The recent terrorist attacks in Paris brought me back to what it was like to be a New Yorker immediately following September 11th. Despite our collective shock and mourning, we vowed not to give in to fear. We went to work. We met friends for dinner. We felt that not engaging in the quotidian was defeat and each act of the everyday was a victory.
As a South Asian American, I was doubly afraid--flashing back to reading Farewell to Manzanar in junior high. Would there be a backlash against those who looked like me? But for all our brusqueness and overall lack of manners, I witnessed New Yorkers, coming together and rising to our better selves.
I wrote afterward:
There is nothing that embodies the word "bittersweet" to me more than being a New Yorker on and after September 11th. The "bitter" being the unfathomable losses suffered and the "sweet" being how the whole city came together in the face of it. I remember the graffiti that appeared on the sidewalk near my apartment; the towers encased in a heart with the words "we are all together." I remember walking down Grand Street when a 60-year-old man in a yarmulke spotted a 60-year-old Chinese man. From outward appearances, the two men would seem to be from different worlds, but they were friends who obviously had not seen each other since before the attack. They became emotional when they spotted each other, embracing and saying how glad they were to see the other.
I also remember being the recipient of more smiles and small talk than is customary in New York City. Though they may have been saying, "try the special, it's pretty good," or "I like your hat," what they really were saying was "I see from your complexion you could be Middle Eastern. Whether you are or aren't is inconsequential to me as I understand this atrocity was committed by a few terrorists, not an entire ethnic or religious group. I hope you have not experienced any resentment my fellow New Yorker." If I ever had a doubt, I now knew I lived in the greatest city in the world.
I know the anecdote seems inconsequential. Later, we waged wars. We gave up civil liberties. We unjustly made decent Muslim Americans endure prejudice, scrutiny, and discrimination after suffering the horror and humiliation of having violence perpetrated in their name. But nothing diminishes how fiercely proud I am of how my city stood in the face of fear in those first days.
Paris, please learn from what we did right and then do better. Rail against violence everywhere, not just western nations, and demand the media pay attention. Accept and rejoice in your whole self--your Muslim community, your Jewish community, your African community--you are all Parisians. You are all French. You are all together. Turn your back to xenophobia. Turn your back on bans on the headscarf and yarmulke and celebrate what it is to live in a democratic society.
Truly embody the virtues of liberté, égalité, fraternité. You are all Parisians. You are all French. You are all together.
Excerpt taken from Actor. Writer. Whatever. (essays on my rise to the top of the bottom of the entertainment industry). Copyrighted by the author and appears courtesy of Ako Dako Press.