My student Mohammed noticed, while the two men approached him, that others in the observatory were staring. Soon the two men moved closer. They told him to get up and come with them. When he refused, they flashed badges. They were FBI agents. They found his note-taking suspicious, and they did not immediately believe his college assignment explanation. They interrogated him for a few hours. At our next class meeting, Mohammed told me what had happened. “They might call you,” he said, after which he dropped the course and I never saw him again.


A month later the FBI contacted my father, who lived in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. Two agents went to his house. The inquiry took place early in the morning. Normally a loud and irate man, my father was nice to them. He welcomed them into his house and asked them if they wanted something to drink. They didn’t. They wanted to ask him questions — about me.

“Where does he live?”

“New York.”

“Did he contact you on September 11?”

“He called.”

“What did he say?”

“He was okay.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was okay — nothing happened to him.”

“Did he say anything about the attacks?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did he say anything about the attacks?”


“Are you positive?”


The FBI’s visit and questions unnerved my father. He was troubled most by what might happen next — to me. I hadn’t done anything wrong. He knew that, but he also believed that the FBI could do whatever it wanted. So he gave me advice on how to deal with the agents when they showed up. “Be polite. Offer them coffee. If they stay long, ask them to sit. Don’t give them any reason to screw you.”

I told him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be good,” but I was indignant at the FBI for suspecting that, because of my ethnicity, I might know more about what took place on 9/11 than the next guy. To let off steam and to let people know what had happened, I shot off an e-mail to friends, family, and colleagues; I explained that being Arab made others believe I had an intimate relationship to treachery and violence. I also sent a letter to the New York Times and several other newspapers, and I talked about the incident with my students , my colleagues, and with my fellow poets and writers. The FBI’s presumption made me feel negated. No longer a man, or a teacher, or a writer, I had been turned into a suspect, a profile, something less than human.

Eventually, I received a phone call from the Department of Justice. They wanted to know if I would speak with them. I said yes, but only under the following conditions: the agents would have to come to the college where I taught; this way, I could have my colleagues with me as I recorded the conversation. The college president had in fact suggested this. Faculty I hadn’t even met volunteered to be at my side.

I never again heard back from the FBI.


A few months later, for the first time since 9/11, I boarded a plane. I was with Rachel, my wife. We were heading to the Midwest to attend two weddings over the same weekend. The itinerary was to fly from New York to Chicago for the first marriage and the next day take a short flight to Detroit for the second. We planned on spending another day in Detroit before heading back to New York.

We purchased our airline tickets at the same time. We requested side-by-side seats. At the airport, we arrived together, and we checked a single piece of luggage. My carry-on was a suit. Rachel brought along knitting materials to keep herself occupied during the flight. Her knitting bag contained a set of sharp metal needles, each more than a foot in length. At the time, security regulations prohibited the carrying-on of such items as nail clippers and small scissors. When she first took up knitting, I used to make wisecracks about using the needles as weapons. “I heard Jesse James once killed a man with knitting needles … just for snoring.” Given the circumstances, I laid off the jokes. After all, the 9/11 hijackers had overtaken four airplanes using only box cutters.

Somehow, at JFK, at O’Hare, and at DTW, Rachel managed to get the needles, and herself, through security without a hitch. I did not have the same experience. I was pulled aside for a search — “randomly selected” — at every single airport.


Day after day, he told himself, “I am an American.
I speak American English. I read American poetry.
I was born in Detroit, a city as American as it gets.
I vote. I work. I pay taxes, too many taxes.
I own a car. I make mortgage payments. I am not hungry.
I worry less than the rest of the world. I could stand
to lose five pounds. I eat several types of cuisine
on a regular basis. I flush toilets. I let the faucet drip.
I have central air conditioning. I will never starve
to death or experience famine. I will never die of malaria.
I can say whatever the fuck I please.”

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