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The other taxi passed within inches from our bumper before he skidded to a halt and finally stopped. For a moment both drivers instinctively looked at each other, eyes dilated and mouths agape, and there amidst the eerie silence of the city, they waited, as if some passing wind would blow and give voices to their actions. In perfect silence, no words came, no horns sounded and there on 7th Ave., like fellow tribesmen meeting on a distant pass, they signalled pleasantries to each other and both passed quietly on their way. We travelled further south into the city as if in a dream, moving along empty streets, until we reaching the familiar hoardings on Times Square, where the advertising on many of the electronic billboards was now replaced by blue and red neon flags enshrined with the words “God Bless America”. We continued east into Broadway in total silence, not daring to give any words to our inner thoughts, which probably had no answers. Then it then began to rain, small bead like drops that dared to dance against the windscreen but the taxi driver seemed too absorbed in his own world to even notice to turn on the wipers. I sensed he was Afghan, like many of the other drivers, mindful of muddy battlefields and mujahadin, but now he was like a frightened jungle cat, timidly looking around for somewhere to hide, hoping the day would pass away. I watched him for a while, his loss of dignity before the echoes of a siren from a passing fire truck apologetically filled the cab, before floating away on the wings of silence. We continued south along Union Square, along the city’s grand boulevards of shopping and commerce, where the stores and the theatres had now replaced their window displays with giant American flags. There have been few occasions in my life that I felt totally at home in this great city, but this was one.
Eventually I got out at Canal Street, as the taxi driver could bring me no further and slowly walked south along West Broadway, to the intersection with Fulton Street. In the distance, clearly visible against a cobalt blue sky, a plume of greyish smoke rose in spirals from the remnants of the area that I once had loved. Just being there brought back the memories, too many late nights with some Irish friends at the Blarney Rock on Church and West Broadway, the cobblestone side streets where I had first learned about life, the all night Korean delis that had staved away our hunger. Now the stores were closed and the air was filled with the acrid smell of burning plastic and a lingering intoxicating scent, which I assumed was decaying flesh. It was raining more heavily now, and through the mists of my unfurling vision I watched some National Guardsmen in fatigues slowly pass me in a growling Humvee, leaving me feeling like I had just entered the scene of a new Bruce Willis Die Hard movie. Slightly humiliated by my inability to help, I just stood there in voyeuristic silence, and watched how men in every conceivable form of uniform moved through the streets and laden demolition trucks lined up beside me, like soldier ants clearing up after their nest had been attacked. The white dust, which had been hanging in the air for days, had now settled, on the nearby million dollar apartments, on the police barricades and on the once black leather boots in the shoe shop by the park. The sky hung close as I walked past the impromptu shrines of lighted candles, bedecked with fresh flowers and bills of heart-wrenching messages to the missing, now presumed dead. I stood again in silence for a while, feeling close to the spirits of the deceased and read one of the posters that caught my eye,
“Missing Dr. Sheena Ann Phillip M.D. Physician at St. Vincent’s Hospital Staten Island. Black hair, brown eyes 31 years old Olive skin/Indian Last known to be at Century 21, across from WTC, Monday 7:18 leaving with multiple shopping bags wearing a brown knee-length dress and sandals”.
In different circumstances it could have been myself, lying amidst the rubble, another Westerner now sacrificed on the altar of Islamic fundamentalism. Some people then approached me. They handed out printed prayer leaflets, they said few words, each wanting to instinctively reach out, each looking for reasons, each hoping to touch the hem of that incomprehensible infinite that we all called God. A sign on a nearby bus shelter simply read ‘This is between God and Allah-and our God is the greatest’.
Yes, indeed it was the misguided followers of Allah who had brought me to this place of death. Probably some deobandi with historical grievances grounded in economic inequality who were willing to fling themselves and many others to death by shaheed on these two sacrificial pillars of capitalism. I thought about the many young students, memorising the Koran, that I had seen cross-legged in those airless madrasa classrooms, when I travelled in Afghanistan many years before. They spoke only their ethnic tongue Pastho, but each memorised classical Arabic, repeating the words of their teachers for many hours. As altars boys in Ireland, we had all rote learned the Latin Mass in a similar fashion, ironically the victor’s language, the victor’s belief. And yet the sons of Ireland had came here and built up this great city, while the sons of others endorsing another belief had come back and tore it back down. I looked again at the poster,
Yes indeed, soon we would go back to war…. to see whose God was the greatest after all!.
write by John Davis