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new skyline:

Flatter, and Smoky

A journalist from Jerusalem wanders on the periphery of the calamity area

Oz Shelach

12 Sep. 2001, NYC

My friend Max lives on the 18th floor of a residential tower in Battery Park, in what may have been termed “steps from WTC” in rental ads. His windows offer a panoramic view over the Hudson into Jersey, and north, uptown and beyond. From his building’s roof you can see the whole city. I caught him on the phone after the first airplane hit. “You taking photos?” I asked.

“I have great footage,” he said, and asked for the contacts to some

Israeli news outlet.

Max and I used to work for the same magazine in Jerusalem, before he moved here, got married, and retired to take care of his baby. His wife is a professional photographer.

- Can I come visit your roof?

- They shut down the roof.

missing person ads, new york, september 11Jerusalemites, journalists, we are skilled at switching into observation mode. As if we are outside. Another friend called me from a payphone on the street: “I’m going there to shoot. Wanna come with me?” I did not. Later I regretted this, I might have seen the collapse. I sent Max the contacts.

Where did it come from?

From my own window, on E 18th St., I saw black smoke drifting west. Anyone who could, called, or emailed: “I’m OK, are you?

On TV, and on the phone, people asked in astonishment, “Who could have done such a thing?”

And only to those I know well did I dare reply: Who? Who not? Is there a single oppressed group in the world that has not suffered US brutality? Isn’t the majority of this planet’s inhabitants defined, from here, as minorities, and treated accordingly?

Strangers are hard, possibly dangerous to talk to right now. A xenophobic patriotism rises. One friend, whose parents are English, and who grew up in NYC from the age of two, said she dared to ask people what might drive people to such deep despair, to perform a suicide attack. She was told to shut up: “You can only say this because you’re not American.”

NYC 9/11 smoke rising from the ground zero, view from first avenue

After the second tower collapsed I went downstairs to get coffee. The street had never looked like this, and I was tempted to wander around. Two long lines of ambulances captured two lanes on 1st Ave. Two or three lanes in every avenue were cleared for emergency vehicles. Most of the busses were out of service, and their electronic sign in front read alternately: EMERGENCY, and CALL POLICE. It turns out that busses were programmed for a calamity.

NYC 9/11 memorial grafitti

While police were working in the disaster area, police academy cadets, in funny hats, took over all the crossroads. They directed traffic without confidence. Some crossroads were maintained by the army.

The march

Morning papers, all completely obsolete since a quarter of nine, were left in heaps outside the kiosks. The front pages all dealt with the primaries for mayor, which were canceled before they began. Every shop that had a TV put it at the entrance, and people stood in semicircles watching. I stepped into a TV bar and found a TV, and some totally drunk customers. No one talked. Everyone stared at the screen.

It seemed that unlike “our” attacks, here the injured will be fewer than the killed. When the towers collapsed, one was either inside or out. If one was near the collapse, chances are she was a firefighter, or a policewoman.

But hundreds of thousands who worked in the area, and live there, were evacuated and embarked on a long march. They walked on north, clutching useless mobile phones, confused. Some wore masks. Some were covered with dust. By the time they crossed 14th St. they did not l

look panic, but their eyes were empty.

NYC 9/11 anti arab demonstratorThe sky, usually overflowing with jets, helicopters (rich people’s taxis), weather balloons, pipers that write commercial messages, and smaller planes for short distance travel, was empty. Never in decades has the New York sky been so empty. When one of the fighter jets thundered high up beyond our sight, the whole street looked up with unveiled anxiety.

And, as in every time of crisis, rumors flourished. Risha, who works downtown, was taken off the subway on her way to the office and marched up to my place to recover.

First she sipped from the cold water I gave her. Then she got scared: “Is it true that the water is poisoned? I heard from someone that the water has been poisoned.” She put down the glass and could not drink anymore.

Death to the Arabs

Most shops in this 24/7 city were closed by the early afternoon, or did not open. Workers were sent home. On 3rd Ave. a young Zionist protester held a bag from CVS, where he bought some cardboard and a marker, and raised a sign: Hundreds were injured, but don’t let the world forget. Tell the government to stop funding terrorist governments = Syria, PLO.”

But the less active also pointed a blaming finger. “It’s time to bomb all these Palestinians,” one woman said to her friend, waiting at a bus station.World Trade Center Postcard

And I walked around, took photos, and asked myself could it be that all these people really thought their peace would last forever? It’s a wrong, and useless mass murder, and there are plenty of such acts the US is responsible for. These angry people, and those who can’t understand where it came from, does any of them remember, for example, Clinton’s random attack on Sudan? There, not only was half of that country’s pharmaceutical industry vanquished, but probably dozens of thousands of innocent people were killed. “Probably,” like Chomski has noted, because the US prevented a UN investigation, and to this day no on knows exactly how many.

