Norhan Basuni divides her life into the time before September 11th, and the time after. For her, it is the day that she, an ordinary 7th grader, became a symbol of Islam, of "them", and to some, of terrorism. In the wake of the attacks, she remembers her father telling her she could no longer wear hijab because he feared for her safety after family friends were attacked in the street. She was taunted by classmates in school. Now an accomplished 22-year-old college graduate, Norhan reports on how she coped with these experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, and how she developed into an educator, a spoken word poet, and a defender of her faith.
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BOY: You went one for ten, that’s ten percent!
NARRATION: I’m playing basketball at a 4th of July barbeque with my family...in heels. I was definitely being scrubbed.
NORHAN: OK, that was money! Money!
NARRATION: 4th of July is one of my favorite holidays...and not just because I love hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and fireworks, but because I love the time with my family.
[lighting off fireworks]
NARRATION: When I was a kid, I didn’t think much about the fact that I’m an American because it didn’t occur to me that it could be challenged.
9/11 NEWS CLIP (ANCHOR): We understand that a plane has crashed into…
NARRATION: On the afternoon of 9/11, my father picked up my brother and me from school. My mom was at work in Manhattan.
MOM: I’m crying like crazy, that’s because I love my country.
NARRATION: We sat in the living room watching TV. I was horrified.
9/11 NEWS CLIP (WOMAN): It just flew into it!
NARRATION: Then for days, the news was filled with talk of Muslim terrorists, people who acted in the name of Islam. As a Muslim 7th grader from Brooklyn, suddenly it seemed like so much of what I believed -- the world felt threatened by. It made no sense to me. I remember my dad telling us:
DAD: True Muslim will not hurt anybody else.
NARRATION: A true Muslim will not hurt anyone else.
NARRATION: After a while he just turned off the TV and put on Qur’an.
MOM: We didn’t know what to say to you.
NARRATION: My mom says she didn’t know how to explain al Quaeda because she didn’t understand herself.
MOM: We told you things will be hard for us and we have to be patient.
NARRATION: A year before September 11th, I started wearing a headscarf or what call the hijab. As a little girl I was fascinated with hijabi women in Egyptian soap operas.
[Egyptian soap opera]
NARRATION: I would go through my mom’s closet and pull out her finest silk hijabs, in blues, reds, green, and pink. When I started wearing it myself it made me feel beautiful. I had never felt like an outsider...until after 9/11. Kids at school started mocking me and saying things like, “Go back to where you came from! Nobody wants you guys here.”
NORHAN: Did you know I was getting into fights and arguments at school?
MOM: Yes I had an idea, but you told me, “It wasn’t a big deal, Mommy.”
NARRATION: My sister was a freshman in college that fall and during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan she carried a prayer rug with her to class.
MEREHAN: My microbiology professor was like, “Oh, you’re going to fly away on your magic carpet?” The whole class was just like laughing and one boy blurted out, “Oh, she’s going to fly right into the Empire State building, like her people ran into the World Trade Center.”
NARRATION: A grown man pulled off my hijab -- while I was standing at a bus stop. No one said, “Hey leave her alone, she’s just a little girl.”
MEREHAN: My best friend got stabbed on 5th Avenue, her and her mom--because they wore the headscarf.
NARRATION: That same night my dad said, “Maybe for the time being it’s best that you and your sister not wear hijab.
DAD: It was a tough time, it was a tough time.
NORHAN: So, do you think we were upset?
DAD: Yes, you were upset because you didn’t want to take off the hijab.
NARRATION: I didn’t want to hide.
DAD: But when you’re worried about safety that was the best thing to do.
NARRATION: It was five months before we put the hijab back on. When we did, my father encouraged us to learn as much about Islam as we could.
DAD: I want you to explain things to people that don’t understand what hijab means and what Islam means. Don’t be offended by them cause they don’t understand, so you need to explain to them.
MOM: This country give you a lot. And you have to give the country also a lot.
NARRATION: We started going to all kinds of lectures and prayers at the Muslim American Society’s youth center. And one afternoon my father brought home a flyer for a sister’s camp at the center. I was so excited. I remember he dropped us off with our pillows
AHLAM: We needed a place to express ourselves and we really didn’t have that if it wasn’t for the youth center.
NARRATION: Ahlam was the camp director.
AHLAM: We were able to talk about the problems and express how we felt in a supported area.
GIRL: I slept in the tent, I’m not gonna lie!
