spent too long staring at a makeshift memorial in Grand Central. It still didn’t make sense.
It surprises me how much September 11th has entered my career. I’ve spoken with the city medical examiner about identifying victim’s remains from the WTC rubble; I’ve spoken with first responders and post-traumatic stress counselors about 9/11 survivors, interviewed the founder of Stop the Islamization of America and spoken with members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I’ve worked on coverage of the controversial Muslim community center project in lower Manhattan and of Osama bin Laden’s death. In recent weeks, I resisted the coming tenth anniversary because it felt like over the years, we (and especially those of us who work in the media) haven’t ever paused from remembering that day. Mark Lilla summed it up sharply in New York magazine: “Remembrance became a narcotic that turned a prosperous nation at peace into a debt-ridden wayward giant lumbering around the world, willfully ignorant of its folly, its speech slurred and incomprehensible to anyone but itself.”
Still, seeing the lights this weekend — the two beams where the towers were, reaching into the sky; and the red, white and blue tiers of the Empire State Building — I was moved by the city’s stubborn memory, and the brighter part of “never forget” that represents an affirmation. As Mayor Bloomberg put it:
We had to show the world that – in everyday lives – terror could not diminish our tolerance. Hate could not defeat our hope. And fanaticism could not destroy our freedom. Each of us did that in a million little ways – in the flags we waved and the blood we gave and the donations we made. We did it in time by volunteering – as rescue and recovery workers, social workers and medical professionals, as caterers and caregivers. We did it in the way we treated each other – with a new-found sense of solidarity. People of every color, of every country, speaking every language, practicing every religion, holding every belief, and yet we were all New Yorkers first – proud of our city, and determined to bring it back.
I wasn’t a New Yorker on September 11th, but now that I live in this city too, I’ve seen those little acts of goodwill and humanity — ordinary acts of kindness and courage — day in and day out. They give me hope.
Growing up in southeastern Virginia, hurricane season was always a time of excitement for me as a kid. Hurricane season was summer’s last hurrah before back-to-school season. It was the surging conclusion to countless days of sweltering heat, countless days at the pool and beach, countless Slurpees, and countless mosquito bites. Hurricane season offered one last chance for real summer drama before it was back to the usual routine.
The backyard of our family home tapered off into a marshy Chesapeake Bay inlet so the prospect of a storm always seemed personal. Would the waters that provided the backdrop for so many gorgeous sunrises and afternoons outdoors really turn on us? It was hard to imagine. If the backyard had a personality of its own, it was a benevolent one. But of course it was clear that the storms (with their quaint, outmoded names like Hugo and Bonnie) had personalities too, and it was arguable that those personalities were not so benevolent. They were certainly fickle and feckless, dying down then speeding back up, making strange last-minute turns, and never quite behaving as predicted.
Disaster preparation is a funny thing. My parents rarely watched TV, but in hurricane season, the TV was on for hours on end, excited meteorologists waving their arms as swirling neon hurricane clouds danced on loop behind them. Mom and Dad would stock up on groceries and bring in lawn furniture and potted plants (my contribution: cutting out pictures of colorful hurricane models from the local paper to paste into a collage), but our preparation usually ended there. One year, my mother swaddled all our old family photo albums in layers of trash bags while we kids regarded her with skepticism. We never boarded our windows, or bought bottled water, or extra batteries or canned food. And we never left.
We were lucky. More often than not, the Carolinas would absorb the worst of the big storm coming our way, leaving the Hampton Roads area drenched but essentially unscathed. The photo albums never did get ruined as my mom had worried. But at the end of every summer, the deadly flirtation would start up again — and as I got older, I started to find the whole ritual of hurricane-watching more and more nerve-wracking. How long could our good luck hold out? Statistically, we were due for a doozy of a storm. All it would take is one little swerve, and low-lying Poquoson would be a trashed puddle.
I was away at college in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel took that tell-tale swerve we’d been waiting for. The reported cost of the damage for the city was almost $100 million dollars, and the devastation visibly changed the landscape of the town. Our backyard alone lost eleven trees, and half our dock washed away. Afterwards, state and federal grants paid for entire neighborhoods to lift their homes onto cinder blocks. Eight years later, Hurricane Irene’s trajectory has me thinking about Isabel and worrying about whether it’s my hometown’s turn to take a hit again. As I write, the two people have already been killed in Virginia by trees falling through windows (one the Hampton Roads area) and 70,000 people are without power on the Peninsula alone.
As for New York City, it’s hard to say what’s in store. I’m in the camp of unbelievers having trouble picturing a serious impact here, though between the mandatory mass evacuations, the MTA’s historic shutdown, and a predicted power outage for much of lower Manhattan, it’s apparent city officials (who should know about these things) are bracing for the worst. Then again, given the strange weather NYC has seen this year — a spree of blizzards, a heat wave, record-breaking rains just a few weeks ago, and last-week’s earthquake — oversized hurricane damage wouldn’t come as a big surprise to me either. As I packed up for another hotel room for the weekend, courtesy of my office, the rain had stopped in Queens. The old man across the street who always sits sentry on the steps of his building in his wheelchair was at his usual post, checking his watch. Storm time yet?
photo: Hurricane Irene as seen from space, via NASA
As I was waking up for work early yesterday morning, on the other side of the globe Japan was observing a moment of silence for the victims of its twin natural disasters.
