Other Anniversaries: 9/11

I have been trying not to write about the so-called 10th Anniversary of 9/11. In now-erased work, I have suggested that the problem of 9/11 is not whether it is remembered, but how it is remembered. I have wondered whether I “feel” safer,” even as my residence near the nation’s capital over the past few years has been accompanied by injunctions (at the metro station, at Amtrak, at all airports, at the grocery store) to remain “constantly vigilant.”

Janet Napolitano, your voice haunts me.

Were I in the States right now, this would be a different post. Location makes a difference in how we are able to remember.

It is Friday morning in Nairobi. I can hear the local muezzin from my house. Today, downtown Nairobi will be full of kanzu-clad Muslims assembling for and taking part in communal prayers. It has been a little over a week since Ramadan ended. For the next few weeks, perhaps even a few months, it will be possible to find dates in the supermarkets. In Nairobi, I am surrounded by the dailyness of Islam. It feels nice, comforting.

This niceness is important, because it helps to cut the various hand swabs and random searches and extra security I undergo (sometimes), this because I have taken to wearing a scarf and, in the right lighting, I look vaguely Somali. (Amsterdam, I do not love you.)

From Nairobi, I think of how 9/11 has enabled Kenya to continue its decades long program of marginalizing Somalis. The language of terrorism has fed state-sanctioned paranoia and opportunism, so much so that, recently, when a Kenyan politician was confronted with the horrors of the Wagalla Massacre, he expressed no regrets. Kenyan-born Somalis continue to find it difficult, if not impossible, to acquire essential legal documents. And the face of terrorism and piracy in Kenya is Somali, not Arab.
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The first time I blogged about 9/11 was in 2005. Then, anticipating my post from last year, I wondered about 9/12. In 2001, I needed a list of names and works to engage a present that remained unavailable. I turned to psychoanalysis—Jacques Lacan and Jacqueline Rose—and the innovative poetries and poetics of Charles Bernstein and Edmond Jabés to try to make sense of this experience being made mine.

I have wondered why it took so long—4 years—for me to approach 9/11 semi-publicly. At the time, and this perhaps very late, I wanted to name the wrongness of the post 9/11 world, one that, for better or worse, my foreignness enabled me to experience.

Foreignness changed after 9/11.

In retrospect, it was perhaps inevitable that I would start reading about and writing on nativism. And it was, perhaps, inevitable that my scholarly work would leave the U.S. to travel in other geographies and histories. It had become “impossible” to be the scholar I envisioned prior to 9/11. In 2005, the U.S. no longer felt safe for foreigners, or possible.

One started wearing khaki pants and polo shirts to blend in.

And we have yet, I think, to assess how the “turn” to transnationalisms and internationalisms and diasporas, well underway before 2001, changed after 2001. A roundtable I am on at the ASA will try to suggest that one major change was the making irrelevant or invisible the work of earlier postcolonial critics, though the roundtable will not, I think, take 9/11 as its point of departure.
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It is Sunday evening now and I am looking at blogs on 9/11 and noting those blogs that remain silent or muted. I am struck by the lucidity and coherence of those writing: the sharpness of memory, the sequence of narrative, the forcefulness of argument. I am intrigued by how we write about 9/11, the moment “the world changed,” the Kenyan newspapers tell me.
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Monday, and I am about ready to post this. Hoping for a fragment that will glue “it all together,” this “it” that remains elusive and deeply felt.

I give the last word to Rasna Warah:

The world changed 10 years ago in one fundamental aspect — we all became more fearful, not just of terrorists, but also of the US government.

2 thoughts on “Other Anniversaries: 9/11

  1. I was wide awake at 3am, listening to BBC. Rather predictably, Rudy Giuliani was spitting his usual talking points about 9/11: saying it makes absolute sense that NYPD is profiling Muslims; saying we’ve been “safer” and we’ve avoided another attack because of the measures taken after 9/11; and, of course, claiming more ownership over 9/11 because he is a New Yorker — just as other New Yorkers do, in that strange way where they tell the rest of us “you have no idea what it felt like to go through this.”

    And then later on that morning as I finished moving my stuff into my new place, NPR had Rudy Giuliani on. This time at the official commemoration in NY. This time he read from the book of Ecclesiastes: there is a time for happiness and a time for mourning, a time for war and a time for peace, etc. And they whole time I was thinking Orwellian thoughts, like isn’t this a peaceful (for “us”) time when we are actually at war. War is peace now, no? We just fight the war “over there” in Iraq and Afghanistan and who knows where else and sustain a fiction of peace within our borders. “The Enemy” suffers body counts, but we use drones or suffer few casualties altogether. A war without the usual substance of war, for us at least.

