Everyone has their “Where were you when 9/11 happened?” story.

But the story that moves me most is the How did your life change in the aftermath of 9/11?”

Here’s mine.

I was living in Los Angeles at the time, working at a start-up multimedia company with my best friend Sam. It wasn’t until a few days after the attacks that he and I broke out into a cold sweat about a very palpable future when everything could change. 9/11 wasn’t only a heinous terrorist attack that would ultimately play out amorphously in the media, policy circles and on the battlefield, but a generational course-altering event that would trickle down to microcosmic levels. It could even impact our own lives as two young doe-eyed Egyptians chasing a slice of the American dream. A dream that was rudely sullied by the fact that Mohamed Atta, the stone-eyed terrorist hijacker and one of the ringleaders and poster boys of the September 11 attacks also happened to be Egyptian. Nothing burns faster than guilt by association.

We didn’t have to wait too long for the backlash.

Five days later, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was murdered in cold blood because he wore a beard and a turban in accordance with his Sikh faith. His killer, Frank Silva Roque had mistaken him for an Arab Muslim.

Sam and I absorbed these rapid developments silently with queasy stomachs and chilling trepidation at what lay ahead. If Sikhs were being targeted simply because they appeared to be from our part of the world in the eyes of ignorant racists, imagine what could happen to real Egyptians—Christian or Muslim—at the hands of slightly better educated xenophobes?

With the benefit of time to better assess the risks, we took short-lived comfort in a natural advantage we had. Other than our surnames and places of birth, there was nothing that would have ostensibly given us away as Egyptians purely based on the way we spoke or behaved. Both of us were educated at American schools across the globe; my father was a career diplomat and Sam’s was a senior executive for British Airways. We were cultural chameleons with neutral accents by default, and with the ability to affect any regional intonation or demeanor at whim.

But our surnames and places of birth weren’t just abstract demographic niceties. They were a very real part of our every day existence. At the DMV. In the eyes of a wrathful postman who decides to go renegade. Even just the simple pleasure of buying a bottle of Jack at a liquor store and showing your ID was now fraught with possible dangers.

Our solution seemed ingenious at the time, but in retrospect was a half-digested, highly unscientific foregone conclusion to subtly blend in with another less polarizing ethnic group, just to weather the worst of the storm: If Egyptians were not in vogue, we would try to pass for Latinos. With our Mediterranean features, and living in North Hollywood there was little required to achieve that. From the day the first post 9/11 hate crime was committed, we went through life avoiding anything that would out us as Egyptians. No more hurling choice Cairene vulgarities at each other in public (just for the pleasure of knowing we could without anyone understanding). No more trips to our favorite Middle Eastern delis to restock on feta cheese, Persian cucumbers and Greek yogurt. And certainly no more late-night business brainstorming sessions sipping sugary mint tea, nibbling on greasy shawermas and smoking apple-flavored tobacco at the hookah bar.

It didn’t take long for us to grasp our adopted Hispanic public personas. And it came with an unexpected side effect: Coming face-to-face with our own preconceived notions of both white Americans and Latinos. In our earnest but naive efforts to want to stay safe (read: alive), trying to appear Mexican meant we had to anchor ourselves to every stereotype we assumed white folks held about our Latino brethren who lived in our neck of the woods: dining at Poquito Más, shaving our heads, playing bombastic music in our cars, and wearing white t-shirts and bandanas. Without knowing it, we were subconsciously channeling the stock characters of Latino gang bangers in Denzel Washington’s Training Day.

Whereas our quest to “go Mexican” was purely motivated by survival, along the way, our understanding of the Hispanic community in America morphed from myopic and ill-informed to healthy and respectful. As it turned out, it takes a misrepresented minority to know one. We discovered a Cuban-owned discount supermarket that counterintuitively stocked every single Middle Eastern delicacy we could dream of at absurdly cheaper prices than the Iranian, Lebanese or Israeli delis we used to frequent in the more affluent parts of the San Fernando valley. We learned that there is nothing quite like ‘Californiafied’ Baja fish tacos. We came to understand that Taco Bell is no more representative of the rich Mexican culinary traditions, than McDonalds is of American cuisine. Ultimately though, we grasped a nuanced truth:  just like any other immigrant community in America, the Hispanic population was impossible to pigeonhole. They were humble but proud, diverse but patriotic, hedonistic but family-centric, and laid back but extremely hardworking. It was the rapid increase of their populations throughout the U.S. that ultimately resulted in the the news media misrepresenting them as criminals, illegal immigrants, dangerous and violent. And we learned a lot about the failed California Proposition 187. I mean a lot. La proposición 187 de California.

As the days slipped into weeks, our perceived threat to our safety plateaued, but we began facing another unexpected risk. A financial one. The dot.com business we were running from shared office space at a hip studio complex in Burbank had only just began to boom in the months prior to 9/11. But the September 11 attacks brought everything to a screeching halt. The office phone was ominously silent. Our email boxes were flooded not with emails from prospective clients, but friends and family across the globe checking to see how we were holding up in post 9/11 America. Even the regular leads and business references from our other creative neighbors in adjacent office suites had dried up. Granted, the entire country was in shock and mourning and it was only expected that the economy would also take a dive. But when you are an Egyptian living in America in the weeks after 9/11, you can’t help being just a little paranoid that maybe, just maybe it’s only you that’s being singled out because of what your compatriots did. Once your psyche starts nosediving like that, there’s very little you can alter from within to placate the festering insecurity, frustration, and indignation.

Then something happened that turned everything on its head.