And the continuing genocide in Iraq, and funding and supplying equipment for war crimes against Palestinians, and all this is run from the Pentagon, and from Wall Street, and, and, and… and everyone believed that only here, in this vulnerable density, it will remain calm? That we’ll all keep sipping bottled water, and walk around shops that offer all the spoils of the empire from all over the world, board airplanes as if they were busses, and not feel a thing? Perhaps it is true, that only Americans can be so astonished.

Straight from Hollywood

Gramercy Park, a private garden in the heart of town, access to which is allowed only to residents of the fancy buildings around it, was opened to the public. The gates that only open for a few hours each year, on Christmas eve, were open.

“Do you think they are feeling guilty?” I asked a woman who passed by with her two dogs.

“No,” she said, “I think it’s a gesture of hospitality.”

I recalled attending a July 4th roof party. Many foreign nationals were there, among them from Lebanon, Ireland, and Palestine. I was relieved not to be the only one scared by the noise of fireworks, not to be alone with my memories of shelling. More than one foreigner has wondered in recent years about the complete absence of terrorism from the US. Only the scale is difficult to digest. Like the inhuman scale of the city on a regular day. Eight million workers who leave Manhattan every night, three international airports, towers that cast a long long shadow every morning into New Jersey…

New York 9/11

And now an attack straight from Hollywood. Or from Disney, the first plane even left an airplane shaped hole in the tower wall, like in a cartoon. And who knows how many lives that were intentionally destroyed in one moment.

In the afternoon I got an email from Max: “We are being evacuated, so I won’t have access to email and all that.” His home number was disconnected. The mobile networks had collapsed.

New York 9/11

And by evening there was not one person who didn’t have a story. One neighbor told me on the elevator that his brother called him from his mobile the moment he escaped from the north tower to the south one, the north tower collapsed as they were talking. The brother managed to get out of the south tower in time. Another neighbor was on jury duty, a square and a half from the towers, and watched the collapse from the wide stairway outside the court house. And this one had left late for work, and this one had called sick… we only get the stories from those who were not on time this day.

New York 9/11

When I wanted to donate blood I was told there’s too much blood donated already, took a name and a number and said they’ll call. When they called they gave an 800 number, and this number was constantly busy.

What to do? Shop

Some people have an historical consciousness. In a culture based on shopping, where you can pick a personality from a menu, and accordingly “choose” clothes, a computer, books, a therapist, even a partner, people shop. Photography shops remained open, and cameras sold like hamburgers after a fast. Everyone wants to take pictures. Postcards of the old skyline became collector’s items before sundown. People bought alcohol, people bought cigarettes.

New York 9/11

In the East Village, artists were quick to make a new mural of the smoking towers. By night people were lighting candles next to it. On 14th St. someone posted a sign calling for world peace. But after the initial curiosity the streets were deserted. It’s been decades since the streets of Manhattan were so empty.

New York 9/11

What's Next

And what lies beyond this newly reshaped skyline, whose focus is not in what’s in it but in what’s absent? More violence. More military. If your company supplies security workers your business is about to boom. And the same goes for metal detectors. And the same goes for guns. And the same goes, and the same goes, and the same goes… beyond this day white USans are about to become acquainted with a system that blacks, Palestinians, and even Jews in Palestine know only too well, the cruel grip of “tight security,” and hate. Searches, requests for IDs, education to watch out for “suspicious objects,” perhaps posters like that infamous poster from the Israeli Army Spokesman, with the names and headshots of Arab leaders, titled “Abu-Who?”

When "experts" here say the US needs to learn from Israel's experience in handling suicide bombers they flatly ignore the way Israeli governments' policies have consistently worsened the situation not only for the Palestinians but for their own citizens too.

New York 9/11

Beyond this new skyline are hard times for every Arab, and Muslim in the US. The Arab-American Family Center, in Brooklyn, for example, is already flooded with hate calls. Scared, the manager has removed all signs facing the street. And in this realm too, many unconfirmed rumors are already circulating. But Arab bashing is not an attack on “Freedom and Democracy.”

And what is this “Freedom and Democracy?” Do they even have existence without child slavery in Asia? Without the installment of juntas across Latin American and their replacement with subservient governments? Without black janitors, cleaning ladies from Puerto Rico, construction workers from Rumania, and agriculture workers from Mexico?

Beyond this new skyline is a more brutal empire, whose client states can also violate the law more freely.

The next day Max called from Gadi Taub’s, another Israeli writer in the city. “The wife and the baby are fine,” he reported. “No, thank you, we’ve been given a place to stay on 12th St. for a few days. Gadi is at the computer, writing a story for Yedioth. And you too! Everybody is writing stories, and only I, who really have what to write, am busy changing diapers.”

It felt like the Eighties, when we would write in Kol Ha’ir, as if about ourselves, instead of the issue. And there was time to weep later.

New York Blood Driva, sept. 11 2001 New York Blood Driva, sept. 11 2001

 
 

Oz Shelach is an Israeli writer, and journalist. He runs this web site, and his book, Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments, was published by City Lights Books, SF, in 2003.