    I can’t say anything coherent about 9/11. It’s one of the emptiest and most impregnated signifiers I have experienced in my life.

    I’ve spoken to a friend who rolled back Kenyan racism against Somalis all the way back to 1907. The war against terror only reinforced an apartheid that’s been there for over a century. The imagined geography of Kenya is a thin strip of land that runs from Western through Naivasha and Nairobi onto Voi and ends before it reaches Mombasa. This strip of land is at once the most arable land in the country, the site of most of its infrastructure and natural resources, and the zone where Kenya’s Big Five (Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin and Kisii) live. North Eastern and its inhabitants are our part of no-part. And even though Somalis exist in virtually every corner of our country, in the minds of many Kenyans they remain rooted in North Eastern just as Luos remain affixed in Nyanza/Western and Kikuyus Central — in the minds of many, that is.

    Back to 9/11 in the United States of the Empty Pose of Power: we recently had that Congressional hearing addressing the increase of “homegrown” terror. This reminded me a lot of twentieth century antisemitism in Germany — of Hitler’s line to the Germans (“you must get rid of the Jew in you”) and how the Jew went from an externalized danger to an internalized one, so that the Holocaust was a kind of spiritual purge of the corrupted element within German society — aided, of course, by German affinity for Catholicism and its love of purging, no? This congressional hearing is a kind of “you must get rid of the terrorist in you” that allows Americans to rationalize the Patriot Acts and other erosions of their human rights. It evokes that Right Wing argument that “if you have done nothing wrong, then you should have no fear of the increased surveillance”. Of course, surveillance then becomes a way to purge yourself of the need to do something wrong (yes, yes, bad argument, but I will develop it later).

    I am struck by your line “one started wearing khaki short and polo shirts to blend in” not only because of the increasing paranoia of the sort of terrorist (“homegrown”) who can blend in, but also because of the impossibility of blending in (as you have found out your looks and scarf mark you out in Amsterdan). Really, the more we blend in the more suspect we become now. Isn’t this the other lesson of twentieth century antisemitism. Consider the paradoxical Nazi Germany propaganda that Jews were rootless cosmopolitans who married their own and stuck to their culture that wasn’t rooted in German norms and ways, and conversely that Jewish men were not just raping German women and forcibly impregnating them, but that they were marrying German women and seamlessly blending in all the while corrupting the very fabric of German society. So that at once you have the cosmopolitan Jew rooted not in German culture but in a groundless religion who has at the same time blended in so seamlessly and become rooted in German culture. This is eerily similar to the figure of the Arab and Muslim now: external/foreign/cannot be integrated into the multicultural West and at the same time already here in the West/blending in/homegrown.

  2. I think the reason I turned to nativism and then added on autochthony was because I wanted to have frames that could explain the US on its own terms, or, more precisely, within its own histories. Nativism came close to explaining anti-immigrant bias as it evolved over time–against Catholics, Germans, the Irish, West Indians, and so on–and autochthony explained, in part, the relationship between successive immigrant distrust: the claim of autochthony often being, not that we came from here, but we were the first here. And, of course, to be “the first here” required some interesting forms of fiction making rooted in material accumulation.

    Part of which is to say, I don’t know enough about the German context to follow the analogy, and, to the extent that it’s possible, I think it’s very important to root the aftermath of 9/11 within prior US histories, in part because so many post 9/11 rhetorics are rooted within cultural and legislative campaigns from the late 19th and early 20th century. This, I confess, might simply mark my own knowledge areas, and one could go backwards or forwards in time.

    I think it’s necessary to respect the specificity of 9/11–even and especially the reactions of those who had close ties to NYC and, to a lesser extent, DC. A friend helped me understand this when we talked about the Nairobi bombings of 1998–there is a geography of feeling that attaches to or emerges from belonging. Even as understanding that geography of feeling–at least acknowledging its existence–should not foreclose other geography-bound engagements. It is stunning, for instance, that much of what has happened around 9/11 has been based on the silence and trauma of those most closely affected–one could add neglect to silence and trauma if we look to medical records.

    Part of me wants to ask why 9/11 produces a stutter–why, even now, I must try to be measured. One might talk, as you do, of the success of surveillance. It has worked. It continues to work. And I think of its spreading tentacles–the habits of paranoia and arrogance we deem necessary, and our willingness and unwillingness to take risks. (Even the question of whether one should use a cheaper flight option that goes through the Middle East–these are fraught questions.)

    I try not to think of 9/11 because I am wary of how it’s been used, especially the kinds of alliances it has forged between unlikely groups. And, I think, a measure of such alliances’ success is that they have convinced people like me that we have nothing to say–and we have agreed.

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