The inner workings of my psyche are sometimes beyond even my own comprehension. Post 9–11, after the work cafeteria televisions were turned off and people switched back to their regular radio stations instead of the cbc, and some even decided it was time to go airborne again, I was still pondering. Certainly 9–11 impacted us all somehow. Aside from the emotion--the shock, sadness, sympathy, for some anger--names like my uncle's (Abdul), my cousin's (Nabeel) and my boyfriend's (Rahim) became widely known in North America. Muslims were interviewed in the media, shared their opinions. My own faith seemed to be a hotter topic of discussion than ever before.
What had changed? I still practiced my religion the way I did when it wasn't so interesting to the outside world. I don't wear hijab (a head scarf or veil that is worn by some Muslim women in order to preservetheir modesty), I've never been to Mecca, I've never prayed in a mosque and I can't speak Arabic. But I do wear Silver jeans, I have been to Mazatlan, I pray in a JamatKhana (a place of worship attended by Ismaili Muslims) and I do speak a very interesting version of the French language. Finally, I'm still Muslim. No one would ever guess, would they? And sadly enough, sometimes I'm actually glad no one could guess, even though I'm not proud to admit it. And on occasions when I do, I feel like I have to somehow justify that I'm normal too, just like you. I go to Tuesday night movies and shop at the Gap. I love sushi and I like to swim laps at the pool. But no, sorry, I can't meet you for dinner Friday evening because I have to go to "church"-yes, on a Friday night. And sorry, I'll have to pass on the ham and pineapple pizza. No, I do like pizza, but just not ham and pineapple. Sorry.
But despite the fact 9–11 made me more self conscious about my faith, it also made me more conscious of the world outside the door of my cosy Vancouver home. Why hadn't I heard of Osama bin Laden before? Why hadn't I known about the Taliban, the Northern Alliance and Afghanistan's war torn past? How many other wars are happening and how many human rights offences are being committed this very minute without me knowing anything about them? And why was I so lucky that for the first time in my life when I felt I might not actually be totally and completely safe in my pretty city, no actual catastrophe occured. But still, I was only 3,615 kilometres from the centre of the tragedy--more than the distance from London to Jerusalem.
Life couldn't be like a box of chocolates. I was starting to think it was more like a casino game where I had a huge pile of chips while others had just one. I started to feel like I should spread around some of my winnings and I thought the easiest way would be to go to India.
My decision, however, wasn't solely based on my desire to improve the lives of others. It was more selfish than that. I also wanted to improve my own life, or at least, my own self.
Having witnessed the heroic efforts of so many normal citizens at Ground Zero, and with names like Nelson Mandala and Terry Fox in the back of my mind, I started to believe that a person could only reach their best if they were subjected to the worst. This is when I started to have serious doubts about my mental logic.
"So, what made you decide to go to India?" My reply: "I'm looking for my own private tragedy."
Arriving in "beautiful" Bombay, or should I say Mumbai, on March 5, 2002, the first day or two were pretty tragic. The neverending slums, legless beggars, cat-sized rats scurrying around my apartment building, billboards advertising abortions for 90 rupees ($3 CND) and the traffic. It was virtually impossible to cross the road without putting yourself into a life threatening situation, not to mention, a few days before my arrival, the Ahmedabad train massacre and resulting Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat began, sparked by the Ayodhya issue. Things were looking up. I could be involved in some type of tragedy here.
But I got used to it all, and I also noticed that people were not unhappy, nor was there tension around me. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian--most people seemed to get along. Walking through a slum area in Central Mumbai one evening, a three-year-old girl squatted on the busy pavement to do her business as I, and many others, walked by. Just nearby, another young boy without any underwear was sitting on a pile of rubble playing. But could I say they were unhappy? And did they want to be "saved?" Or did they, in their lack of material luxuries, still hold tight to the essentials in life?
Despite certain images that will always stay in my (illogical) mind, this wasn't tragedy. Through the smiling faces, people so eager to talk to me, beautiful places like the Taj Mahal and the hill station of Mount Abu, I didn't find my own private tragedy. The many awe-inspiring religious sites I traveled to like the Ganges River at Varanasi, Jama Masjid (India's largest Mosque), the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar and Dharamsala (residence of the Dalai Lama) only revealed to me beauty and tranquillity. And soon enough, three months passed by and I was leaving India, no tragedy found, no heroic efforts achieved.
But what did I think a hero was? And was there a chance that maybe, just maybe, I could be one without having the challenge of overcoming tragedy? Yes I could. Survivor of India or not--it didn't matter. "A" student or not--it didn't matter. Muslim or not--why did it matter? What mattered, was that I cared. I cared about what my conscience said, I cared about lives that others led, I cared about whether other people cared or not. I cared about what I could do to make things better in the world. I cared. And to me, whether this means I am a hero or not, it does mean I am a good person. And that, I think, is not a bad start.