Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
September 8th, 2011

Being the “Other” on September 11, 2001


At 13, I walked the halls of my middle school proudly as the smart Egyptian girl who brought in stuffed grape leaves for lunch and baklava for dessert. Like most teens, I was still trying to figure out what it meant to be “me” as I navigated the awkward early years of my teenage life.

I grew up in Deltona, Florida, where I was one of a handful of Muslims in the city. That being said, I was known as the “token Muslim.” I felt happy and comfortable being a commodity while most people were still just trying to fit in. At some point I realized I could never fully assimilate, no matter how many shirts I bought from Aéropostale or Limited Too. I would never be cool, but that was ok. I embraced my differences and tried to be a good example of Arabs and Muslims to my peers. I fasted during the month of Ramadan, and explained to my classmates yearly why I did so. After a few years, my peers would tell the new students in the class why I wasn’t eating during the daytime. It was like having my own public relations firm, and what teen doesn’t love that?

One Tuesday morning, I remember the atmosphere in my classroom feeling tense. The few lucky kids who had cell phones were getting phone calls from their parents. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City.

No one really knew what was happening. Our 13-year-old minds didn’t quite fathom the scope of what had just occurred. Questions filled my head: Who did this? What did this mean? Why us?

Had it become bad to be a Muslim?

After speculations of who was behind the 9/11 attacks surfaced I felt a change in how I was treated at school. My parents didn’t really warn me about what people might say to me as word broke that the hijackers were Muslims. They probably didn’t know what to say because they themselves were shocked. I remember hearing my mom praying, “Ya rab (oh Lord), please don’t let the attackers be Muslim.” And they were.

I tried to act as normal as possible the next few days at school. Inevitably, any class discussion boomeranged back to 9/11. At that point, I felt like all eyes were on me whenever someone muttered, “Muslim,” “Arab,” or “terrorist” at school.

I found a classmate waiting in line for the water fountain a few days after 9/11. We spent the last four years together in the same schools. He walked up and took a sip of water, turned around, and said, “Hey, terrorist.” I can still remember the sick smile on his face as he said those two words.

He walked away; I stood still.

There were plenty of instances where people took their aggressions out on me because of my faith and background. It seemed to get worse year after year. I was always defending my religion, my customs, my way of life. Why had it suddenly become bad to be a Muslim?

During a class discussion some years later in high school, the topic once again returned to 9/11. I stayed quiet, listening intently to what my classmates had to say. A senior raised her hand. She gave her thoughtful opinion on the matter, and it went something like this:

“I think they should just drop a bomb over all Moz-lems and get it over with already.”

I couldn’t believe it.

I felt my face grow hot as I raised my hand and politely asked her why she wanted to kill so many people. She explained that since Muslims killed so many people on 9/11 it should be reciprocated. A giant bomb should be dropped over the entire Middle East, she continued, and that would solve our future foreign policy problems.

I didn’t really know what to say. I thought about it for a moment; what would happen if she were president and dropped a bomb that would obliterate my grandmother, aunts and uncles, friends, and acquaintances? I thought about being included as well. What would I do if I had to die because of my religion? Would I remain steadfast in my faith?

I started to cry uncontrollably. It was as if all the years of silence and strength dissipated. I left class and sat outside. Later on, after the guidance counselor came and talked to me, my classmate apologized. I couldn’t tell if it was genuine, or if she just said sorry to get out of trouble. It didn’t matter. Her words hung heavily in the air around me. I went home early that day.

My dad picked me up and saw my red eyes, still puffy from the tears, and didn’t say anything in the car. He just patted my hand and drove in silence. He announced during our community’s Friday prayers what happened, and members of my congregation came up to tell me how brave I was to combat that kind of rhetoric. But I didn’t feel brave. How could I feel brave when I cried?

Living in a changed world

As I grew older, I became more accustomed to hearing people make negative comments about Muslims. I became jaded.

Someone calling a Muslim a terrorist? Meh, happens every day. A bearded, brown-skinned man getting pulled for extra security screenings at the airport? The usual.

It was as if I lost the fight in me. I grew tired of always having to stick up for being a Muslim, to try to change the minds of unchangeable minds.

This is my reality. This is what I still deal with, a decade later. I still think about what happened on 9/11, and I feel sadness for the lives lost, anger, paranoia, pain, and contempt.

And hope. Hope for a better future and for a growing awareness of what it means to be a Muslim today. I’ve carried these emotions with me since that day, and they will still be around long after the TV specials on the anniversary of 9/11 are over. But I have to remain optimistic that eventually, being a Muslim won’t be looked down upon. If not for myself, for the future generation of Muslims and non-Muslims alike who have to live in a world much changed after that Tuesday morning.

[Originally published on September 8, 2011.]

