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9/11: Struggles to imagine a different future must go on

Historian Manan Ahmed reflects on the legacy of brutal attacks and why it is necessary to engage with the traumas of past sixteen years.

That is how everything began. That is how everything ended ­­- Mahmoud Darwish.

Recently in class, I asked if New York had a sacred geography. If there were places like shrines where *ziarat* took place. Almost immediately the response came that it was the September 11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. It is indeed true that the new Museum and memorial site where the Twin Towers once stood is now a place of pilgrimage– though Americans understand ‘pilgrimage’ as ‘tourism’. I have not been there, and perhaps it fits more as “tourist” than a “pilgrim”. Yet, there is no doubt in my mind that the events and realities of 11/9/2001 remain etched as a spiritual wound.

Sixteen long years have gone by and in those years many wars have transpired, millions of lives destroyed, and countless miseries have rained on the Global South as a direct consequence of that September’s events. Thinking about the history of our present, September 11 is simultaneously a radical break from and a progression of late twentieth century US global politics. As Americans confront the challenges of 2017– from debates about unrecognised citizens (DACA) to wars in Yemen or Syria to massive climate change — September 11 is less a point on the map and an event in time and more a particular “feeling”. Sometimes it is the feeling of trauma and sometime of resistance but, in either event, there is rarely anything clear eyed about it. How can there be?

As a historian, I am often at a loss to think about collective trauma in the abstract. The mass violence of Partition makes sense only in the abstract but does not, to me, when we imagine a neighbour, a friend or an acquaintance doing violence in their neighbourhood, town or bazaar. How do I understand this collective, yet singularly embodied, violence? This crowd violence, this will of the mass? The hatred and prejudice that compelled the hijackers of that September continues unabated, even magnified, around the world — London, Madrid, Istanbul, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, Mumbai, Bali, Baghdad, Mosul and over and over and over. This is not to build an origins into September 11 because clearly there were extreme prejudices and extreme violences before 2001. It is more an effort to say that the sixteen years have laid over New York a palimpsest of city maps with each detonation, each crash, each stabbing, deepening the red on the map.

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The ordinary man in the street was afraid, afraid, afraid – Mahmoud Darwish.

Over these same sixteen years, Pakistan has suffered immense violence from the terrorist attacks in all major cities to the drone attacks in the Waziristan and Baluchistan. Yet, there is no real understanding of how the violence is produced at the neighbourhood level in Pakistan’s villages, towns and cities. The shroud of faith, religiosity, anti-imperialism or simple nationalism overwhelms any critical stance. The media, the intelligentsia, the state are all complicit in either sustaining a silent acceptance or wilful ignorance. The result is that those who speak out, or merely question or wonder are silenced without consequences. To give a simple example, the columnists of daily newspaper– especially the Urdu press– are the main purveyors of conspiracy theories and anti-liberal, anti-humanist thought. There is little resistance that even seem possible. Where is the public or intellectual sphere where such debate– such resistance– can be imagined? In that vein, as an academic, I have felt most acutely the absence of the historian and the humanist in Pakistan.

Humanities (English) or History as a discipline once flourished at universities in Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi, Dhaka and Jamshoro. They were either silenced by previous military and civilian regimes, or they died from bureaucratic malfeasance. The few who remain today mark the absence of the hundreds forgotten or vanished. This lack of critical historical knowledge or dedication to humanistic inquiry has crippled Pakistan. In their absence, the demagogues monopolise the populace with the pretense of knowledge and the fabrication of erudition and credentials.

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September 11 was a global event. As a Pakistani who has lived in the United States since before 2001, I have witnessed this trauma from American, European and Pakistani perspectives. Wars and Islamophobia were one outcome and I participated in the struggle against them. However, I also participated in the struggle to imagine a different Pakistan. I have felt acutely that our history and our poetry are both at a loss. I have felt acutely that our thoughts and our language are circumscribed and made limiting. As a historian, I recognise that there is a long history of such silencing. That is one legacy of that September. Despite that history, I have to submit that we must keep imagining a new future.


And if happiness should surprise you again, do not mention its previous betrayal – Mahmoud Darwish

All quotes from Ibrahim Muhawi, *Journal of an Ordinary Grief* by Mahmoud Darwish (Archipelago Books, 2010) translation of Mahmoud Darwish, *Yawmiyyāt al-Huzn al-‘Ādī* (1973).

The image is from Saira Wasim’s painting entitled ‘Ignorance is Bliss’

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