Separated by tragedy, united by love
There is no mosque in Missoula, Mont. But sometimes, echoing from my memories of Macedonia, Indonesia, and Nigeria, I can still hear a loudspeaker-distorted voice calling Allah's faithful to prayer. The only regular sounds that reach my apartment here are the cooing of pigeons under the eaves and the bell in the clock tower of the university marking the hours.
It is easy to settle here, in my first married home, and forget there is anything past the end of my maple-lined street, or another way to walk but hand in hand. Yet somewhere in my thought, sometimes urgently (synagogues bombed in Istanbul), sometimes gently (a non-sectarian peace movement in Israel), I hear the call to prayer and am swept back to a time when my tranquil life of today seemed as distant as an Al Qaeda training camp.
It was late evening in Jakarta, where I was living, when I heard about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I had recently become engaged, and was asleep after a two-day journey from Montana to see family. My 16-year-old sister woke me with the news. Our parents were next door at the Navy captain's in their pajamas, dumbfounded, watching the day's events explode on TV. The next morning I thought I must have dreamed it.
My father's job with the United States Agency for International Development meant my family lived in a tidily landscaped, double-walled, guarded compound. On Sept. 12, I paddled around the stone-tiled swimming pool, suspended in shock. The calls to prayer from the seven nearest mosques filled the humid air and rang underwater, sounding the imminent conflict between radical Islam and the West. Even in the tropical heat I felt chilled and vulnerable. Were the beliefs of these devotees the same as those of the hijackers? How could such hatred and destruction honor God? How could I marry and think of bringing children into a world wracked with such insecurity?
My fiancé, Michael, whose Jewish grandparents had fled Europe at the dawn of World War II, called from Montana to tell me that family passes from Michael's brother, a commercial pilot, were void until further notice. We wouldn't see each other for who knows how long. Perhaps the world would plunge into war, perhaps he'd be drafted. But knowing we had found each other sustained us. The old questions of whose career would come first or where we would live suddenly became insignificant. We only wanted to be together.
We chose a wedding date for the following summer, hoping by then we'd be together. In a few weeks I would go to Switzerland, where I'd planned a year of language study, and wait.
In Jakarta, we ventured out for groceries, for evacuation-planning meetings, to test the air. My mother and I ran wedding-planning errands, desperate to fill the hours with something purposeful, something to bring us back to the intimate scale of family in the face of global uncertainty. For a few minutes at a time we replaced the wreckage of the World Trade Center and Pentagon with something proportionately trivial, but tangible: a bolt of silk, a strand of pearls. What about dressing the guys in sarongs instead of suits? Then discussions of the color of the invitations would be dwarfed again: When would I see Michael? How could America retaliate against a country for something a shifty band of terrorists from other places had done?
Except for the panhandlers for jihad and the young men sporting Osama bin Laden T-shirts, the people we encountered were filled with sympathy. Our Indonesian friends were stunned at what had been done in the name of Islam and mortified that the Americans were to be evacuated. Others - the cleric quoted in the Jakarta Post, for example - swore that if one American bullet were fired into Afghanistan, his followers would drive the American expatriate community into the sea. In the end, they didn't drive us into the sea. We took a taxi to the airport.
IN November, Michael found a way to meet me in Switzerland, where I had immersed myself in French language and Swiss culture. We celebrated Thanksgiving together, touched by the chaos in the world but reunited unharmed. We gave thanks. He brought fresh cranberries and canned pumpkin, and we feasted with my fellow international students.
I came home to Michael in July 2002, and we were married a month later, surrounded by loved ones. Our life in Missoula is wonderfully ordinary, and I recognize that. But it is not so insulated that I do not hurt for those elsewhere. My parents were evacuated from Indonesia a second time in the autumn of 2002, after the Bali bombings. Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has since decried extremism and cracked down on the tiny minority so bent on destruction. Yet the battles of the "war on terror" ebb and flow with no end in sight.
With every sad story in the news, I am reminded of that September in Jakarta. Now every day that Michael and I wake up together is a gift I do not take for granted.