The Author : Carmel Delshad
Carmel Delshad is an Arab American multimedia journalist based in New York City. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in journalism at the City University of New York, where she is studying international reporting. She is focusing in broadcast media, with an emphasis on radio and video for the web. She has conducted research on the effects of social media in the university setting and is very interested in pursuing further research on how social media is affecting the news landscape. Her post-graduation goal is to work with an international news agency as a multimedia reporter and eventually conduct research on the internet culture of youth in the Middle East.
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  • Heather McGilvary

    I was moved by your piece, Carmel.There are so many of us who don’t feel the same way as those who treated you so badly. We should raise our voices more to combat such abuse. We should be braver when we encounter prejudice. The people with extreme views are the ones with the loud voices, but that does not mean they are in the majority.

  • Chelsea

    This made me cry, when I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints I received some comments that were insults wrapped in “concern”, people don’t understand something and they make assumptions which often ends up hurting a whole group of people in return. Keep on praying and keeping your faith close to you, for you know what your faith really teaches and stands for and people’s assumptions though hurtful will never change who you really are. You’re a beautiful woman with ambition and you live your faith the way it should be lived. I’m a multi-cultural “mutt” people judged me in school for not being able to commit to one culture but how could I when I am so many things? Plus, I was 14 years old when 911 happened and very much trying to figure myself out. I’m 25 now, God has put me in a beautiful place, often the most faithful to the Lord are the most ridiculed no matter what religious affiliation we may claim.

  • Kris

    Thank you for sharing. You are a beautiful young lady and I am truly sorry for the ignorance of others and the pain and intolerance you have had to endure. It is my desire, my prayer, that we can all someday experience World Peace! Until that day, I as a christian, look forward to meeting more people of other faiths and learning from them.
    God bless you!

  • AnitaH

    Just as Christian extremists don’t represent the rest of us, neither do extremists of other faiths represent the whole. Sadly it’s the extremists who get the attention and cause problems for their respective groups. In the end, you are as much a victim of their actions as the rest of us. And don’t be ashamed about when you cried in school. Sometimes others need to see us cry to truly understand the hurt they have just caused.

  • Alex


    as your best friend, before and after sept 11, you have been such a joy to me. ignorant people don’t matter, but their words still hurt. i think we’re just proof that a christian and a muslim can be heart friends no matter what:) I LOVE YOU!!!

  • amandaintennessee

    Thank you for sharing your story. In my opinion, middle school is the hardest time in a child’s life and then to have to carry the burden of other peoples ignorance. It would be almost impossible not to become jaded…thank you for showing the world the picture of a true Muslim woman.

  • Kim

    It could be easily said that heinous crimes have been committed against fellow humans around the world by people of other faiths that would tally far more than were lost on one day in America. That is an oversimplification and deflection, but it is a fact that thousands of people have been killed in (un)civil conflicts in Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia.

    Humanity appears to be focused on self-preservation, not global harmony and faith in a higher power that, by all accounts, would command that all living things be treated with dignity and respect.

    As an ambassador of your faith, you represent it well and this article was a very sad commentary on the legacies our parents and generations before us have left for us to overcome. None of us have the capacity to truly know what is in store for us beyond this life, but we should all pray for one another in hopes of being spared retribution for our transgressions.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • Becky M

    Hello, I just wanted to say I am very sorry for the pain some people gave you. I am a Caucasian Ex-Catholic from the U.S. but I grew up in southern Spain,which was Muslim for many, many years ago and still has a bit of that flavor in the culture(Google the Alhambra-beautiful!) at a time when many Spaniards hated Americans (1970s)…store clerks would follow me as if I were going to steal something in their store, mothers would scold their children if they were caught playing with me. On a lighter side,everyone assumed I was good at basketball(just because I’m from the U.S.)…I hated sports! So many assumptions in this world. I want to tell you not all of us feel the same way, I love everyone in the world that is just a decent person.

  • Scott

    I am a Caucassion, Christian, Male, American..
    I am sorry from my heart that people are so short sided to cause pain to people just for their differences…
    To put the blame on the entirety of Muslims for the attack on the WTC is as narrow minded as to put the blame on all Americans for the short sidedness of our U.S. government…
    We need to take note from Mahatma Gandhi and learn how to settle our differences with non violent methods…
    Practical? not likely. And Yet we can achieve so many things if we start with the individual that stands across from us in the mirror..

  • joe

    as a white, Christian, male living in America, i’ve never had to face what you and so many others have to deal with on a daily basis. thank you for sharing and for continuing to be brave.

  • Clare

    Thank you for sharing.

    I’m a Catholic, but from a very multicultural area, and there were lots of Muslim girls at my Catholic high school. When 9/11 happened, it brought us closer together, as we knew these people who called themselves Muslims did not deserve to claim that title- we knew good, faithful Muslims in our own lives, and killing others wasn’t part of their faith.

    I’m sorry that those you grew up with couldn’t see that. I pray and hope, as I’m sure you do, that the witness of all good people of faith (whatever that is) are met with acceptance and understanding, not judgement and intolerance, by those around them.

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