As we watched the twin towers crumble on live television, it was clear that our world would change. And it changed swiftly, from the way we fly to the way we live—insecure and bloodied from a seemingly endless war—to the way we view others. The four airborne attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, claimed 2,977 lives. At least 57 countries lost citizens in the attacks. The dead include 41 Indians, 24 Japanese, six Bangladeshis, five Israelis, three Malaysians, and at least eight men of Pakistani origin.
Talat Hamdani lost her first born on September 11. Mohammed Salman Hamdani was 13 months old when his family moved from Karachi to Brooklyn. He was a former New York Police Department cadet and a certified emergency medical technician working part-time as an ambulance driver. He was off-duty but rushed to the scene when he learnt a plane had crashed into Tower One. “He always wanted to help people,” Hamdani told Newsweek Pakistan on phone from her home in Long Island. “So we expected him to have gone to the towers.”
To add insult to heartbreak, Salman was wrongly identified as a suspect by U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. “He had never questioned his status as an American citizen,” said Hamdani, having to stop mid-conversation and collect herself. “A flier was circulated shortly after the attacks asking people to contact the terrorism task force if they had any information about his whereabouts,” she says. The flier specifically mentioned Salman’s chemistry background (he majored in the subject at Queens College and had wanted to apply to med school) and the fact that he had NYPD identification, which would have guaranteed him access to what became Ground Zero. “Because my son’s first name was Mohammed, they accused him of being associated with the attacks; that was not fair.”
Reflecting the confusion and hysteria that followed the attacks, Salman, who was vilified as a suspect in New York City, was praised for his selflessness and heroism in Washington, D.C. On Oct. 24, 2001, the U.S. Congress passed the Patriot Act, controversial for its curtailing of civil rights, that states: “Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent, who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance and is now missing.”
Less than two weeks earlier, on Oct. 11, Hamdani and her distraught husband left for Mecca to pray for a miracle. It never came. Salman’s was one of the last bodies identified from the rubble of 9/11, in March 2002. Hamdani, a middle-school English teacher, was widowed in 2003.
Salman’s mother is still mourning, but she is not bitter. She was reassured by her recent meeting with President Obama and feels her adopted homeland, the U.S., is finally moving toward healing wounds. “The war on terror is every global citizen’s war because every person in the world is affected by it,” she told Newsweek Pakistan. “The decimation of Islam’s image by Osama bin Laden’s acts must be revoked,” she said. Salman briefly became a victim of the prejudices that Muslims have had to confront every day since 9/11. Prejudice cuts both ways. The last 10 years and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have deepened antipathy toward the U.S., especially in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan, leading to self-destruction and tragedy. “Pakistan is a very changed nation from the land I remember,” rued Hamdani, who has visited her country of birth a few times since 9/11.
Salman Hamdani wasn’t the only man of Pakistani origin to perish on 9/11. Others include Robert R. Talhami, Bernard Mascarenhas, Tariq Amanullah, Michael Baksh, Ehtesham Raja, Khalid Shahid, and Taimour Khan.
Lahore-born Talhami was a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, which had its offices in the World Trade Center. His family moved to the U.S. in 1967, settling in Illinois. His father, Elias, worked as an accountant for a company that kept him traveling. Robert had lived in Venezuela and Japan, where he met his future wife, and graduated from the University of Delaware. “He was a good man, an honest man just making a living and taking care of his family,” George, Robert’s brother, told the Chicago Tribune after 9/11. “He just got robbed.” Robert was 40. He is survived by his wife and two sons, Noah and Jake.
Bernard “Bonny” Mascarenhas was born in Karachi to a Goan family and lived in Ontario, Canada. He was on the 97th floor of Tower One for a business meeting when the plane hit. Bonny was the chief information officer for Marsh Canada. He is survived by wife, Raynette, and two children, Sven and Jaclyn. He was 54. “How anyone got any work done in Marsh with dad continually asking them questions always amazed me,” Sven, now a lawyer, said at a recent memorial in Canada.
Tariq Amanullah was vice president at Fiduciary Trust International and had his office on the 97th floor of Tower Two. “I still remember [him] as a kind friend,” Zulfikar Khan, who was with Tariq at Karachi’s Diwan Dayaram Jethamal Science College, posted on an online forum in 2008. Tariq’s sister, Nilofer Usman, spoke to The New York Times in 2001. “Tariq was one of those guys who would leave a very pleasant impression on anyone,” she said. “Even his friends, if anybody needed anything, he would take the time out and help them. He would never say, ‘I don’t have time, I’m sorry.’ ” Tariq is survived by his wife and two children. He was 40.
