1692 Naeem Aptera and 9/11
On a cloudless late summer morning before dawn, Naeem Aptera arrived at work, set up shop for the day and then -- as always -- unrolled a small carpet on a Manhattan sidewalk, got down on her knees, put her forehead to the ground and prayed.
“Work” was running one of those street corner food carts that spring whole from the ground like mushrooms each weekday. Coffee. Really good coffee and passable pastries, rolls and bagels.
That was the last day anyone saw her on that corner for about a year. It was the eleventh of September, 2001 and three hours after she got back on her feet, rolled up the rug and made small talk in her Cairo-tinged English with customer after customer. Then, everything changed.
Of course she didn’t know that. She was too far uptown to know that people with names like hers had flown a pair of jetliners into the World Trade Center towers one and two.
The only act of war on American soil since Pearl Harbor had taken place about 20 minutes down the road at two of the ugliest structures ever erected by man, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Word of what happened that murderous and toxic Tuesday morning took awhile to make that 20 minute trip.
Naeem and her cart evaporated before noon. But contrary to recent reports, she and dozens of other Arab Americans with jobs like hers were there. There was no secret advanced notice as has sometimes been reported. There was no Muslim underground that knew ahead of time about the attacks and warned away anyone.
We had a chance meeting on 55th in front of a mosque as 2001 turned into 2002 and there was fear in her eyes. She didn’t want to be recognized. She had added a face cover to her head scarf.
But it was unmistakably Naeem. She was hesitant to talk. Was the bond between sidewalk chef and sidewalk customer broken? No it wasn’t. We scurried around the corner and when she was sure no one from the Islamic Center was watching, we hugged and cried.
She said her brother, Ahmed, “founder” of that corner wagon, had come with his battered Chevy truck and towed the cart back to home port in Astoria, Naeem riding shotgun. The truck’s radio was broken. They made the ride in ignorance and before the city closed the 59th St. Bridge to any but foot traffic.
“Once we found out what happened,” she said, “we were frightened. We worried that everyone would look at us and blame us.”
Why, Naeem? You have a solid alibi. So does Ahmed. “Don’t make joke! You know what I mean. Always the joke.”
“We prayed for the dead, she said.” The look was not fear now, it was anguish. How do you comfort someone who lives that, who carries that unnecessary burden? If Allah won’t ease her pain, what can a mere mortal do?
Fifteen years now have passed. The pain remains. The deadly loss remains. The memories of the heroes -- the real heroes, cops, firefighters who died in their fruitless hunt for survivors remain.
But the pain is generous, unstinting. It gives itself to Muslims like Naeem and Ahmed too.
So in the rush to honor or remember 9/11/01, in the hail of words and pictures we’ll soon see on the 15th anniversary, in the storm of tears and “where were you when’s” we can remember that it was a tragedy that affected all of us.
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© WJR 2016