Our workload was so diminished in the weeks after 9/11 that Sam and I habitually treated weekdays like weekends, intentionally ignoring the financial un-sustainability of that lifestyle. When we weren’t going out clubbing or bar hopping, we spent an inordinate amount of time doing movie marathons at the nearby AMC theaters in Burbank followed by an obligatory late night pilgrimage to In-N-Out Burger to feast on California’s most famous burger. Many nights we faked British accents to sneak into the Sky Bar on Sunset to rub shoulders with Hollywood’s power brokers and influencers, pretending to be British film financiers only to casually switch to thick Indian accents just to see people’s reactions. Every other day was a day trip to Santa Barbara or San Diego, until we got sick of each other’s company and went out to do our own thing.

One Friday I woke up with an inexplicable desire to go to the zoo on my own. There’s something magical about being with animals; they transport you back to your childhood. But there’s also something about being with caged animals that makes you feel better about your lot in life. The zoo was practically empty. A few Angelinos ambled around but not one of them seemed to be there to scratch a zoological itch. We were all refugees hungering for a temporary reprieve from the suffocating and patently depressing and apocalyptic news cycle. Sullen, desperate auras floating ghost-like. As if we we were free falling perpetually into a dark miserable abyss as a species. I felt like we were all at the zoo to pay homage to the most vicious of animals that we had previously condemned as inferior, now that we had been exposed as the real beasts capable of horrific acts of violence in the name of God.

In the afternoon I swung by the office, trying very hard to find something to do that felt like work. Patrick, the French sound engineer next door was in the main foyer of the studio taking photos of his naked girlfriend (an aspiring Burlesque artist) with not one but two pythons wrapped around her body. He couldn’t use any of the stages onsite because Yves, the owner of the studio complex had rented them all out for the weekend to a porn production. Which explained all the 911 Porches parked outside. Back in my office, there really was no work to be done, so I ordered a pizza and watched Castaway on my computer. As I washed down the gooey pepperoni pie with an ice-cold Corona, it struck me that Tom Hanks’s predicament of being stranded on an island trying to survive was a luxury I would give anything to have at that particular juncture. I wanted to get away from it all. The doomsaying, the war mongering, and the thirst for blood disguised as justice. Most of all, I wanted to get away from the doubts and fears swarming in my own head about whether I had a future in this country. What if this was it for us in America? Not just people like me and Sam, and not just Egyptians, but for everyone else from somewhere else who was different, dreaming a little dream of making it here. I longed for the innocence of not that long ago when I had first moved to Los Angeles, fell in love with it and decided to stay, and how functional and egalitarian the process of legally being allowed to work there was, simply because I possessed the right skills and experience that would make me an added value to the economy and by extension society. How welcoming America and Americans had been. When I had flown back to Los Angeles this time as a resident, not a tourist, a very white immigration officer had said “Welcome home sir,” and it had instantly warmed my nomadic heart. For a brief while, I finally felt tethered to a home I had for once chosen of my own volition.

I remember precisely when I heard the dinning of a new message alert on my computer—right at the scene where Helen Hunt chases after Tom Hanks under the pouring rain to kiss him, telling him that even though she remarried because she thought he had perished in the plane crash, she never stopped loving him. A deliciously romantic and euphoric conundrum, laced in suffering but encased in hope.

It was an unexpected email from “Frank”, the CEO of a financial management firm and one of our first clients who had since maintained an ongoing and lucrative contract. Frank was white, middle aged, affluent, patriotic, gun-loving, conservative and in your face. Or in other words, if you were to believe the news media, the demographic most likely to be seething and out for blood as a reaction to 9/11. My heart drummed faster as I clicked on the email expecting only the worst.

I could try to explain how his email affected me, but I’d much rather let Frank’s words speak for themselves.

Hi guys,

I can only imagine it’s been a tough time for you the past few weeks, but it’s been tough for the whole country. The whole world really. I’ll be upfront and say it. I’ve never asked y’all where you’re originally from, because it never mattered then, and doesn’t matter now. All I cared about was that you would do a terrific job, provide an honest service. And you did that, and then some, for which I was and remain grateful. But not caring doesn’t mean I didn’t wonder or guess, at least just based on your names.

I am writing to tell you that despite some of the horrible attacks and hate crimes committed lately against honest people in this country just because they speak differently, dress differently, look differently or pray differently, this is not a representation of the America that I know and love. Just like not every Arab or Muslim is a terrorist hellbent on flying a jet plane into skyscraper, not every American is a racist, hate criminal.

Yours,
Frank   

Frank’s letter was the first of many more that flooded our inbox from clients unilaterally expressing solidarity because it was the American thing to do. Decent folks from across all spectrums and political affiliations: right wing, left wing, and no wing. From red states, blue states and everything in between. I stayed in touch with Frank long after our work together ended. He showed me pictures of his kids, and when mine came, I returned the favor. Recently he sent me pictures of his grand children, and I sent him disbelief emojis: 😯 (at how young he still looked to be a gramps.) Like ours, Frank’s business was smothered in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but then, like ours, it came back roaring in 2002, high on the “We will overcome” euphoria. Then the 2008 financial crisis steamrolled by and Frank’s firm was almost wiped out but he persevered, recovered and today is standing strong and proud, both as a successful businessman and an honorable human being and family man.

One other thing I learned in those weeks trying to actively hide my identity and pretend to be someone other than who I truly am for fear of persecution (or worse), was to deeply empathize with anyone whose entire life experience has been just that. In retrospect, when I think back of our time in Los Angeles, we were living in one of the most progressive parts of the most progressive state in the country. The perceived risk to our lives Sam and I had was most likely overstated, say, compared to anyone else at any given time around the globe who is genuinely at risk because of who they are, who they choose to love or who they choose to worship (or don’t).

On this anniversary of the September 11 attacks, at this particular moment of history, ask yourself which version of America you prefer to believe in. The America of Frank Silva Roque who took the life of a man in cold blood, or the other Frank, who breathed life back into a man?