NARRATION: The counselors had decorated the entire floor of the youth center so it would look and feel like a real outdoor camp –with leaves and twigs scattered all over and the smell of chocolate melting against marshmallows.
NORHAN: You guys had a tent that’s right!
NARRATION: After 9/11 this was the one place where it made sense to be a Muslim and an American. And when it didn’t, I would hunt down Ahlem.
AHLAM: And you would ask really specific questions, and you would ask, “But you sure?”
NARRATION: I remember asking Ahlam about jihad. I never remembered hearing that word before 9/11. But Ahlam broke it down. She said jihad comes from the Arabic root word juhd – that means to struggle. She asked me what I struggled with and I said patience. So then I asked why jihad was defined as a holy war in the news. Ahlam said, “Perhaps the terrorists felt their struggle was a holy war against the west, but that’s wrong. And that’s not your struggle as a Muslim.
NORHAN: Ok, can you say your name for me?
GEETA: Trisha Geeta Gangadeen.
NORHAN: Do you feel comfortable asking me anything about Islam?
GEETA: Yeah, totally.
NARRATION: I wanted to be that hijabi that people knew they could go to with questions.
GEETA: I would ask you first, before anyone else. Just because if it’s a stupid question…
NARRATION: In high school people would see me and say, “Islam’s 411 operator.”
GEETA: You’re like the Islam encyclopedia.
NARRATION: And in college I was still the go-to girl.
NORHAN: Mark, when did we first meet?
MARK: We met in Professor Zommer’s Government 259 class.
NARRATION: In my comparative criminal justice class, I sat next to this white guy with a huge US Marine Corp tattoo on his right arm.
NORHAN: So do you know what my first impression of you was?
MARK: Ah, probably that I was some stupid military guy with a dumb haircut.
NARRATION: Mark and I started to get into heavy conversations about religion, the military and politics. He listened to me when I explained the true concept of jihad. And he ended up telling guys from his drill unit one night at a bar.
MARK: They were like, “Yeah it’s the holy war!” And I’m like, “Well, that’s one Muslim extremist’s interpretation of it and that’s not exactly what it means. It means a struggle between yourself and something else or someone else.” And they kind of just sat there and were like, “Oh, oh, oh.” I was kind of like, shut the [BLEEP] up, basically.
NORHAN: Did you tell them where you learned it from?
MARK: Yeah, I told them I have several Muslim friends at my college and they explained it to me.
NORHAN: But I explained it to you.
MARK: Well you did, yeah. But I like to say that I have more than one Muslim friend, and I do.
NORHAN: But I’m your favorite.
MARK: …well, yeah.
NARRATION: A few months ago, my sister, father and I went to go see X-Men.
X-MEN CLIP: The real enemy is out there.
NARRATION: My whole family loves Marvel Comics.
X-MEN CLIP: Killing will not bring you peace.
NARRATION: Before we left the theatre, my sister and I went to the restroom. And this woman stopped us on the way out and asked one question after another. Like, “So, was your marriage arranged? Why do you wear the headscarf?” We were taking so long in the bathroom that my father got worried.
MEREHAN: The bathroom, “Why do you wear that on your head?”
NARRATION: In the car on the way home, my sister was still explaining why we stayed so long answering her questions.
MEREHAN: What are we gonna say to them, “Well I’ll explain to you another time.” They’re going to be like these girls are like so rude. They’re exactly like they’re portrayed on television.
NARRATION: I would definitely rather people ask than assume. But when I do lose my patience, I wish people would understand that it’s not Islam getting angry at them, it’s me. Before I’m a girl, before I’m a Muslim – I’m human.
[playing with baby nephew]
NARRATION: My sister lives in Virginia with two kids and a husband. She’s been a respiratory therapist for the last five years. And she says some people still feel uncomfortable with a hijabi woman treating them.
MEREHAN: They like give me this weird look, like are you really gonna take care of me or are you going to try to sabotage my health—which is not the case. And those who’ve gotten to know me would say that I give them the best care. And some guy said, “You’re nothing like them.” And I said, “Who’s them?” And he said, “Those Moslems,” And I said, “No, Muslims are not like those terrorists-- that’s the correct way to say it.
NARRATION: Religion is supposed to be an intimate thing. It’s a relationship between a person and god. You shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone except yourself. But as a Muslim in the United States I doubt there will ever be a time in my life when I won’t have to explain it…luckily, I’m game.
For WNYC, I’m Rookie Reporter Norhan Basuni.