9/11 Stories: Our Dead, Your Dead by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie short story in The Guardian 

Kamila speaks at Galle Lit-Fest -Pic by Bron

 Hussain just called. He’s been queuing at the petrol pump for the last twenty minutes. But he says he’ll be here before load shedding kicks off.”

Pic by AFP-Getty

A sigh went up around the StreetSmart office. Every time the magazine’s generator ran out of petrol the load-shedding seemed to start earlier than scheduled, and the air-conditioned cool on the twelfth floor wouldn’t last more than a few minutes after the power cut out. The editor’s decision, taken on the third day of Ramzan, to start working post-Iftar and carry on until dawn so everyone could sleep through the hours of deprivation was considerably less appealing with the prospect of spending it sweating in the dark until Hussain got back.

And right away it happened, of course. The abrupt silence of the air conditioner shutting down, followed by a volley of loud beeps as the desktops switched to UPS mode, and the roar of generators up and down the fifteen-story office block. More and more people seemed to be working through the night as Ramzan wore on.

“Look at this before the UPS cuts out.”

Everyone pushed chairs away from desks and clustered around the designer’s massive screen which was now the main source of light in the open-plan office. The cover mock-up glowed with a bright blue sky, dark clouds floating across it in letter formation – at the top, the magazine’s title in large billowing puffs; beneath it, smaller clouds spelling out Guantánamo, Drone Attacks, Waterboarding, Islamophobia, Racial Profiling, Patriot Act.

The designer was Abrar – a twentysomething LUMS graduate wearing a T-shirt which showed Mohammad Ali Jinnah saying Dude, where’s my country? As he angled the screen to allow the others a better view, Ayla saw that the clouds weren’t clouds at all; they were smoke trailing from the tops of the Twin Towers.

“This is not a good idea at all. At all.”

Ayla was relieved she hadn’t had to be the one to say so, particularly because the person to issue an objection to the cover image was Iqbal Sahib, the marketing man who obtained his position on the strength of a two-line email: FAMILY IN WAZIRISTAN. WITH CAMERAS. Any complaints that he’d been hired ahead of graduates with degrees from American universities had been forgotten as soon as StreetSmart’s debut issue started to attract international attention with its photographs and eye-witness accounts of civilian casualties in the wake of an army operation against militants. If Iqbal Sahib was the reason for the success of the first issue, Abrar was the reason the magazine got as far as a second; his father had used his connections in the intelligence services to broker a deal for its survival. Issue two led with a cover story about army widows whose husbands had been killed by suicide bombers, which managed to imply that Indian agents posing as Taliban might have been behind some of the attacks. All this Ayla had learnt on her first day at work, just a few weeks ago.

But Iqbal Sahib’s objections, it turned out, were not Ayla’s own. If American magazines wanted to observe the ten year anniversary of 9/11, fine, he said. But for a Pakistani magazine to do that would simply buy into the American story about the attacks: that they came ‘from out of the blue’ ; as if Osama hadn’t been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List since 1988; as if the whole disgraceful nonsense around propping up jihadis against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then leaving Afghanistan to descend into a swamp of civil war and Pakistani Interference hadn’t got anything to do with anything; as if Islam hadn’t already been identified as the next enemy; as if there was something singular – something exceptional – about suffering when it happened to Americans.

It was singular, Ayla found herself wanting to say. It was exceptional.

The arts editor, Saba, a woman who called herself Vegetarian-Atheist, though she was neither, dismissed the image on the screen with a wave of her hand and directed everyone’s attention to the print out she’d pinned on to the wall earlier that week.

“If we’re going to put words on the cover we should just use my War on Terror glossary.”

It was too dark to make out the words but Ayla still found herself looking at the lines of print, which she was annoyed to find she had memorised.

Guantánamo: Cuban song with various extraordinary (Joan Baez, Buena Vista Social Club) and rather ordinary (Julio Iglesias and Nana Mouskouri duet) renditions
Drone attacks: what happens when George Lucas gives up on character and plot in favour of CGI
Islamo-facism: the fall collection’s follow-up to heroin chic
Islamophobia: fashionista response to Anna Wintour pursing lips at the above
Terror cells: HIV/Cancer/Man-flu
Racial profiling: sideways mugshots
Abbottabad: if OBL was there, who’s in Costelloabad?

It might have been funny, coming from somebody else. But everything she had found maddening about life inKarachisince returning here after 15 years away was summed up bySaba’s cool cynicism, her been-there-bought-the-T-shirt attitude to all disasters.

“You’re such a burger,” Abrar said. “Anna Wintour? Joan Baez?”

“I’m not the only one with Western cultural references, young jedi,” she replied.

“Don’t talk that way, man. Lucas is universal.” He locked his fists together and rotated his wrists, humming and buzzing as he defended himself with his imaginary light sabre.Sabalaughed, and Ayla saw a flash of the friendship she’d been told about – a friendship founded on a shared desire for Hussain, which had quickly dissolved as soon as the lanky, sloe-eyed editorial assistant had made his preferences clear.

“The whole point of this cover, Iqbal Sahib, is it says that our story of 9/11 isn’t about what was done toAmericabut about what has been done since, byAmerica, in its name.” The editor-in-chief, known to her subordinates as the General, had entered the office, a solar-powered torch in her hands.

