Saturday, January 26, 2008

Visitors From the Past - Remembering 9/11

One day Adnan informed me that we would be having visitors that evening. Two old friends that we knew while we were attending school at the University of Arizona in Tucson now lived nearby and were coming by for a visit. I dressed conservatively - full length dress with long sleeves, and of course, my hair covered - even though both visitors knew me back in hot Arizona when I wore shorts most days and never covered my hair. Before they arrived, I reminded myself that I could not give them hugs when I saw them - NOT appropriate any more!

The first to arrive was Abdul-Ghani. He now lives in Mecca and is a very successful building contractor. In fact, he told us that he had built the beautiful Jeddah Orchid Hotel, not too far from where we live, which we have driven by many times and admired. Abdul-Ghani told us that he has 6 children and that just in the last year he took on a second wife who is now expecting. I was truly curious about this, so I siezed the opportunity and began to query him about the subject. Apparently he decided to take a 2nd wife because after so many years of marriage to wife #1 plus six kids, he felt that his first wife didn’t have enough time for him. She is totally devoted to the children - she even homeschools them - and he was feeling neglected.

I thought this admission on his part was pretty ironic in and of itself. Many men in this society have either divorced their wives or taken on other wives because they were childless or wanted more children. This was the first time I had heard "too busy with too many kids" given as the reason. And that the new wife is already pregnant miffs me. Go figure!

Since his business has made him a very wealthy man, Abdul-Ghani could afford to support two families. That is one of the requirements for having more than one wife – that they be treated equally and are provided for the same. Abdul-Ghani also told us that at first he had kept his second marriage a secret from his first wife and family. It took him six months before he could bring himself to tell her about it. He confided that, as he expected, she wasn’t too happy about it and initially didn't take the news very well. (I can only imagine.) There were so many more questions I wanted to ask him, but I didn't want to overstep my bounds and cause him to feel uncomfortable, so I restrained myself. I appreciated his candor about the subject and was pleased that he didn’t shy away from answering the questions I did ask.

At this point, our other guest arrived. Adnan A – yes, another Adnan – had spent a considerably longer time studying in Tucson than Abdul-Ghani did. Whenever Adnan A was around, fun was guaranteed and there was always some lively or controversial discussions to be had. Adnan A had received his degree from the U of A and returned to Arabia. He got married and settled down to raise four kids. He is an administrator at a university here in Jeddah and now lives just a short drive away from us.

Now let me give you a little background information for those of you who may not know what happened to my husband and me personally in the aftermath of 9/11. Back in the mid 1980s, Adnan A’s younger brother Osman had signed up for the travel course that I taught for many years in Tucson, along with another friend of ours, Abdul-Rahman. Abdul-Rahman was quiet and reserved, but also warm and friendly once you got to know him. He was a member of our social circle in Arizona and was always included in our get-togethers when he was in town. Unlike all of our other Middle Eastern friends, Abdul-Rahman was not a student, but a businessman from a wealthy Saudi family. He frequently visited Tucson, mixing business with pleasure. Through Abdul-Rahman, we met his younger brother Hani when he came to Tucson to study English as a teen.

A few years after we moved to Florida, Abdul-Rahman called us from Arabia and asked us a favor: Would we be willing to take Hani in for a while and assist him in getting set up with a flight school here in the States? Without hesitation, we agreed. Abdul-Rahman had always been kind and generous with us and we were happy to do this for him. Hani arrived at our house in the Spring of 1996. He was about 24 at the time, very shy, quiet and religious. Hani stayed with us in our home for a month while I called around the country obtaining information packets from various flight schools. He spent his days going to the mosque, playing with our son Adam who was then three, or chatting with Adnan. Even though we had an excellent flight school in our area, Hani ultimately decided on a school in California. We tried to talk him out of it, explaining that we could be his "family" while he was here, but he was adamant about his decision. In the end, it was fortunate for us that we weren't able to persuade him to stay, since five years later, Hani allegedly commandeered the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

Our lives were turned upside down as a result. I had immediately contacted the FBI when I saw Hani's name on TV. My husband and I were interviewed immediately and extensively in our home that very day. But what was most distressing for us was how ill prepared we were for what happened next. Within mere hours of the FBI's announcement of the names of the nineteen men were who were responsible for 9/11, we were assaulted by the news media, deluged with phone calls and reporters at our door from morning until night for the next several weeks. Initially we declined to speak with any reporters at all. But despite this, we found that our names were appearing in newspapers in the US and around the world anyway, alluding to assumptions that weren't true, further distressing us. We were asked to appear on local news shows, as well as national shows, but we declined these requests as well.

