Once it was, ‘Where were you when you heard that JFK had been shot?’ It is now, ‘Where were you when the towers fell?’ I was in Saudi Arabia.
When the towers were hit, my husband and I were on a plane on our way to Mecca with my parents, to perform Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage. We landed at Jeddah airport, not knowing that back home, the towers had fallen, and thousands had perished.
We took a cab and headed out for the 45-minute drive to Mecca in our ihram, immersed in anticipation of a deeply spiritual experience. We held prayer beads in our hands, and began reciting the attributes of God.
The cab driver switched on the radio.
What was that?
Amidst the crackling and static, the newscaster seemed to be saying something about an attack… ‘attack on the U.S…World Trade Center’…static… ‘plane hit the tower’…
“What happened?” Khalid almost shouted. “An attack on the U.S.?”
The driver nodded and raised the volume.
‘World Trade Center….Pentagon….White House…’
“What happened?” I screamed.
My hands started shaking and my heart pounding.
The driver explained over the static of the radio, that planes had attacked the World Trade Center by flying into the towers, planes had flown into the Pentagon, and into the White House.
Saqib and Asim lived in the City—in downtown. Asim’s office was in downtown Manhattan, and often he had meetings at the World Trade Center.
We did not have a cell phone. I prayed. Please driver, hurry. I need to get to a phone.
At the hotel, the receptionist told us that the phone lines to the US were down. Oh my God! I rushed up to the room to drop our bags, and as Khalid switched on the TV, I saw the image of the towers burning, and another image of just smoke.
“The towers have fallen,” Khalid said, in a barely audible tone.
“What do you mean ‘the towers have fallen?’ You mean the antenna on the towers have fallen?’ I couldn’t comprehend what had happened.
“The towers are gone.”
“They just showed it.”
“No they didn’t. They showed smoke.”
Just then, the TV switched to another news report, and I was left bewildered ‘it can’t be.’
“I have to call Asim.”
Daddy intervened. “You are at the Kaaba, the House of God. You couldn’t be at a better place. Go there and pray to God, and ask Him to protect your children. Do your Umrah, and pray to Him at His house. After Umrah, we will try calling. Maybe in a few hours the lines may open up.”
Muslims believe that when you pray at the Kaaba—at His house—God is listening to you.
My head was telling me that Daddy was right. But my heart urging me to make the call, which was not going through. I had to counsel myself. My children’s life is in God’s hands. I must put God first. How I prayed, going around and around the Kaaba, praying, “Dear God, please, please, please let my children be alive.”
Back at the hotel, the staff advised us to try the Call Center. We rushed over, just as they were shuttering down for the night. Khalid pleaded. “I don’t know if my sons are safe. Please let us make the call.”
The man rolled up the shutter.
I called Asim.
I called Saqib.
Tried again, and again.
The staff let us stay and keep trying.
My heart was bursting.
Why don’t I try Khalid’s sister-in-law in Long Island. Maybe phones there are working.
She picked up on the first ring.
“Your sons are safe,” was the first thing she said. “I have spoken to Asim. It took me four hours of constant re-dialing, until my finger went numb, and I got through just a few minutes ago.”
Daddy was right. Had I called her before performing Umrah, all she would have told me is that she has not been able to contact my children. How would that have eased my fears! God had listened when I beseeched Him, and in the minutes after I completed the Umrah, she had gotten through to Asim.
I wanted to rush back to the Kaaba, go down on my knees, and thank Him.
As we walked back into the hotel lobby, the receptionist called out, “I have a phone message for you,” and handed us a slip of paper. It was a message from Asim, “Saqib and I are safe.” Somehow, he had gotten through. Thank you, God.
I wanted to get on a plane and hold my children in a hug, just feel them, alive, warm, and wriggling out of my arms. All flights had been canceled.
That was sixteen years ago. Once again today, we remember those who perished, and those who lost their lives as they braved the smoke and fire. In the span of a lifetime, there are some days you will never forget.