“Come on people. Back to work.” Everyone shuffled back to their desks, lighting candles or activating torch apps on their SmartPhones. “Oh and Ayla, in response to your email – no, we don’t need a story on howAmericathinks about 9/11 Ten Years On. We already know they still think it’s the Greatest Tragedy to hit Planet Earth. If you can’t figure out aPakistanangle for the issue maybe you should head back toBoston.”

Our story of 9/11.
Our story about your tragedy.
If you don’t mourn our dead why should we mourn yours?
We might get into trouble for attacking our own government but you don’t care what we say so we’ll just lay into you instead, why don’t we?

Ayla wrote and deleted one bad-tempered sentence after another and thought of that day when a university friend fromWisconsinresponded to the news thatPakistanhad suffered more than 250 suicide attacks since 2002 with a sad shake of the head and a “I hope your government has learnt the connection between sowing and reaping”. It wasn’t the quality of the insight, Ayla had realised, but her own estimation of the speaker’s right to criticise which made her furious with her friend, or indeed with the General.

“Someone call Hussain and find out how much longer he’ll be.” The question sounded as though it could have been for anyone at all, but the General was looking straight atSaba.

“I just tried. He’s not answering. Maybe he’s on the road.”

“As if being on the road stops him from answering,” Abrar said. “No sense of road safety that one. I’m going to buy him a Bluetooth earpiece for his birthday.”

“Spare my boyfriend your taste in accessories,”Sabasaid.

Whatever tart comment Abrar was about to spit out in response died in his throat as Iqbal Sahib came hurrying in with a kettle of boiling water from next door. “Didn’t you hear that? Something just exploded on the flyover. Some of the windows on the other side of the building have shattered.”

“Something exploded – or someone?”

“Don’t know yet. Next door will tell us when Geo knows more.”

Ayla imagined herself saying into the silence: My office was there. In the second tower. I wasn’t there that morning, but many of my friends didn’t make it out.

“Friends” was a lie. She had only been to the office twice, once during the interview process and once after she’d been offered the job; she hadn’t been due to start work until September 17. “Colleagues” sounded too cold, though. “Colleagues” didn’t convey how the memory of every smile, every word of welcome became magnified in the aftermath, representing friendships cut off, flirtations crushed, lovers wrenched away. Not lovers, lover. The man whose direct glance and shy smile had made her heart leap with possibility in the way that it did on an almost daily basis back then. She didn’t know his name, had no way of telling whether he was one of those who made it out or not, but at some point she had simply decided that he was the Peter on the list of fatalities. She’d had no communication with anyone from the office after that day except the HR person who understood entirely why she moved right back to the familiarity ofBostonthe week after the attacks.

No one in the office was even pretending to work – Ayla blamed the combination of post-Iftar stupor and load-shedding inertia. Abrar was on the balcony, smoking though he’d supposedly quit at the start of Ramzan, and jabbering on one mobile phone while stabbing out a text on the other; Iqbal Sahib and the General had left the office, muttering about “keeping up with developments”; Saba was pressed into the corner of the office where it was possible to piggyback on to next door’s broadband scrolling through Twitter posts with the hashtag “Karachi”.

The intern had stacked a printer and chair onto her desk to make room for her prayer-mat – she usually waited until much later to say her Ishaa prayers – and was proceeding through the cycle of standing-kneeling-prostrating with enviable suppleness, her “Bismillah” and “Aameen” spoken aloud with a fervour which made Ayla wonder if it was meant as a rebuke to those who weren’t similarly genuflecting – since when had the laid-back intern joined the self-righteous brigade?

What would they say if she told them, Ayla wondered? She looked across the office at the bumper sticker pasted on the wall under Saba’s print out:Americahad 9/11;Englandhad 7/7;Indiahad 26/11;Pakistanhas 24/7. They were all to-the-marrow Karachiwallas, steeped in a bitter “survivor humour” which had been refined through decades of violence. The men who strapped bombs to their chests in the name of God were just the newest form of attackers, not even the deadliest. Would she be able to puncture her colleagues’ grotesque oneupmanship?

It wouldn’t be the first time she’d used that day to improve her own position. In 2002 the Syrian visa in her Pakistani passport was enough to send her to the secondary examination room atLoganAirport, where the man from Homeland Security – perfectly polite – started to ask her routine questions. My office was in the second tower, she had said. Can you imagine how it feels to have to go through this? He couldn’t have been more apologetic, more genuine in his contrition; she, by contrast, was all performance with her trembling-lipped indignation.

Iqbal Sahib and the General came back in whispering and shaking their heads. Had Ayla missed an argument? The General sat down next toSaba, who ignored the older woman, staring at the screen in front of her and steadily tapping refresh. Iqbal Sahib walked onto the balcony and prised both phones out of Abrar’s hand, before giving him a little push back into the office.

“We could always save the tenth anniversary special until next May,” Ayla said into the stillness of the room. “May 8 2012.”

There was silence, slightly aggressive or perhaps that was just her imagination because how, after all, could silence be aggressive. Finally the editor said, “And that would be the tenth anniversary of…?”

“The Sheraton attack. The first suicide bombing inPakistan.” She couldn’t keep the slight note of triumph from her voice at being the only one in possession of this knowledge.

The most unexpected sound followed:Saba, crying – followed by Abrar.

Ayla looked around the office. Everyone except her seemed to understand what was going on. She tried to make out Iqbal Sahib’s expression, but it was lost in the shadows. If only there were proper light in here. Why didn’t Hussain hurry up?

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