Eventually I spoke with a handful of reporters and I did grant an interview to a German news magazine show, which promised me that the program would only be shown in Europe. Those few weeks following 9/11 were the worst of our lives. We were living a nightmare. I couldn't sleep for months and I was depressed. Even though I know there was nothing we could have done to prevent Hani from doing what he did, there were feelings of guilt, horror and betrayal that still haunt me to this day.

With Adnan A and Abdul-Ghani sitting in our living room, it didn't take long before the conversation turned to Hani and our experience with 9/11. Adnan A told us that he was still in contact with the Hanjour family, and as a matter of fact, he had just seen Abdul-Rahman only two weeks earlier. Adnan A asked us if we believed that Hani was one of the hijackers. It was a question that I was a little taken aback by. When 9/11 first happened, I did question whether the investigators had gotten it right. I honestly didn’t want to believe that Hani had been involved. I have done extensive reading and research on the subject over the years since. I guess I have come to the conclusion that all of the young Arab men that were blamed for 9/11 are, in fact, guilty.

It was comforting to know that Adnan A had wanted to call us after 9/11, to see how we were doing, but he didn’t want to cause any more trouble for us than we were already experiencing. Adnan A went on to tell us that he had seen me on TV - that German documentary! I knew he had indeed seen me because he remembered me saying that Hani didn’t brush his teeth when he stayed with us, which I had said in the interview.

Adnan and our visitors talked more about 9/11 between themselves in Arabic, so I don’t really know what was said. But it was clear to me that Adnan A and Abdul-Ghani felt as badly about 9/11 as we did. I could see it in their eyes, on their faces, and I could hear it in their voices. As it should be and always will be, the events of 9/11 are far too serious to be taken lightly or forgotten.

I was sad when our guests both had to leave late in the evening. Abdul-Ghani had an hour's drive ahead of him to get back to Mecca. It was good revisiting the past with them - the conversation had been relaxed and comfortable. We all agreed that we would get together again, and they both told me they wanted me to meet their families and go to their homes. It had been really exciting for me to see them after all the years that had passed (25 or so). I was so pleased that my Adnan - not generally a very sentimental guy - had managed to stay in touch with these guys after all this time, and I look forward to our next encounter.

11 comments:

  1. Susie,

    You have a wonderful blog. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your candid posts and viewing your photos. I wish you all the very best in your journey and adventures in the Kingdom!


    Best Regards,
    Carol (American Bedu)

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  2. Carol -

    Thanks so much! I am still working my way through all of your posts and other interesting issues on your blog. You have touched upon such a variety of topics and have done it in such an informative way.

    Thanks again - Susie

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  3. Thanks, Susie! By the way I viewed the photos of your home and it is so lovely!

    Our homes are somewhat similar; we also have both the 110 and 220 in our Riyadh home and the American style kitchen as well (thank goodness!)

    To my surprise and delight, the bedrooms in our home did come equipped with closets. I'm sure you can imagine what a relief that was.

    Best Regards,
    Carol

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  4. Hi Carol -
    I haven't seen any homes here yet equipped with closets. My brother in law is having one built now though. No built in storage in the bathrooms really makes it difficult too! There are so many little necessities that need to be put somewhere!
    Please feel free to look at the other albums also. I love photography and I don't go anywhere without my camera!
    susie

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  5. Very interesting blog. I just started reading it, recently. I've been here in Jeddah since 1980...oh, it was so different back then. You came with the luxuries....satelite, cell phones, malls, cafe's, restaurants, flour! Best of luck in the future,
    Miriam Mac

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  6. Miriam Mac -
    Boy, I've bet you've got some stories you could tell! Since you are in Jeddah, would you like to get together sometime? I would LOVE that. I'm sure there's so much I could learn from you. If you are interested, please email me at:
    susieofarabia@aol.com

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  7. wow susie!
    thats must have been a very confusing time for you.

    i love your blog, and it never fails that im always amazed by your posts!

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  8. Oh my! I cant imagine what you went through. You have my sympathy.

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  9. Susie...a lot of information and very well written. I can't imagine how many changes you have had to adjust to moving back to Saudi.... This is a beautiful example of why I enjoy meeting people through my Journal. It has been so educational and heartwarming! I shall return!

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  10. I have seen a few documentaries based on 9/11, from different perspectives and some are quite artistic. Which is the German one you were in? I would like to check it out

    lorena

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    1. Lorena - It was by Der Spiegel. I'm not sure what the film documentary was called, but the book they published was called "Inside 9/11: What Really Happened," and I am in that as well.

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