Hyderabad-born Satish Kolluri, who teaches Film Studies at Pace University in New York, was a few blocks away from the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The subway I was on stopped at 9th Street; someone in the crush said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought it may have been a small aircraft, perhaps a Cessna, gone astray. It was right where I was headed.
I taught Communication Studies at Pace University in downtown Manhattan, a few blocks away from the WTC. I’d just moved to New York from DePauw University, Indiana, in July, and we were barely into the first week of our new academic semester. Later that afternoon, my wife was to join me with our daughter to spend the day in Central Park — it was our two-year-old’s second birthday.
Then, as I headed towards Pace, I saw the second plane fly into the tower. There was fire and smoke everywhere. There were desperate people jumping off the building, some of them clutching umbrellas. Those images are etched into my mind. I stood there for about half an hour, until the buildings imploded. There was smoke and dust everywhere.
I ran when the towers came down, towards the home of relatives who lived nearby, on Hudson and Horatio in the West Village. For about half an hour, before I made it to my relatives’ home, my wife thought I was gone because my last stop was the WTC which is where I’d get off to go to work. She had no way of knowing that we were forced to disembark on a few streets before the WTC stop as chaos reigned in downtown. I could not get through to her, because the cellphone networks were jammed. I remember offering this Ukrainian guy $10 to make a call from his landline, but he refused.
Much later in the afternoon, while I was waiting for the trains to New Jersey to resume normal service, my cousin and I decided to go down to a local Bistro and have a beer. Everyone turned and stared at us, and it took me a minute to figure out why: I was a tall, dark guy, and I had a beard.
I finally went back home at 3 am, by when they’d opened the trains up. The University stayed closed for another ten days. It became a triage centre for the many people who were injured in the area.
The city changed in those days. I’d step on to train with a backpack, and people would step away, afraid. South Asian cab drivers plastered their cars with American flags. One of my friends, Abbas, covered up his whole window with a huge US flag. My neighbours were Syrian and Lebanese. I saw them both in the elevator a few days after 9/11; both of them had shaved off their beards. I was the only one of us three who kept my beard.
In the classroom, too, the strains showed up. There was this student from Staten Island who, in class, demanded to know if I was Muslim. I didn’t answer, but he was very persistent. After class, I told him I would not answer his question, because my faith was not his business, and told him to focus on the reading, instead. He ended up dropping the class — I’d introduced Edward Said’s Orientalism, and perhaps he did not want to think about how biases enter and entrench themselves in culture.
Exactly one year later, this guy walked up to me outside a bar in downtown while I was in conversation with a friend, called me an Arab m***** f*****, and punched me.
Perhaps the lasting legacy of 9/11 will prove to be angry populism, the kind that Donald Trump represents — it became acceptable to hate in irrational ways.