When I arrived at the office that day a month before, 32 people had been killed from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. By the time I left work that day, the estimated death toll was between 200 and 300– a nearly tenfold increase.
Just one week later, the number of people dead or missing from the disaster had risen to more than 20,000– almost twice the population of my hometown.
Now that number is closer to 25,000, and I’m no less stunned by the effects of the disaster. In the past weeks, The Takeaway has heard from nuclear experts, relief workers, professors of Japanese culture, and even Yoko Ono, but there’s no getting around the basic incomprehensibility of the damage.
Yesterday as I was thinking about how the story has unfolded, I stumbled on this moving poem by Tadashi Nishimura:
“It’s safe, but” / they say over and over / that’s worrisome
Watching the story develop in the role of a journalist, my eyes have been trained on the facts (many of them numerical in this “level 7” disaster).
But poetry cuts past the numbers — the thousands dead or missing, and many more without electricity or water, a home or word from their families; the hundreds of millisieverts of radiation being emitted; the billions of dollars in economic losses — and pierces the heart of the catastrophe’s uncertainty. It emerges from the rubble of destruction, confusion, and misinformation to describe the very things which evade measurement: loss, blame, guilt, fear, upheaval, meaninglessness.
Another thing about poetry is its eerie timelessness. From an anthology compiled in 13th century Japan:
Like a driven wave,
Dashed by fierce winds on a rock,
So am I: alone
And crushed upon the shore,
Remembering what has been.
It took eighteen days (or was it thirty years?) but finally the man who once said “I have a PhD in stubbornness” has stepped down.
Undoubtedly, Egypt’s struggles are far from over — there are still too many unknowns at this stage — but for those of us watching from the other side of the world, what an exhilarating ride it’s been.
There’s also still no single answer to the question I posed last week — why now? — and President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation only raises more questions. What will the military takeover mean for the country? Can the army make good on its promise to ensure fair and peaceful elections? Will the crowd that’s organized so bravely on the streets be able to find solid political footing in the halls of parliament? What will become of mid-level government officials who supported the old regime? What will become of Mubarak himself? Who will step up to fill the vacuum of democratic leadership? How will the United States reposition itself towards the new Egypt? How will Egypt’s economy regain its footing after three weeks of this $300-million-dollar-a-day disruption? What will this upheaval mean for the rest of the Mideast?
So far, Egypt’s revolution has been the most-covered international news story in 4 years — and it looks like the story is just getting started.
Another winter storm, another revolution. With more terrible weather expected overnight, I’ve packed up for yet another stay in a hotel across the street from my office — keeping tabs on Al Jazeera’s ongoing Egypt coverage all the while. If today’s developments are any indicator, this week’s looking to be another very busy one at work. News from the Middle East has been nothing short of riveting, and I’ve been proud to be part of The Takeaway’s standout coverage of protests in the Middle East (including the brand new podcast launched today).
I’m still gathering my thoughts — and, like everyone else watching developments in Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt from afar, “monitoring a very fluid situation,” to say the least — so for now, I’ll leave this post with just one question that’s been on my mind. It stems, in part, from an anecdote relayed by Wendell Steavenson, blogging for The New Yorker from Cairo:
A girl who had collapsed with stomach pains was brought in, carried in the arms of an Army captain. Her parents had taken their four children to the square in the morning and the family had been there for six or seven hours. Her father, Amr Helmy, a former Army officer, told me that he believed it was important that they see the demonstration. “They need to start getting used to them!” he joked, “so they learn that they don’t have to be afraid. Our generation wasted our life in nonsense.”
A courageous sentiment. But why now? That’s what I’ve been wondering. It’s also the question that was posed on The Takeaway this morning by Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sedat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland:
For me as a political scientist, I’ve always said (and I’ve repeated it over and over again), the puzzle to me has never been, ‘are there reasons to revolt?’ The puzzle has always been, ‘why haven’t people revolted already?’
I’ll be mulling this over as events in Egypt unfold — and maybe when the storm passes, the answer will be more apparent.
I’m back in New York today, rallying to restore lost sleep after one of the more exhausting weekends I’ve had — and trying to wrap my head around around the politically inspired Halloween-themed media critique that was Saturday’s Colbert/Stewart event. I’ve been to Washington, DC countless times but the crowd the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear drew on Saturday completely transformed the city. Cellphones become unusable; the Metro shut down (the DC transit authority reported 825,000 trips, more than double its usual load); the crowd stretched on as far as the eye could see. Subversive but anodyne, “cool” but family-friendly, it was really more of a polite, ironic spectacle than a politically charged rally.
Because I was on assignment, I missed most of the live speeches and performances (I caught up online late last night). But working my way through the crowds to shoot photos, I got a good feel for the sideshow. And what an civil, reasonable sideshow it was — the outlandish costumes and pithy slogans couldn’t mask an underlying earnestness. When I finally watched Jon’s main speech, what stood out to me was its guilelessness:
Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.
It would be disingenuous to overlook the fact that Stewart/Colbert fans are overwhelmingly Democratic. But a celebration of “little reasonable compromises” isn’t exactly what one would expect as a party rallying cry on the eve of midterm elections. Coming from a political satirist, the talk of compromise and rationality was especially disarming. Capturing votes (and legislative seats) takes — and creates — one kind of power. But capturing a national mood and moment has a power of its own.
photo by me: soundbites suck! at the Rally to Restore Sanity