Sept. 11, 2001, was Michael S. Baksh’s first day as an insurance executive at Marsh & McLennan, which had offices on the 94th floor of Tower One. Michael grew up in Washington Heights, New York City, and lived in Englewood, New Jersey, with his wife, Christina, and their two children, Ava and James. “It wasn’t every night, but it was a lot of nights,” his widow told The New York Times in 2001 of her late husband’s habit of dancing with her at home after dinner. “It was a lot of fun.” At one stage, Michael had worked as a photographer for Def Jam Records. He was 36.
Lahore-born Ehtesham “Shamu” Raja worked for TCG Software in Bloomfield, New Jersey. The 28-year-old Columbia engineering school and Emory business school graduate was at the World Trade Center on 9/11 for a work conference. His last phone call was to his girlfriend, before the first plane struck.
The son of a Colombian mother and Pakistani father, Khalid Shahid was a computer administrator with Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor of Tower One. Khalid was engaged to Jamie Castro, a fifth-grade teacher, and the two had been building a house in Mount Olive, New Jersey. They were to wed in March 2002. “We don’t know why this happened to us,” Castro told The Star-Ledger in 2001. “Everything was going perfect.” His father, Syed Shahid, told The Star-Ledger in 2001: “He was very family-oriented. He said he wanted to marry early so he could have the same type of family [as us].” Khalid was a sports enthusiast and had captained the tennis team at Montclair State University. He was 25.
Taimour Khan’s family moved to the U.S. when he was nine months old. He worked on the 92nd floor of Tower One as a commodities trader with Carr Futures. “I can’t see him. I can’t feel him. I can’t hear him,” Taimour’s mother, Tahira Khan, told The Washington Post a few weeks after the attacks. He was 29. Taimour’s mother and older sister—who were unhappy with the press coverage they got 10 years ago—and his relatives in Karachi were contacted by Newsweek Pakistan for this story. None of them wished to comment.
‘Bearing the Cross’
Salman Hamdani’s mother says bin Laden’s death on May 2 in Abbottabad provided a “sense of relief” and some closure. “The man who had turned the world upside down and portrayed Islam in a negative light was finally gone,” she said. “We are still bearing the cross for his actions.” Less than a month after the attacks, the New York-based National Unity Council of Pakistanis issued a list of 53 Pakistanis it believed had died on 9/11. The list was highly inaccurate, wrongly citing as dead people who were very much alive. It also misidentified several Muslims of other nationalities, including from Bangladesh and Guyana, as Pakistani. And it failed to differentiate between those killed on 9/11 and those murdered in subsequent hate crimes.
In the days following 9/11, harrowing accounts started trickling in from around the U.S. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was gunned down in Messa, Arizona, outside his gas station on Sept. 15 for, his killer said, being a “rag head.” A 48-year-old grocer of Egyptian origin was killed the same day in San Gabriel, California. The same night, 46-year-old Pakistani convenience-store owner Waqar Hasan was killed in Dallas, Texas. In 1994, Hasan had moved his wife and four daughters to the U.S., where he had found work at a gas station a year earlier. By 2001 he was running his own store in Dallas; his family staying back in Milltown, New Jersey.
The killer, Mark Stroman, shot Hasan in the face. A week later, he attacked a garage, shooting Bangladesh-born Rais Bhuiyan, then 27, who is blind now in one eye and still has 39 pieces of shrapnel in his head. The next day Stroman shot and killed Vasudev Patel, a 49-year-old man of Indian origin, in Mesquite, Texas. Stroman was arrested for Patel’s murder, and confessed his crime. Stroman, then 31, told police his attack was “to retaliate on local Arab Americans or whatever you want to call them … I did what every American wanted to do, but didn’t.”
In prison, Stroman got time to reflect. On his website, he posted from behind bars: “I lost my sister in the World Trade Center. I remember sitting at home watching the nightmare on TV … Let’s just say that I could not think clearly anymore and I am sorry to say I made innocent people pay for my rage, anger, grief and loss. I have destroyed my victims’ families as well as my own. Out of pure anger and stupidity I did some things to some men from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia—and now I sit on death row awaiting execution. And by no means am I proud of what I have done.”
Stroman was doubtlessly also moved by the magnanimous efforts of one of his victims, Bhuiyan, who worked with Reprieve, a nongovernmental organization, and appealed for clemency for the killer. “My religion teaches me that forgiveness is always better than vengeance,” Bhuiyan told The Independent this July. “I never hated Mark and I never felt angry at him,” he said. “He did what he did because he was ignorant. He wasn’t capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. It took him several years to come to that realization, but it did come to him.”
Stroman was killed by lethal injection two months ago for the Patel murder. “Even though I lay on this gurney, seconds away from my death, I am at total peace,” he said. “God bless America. God bless everyone. Let’s do this damn thing.”
Media estimates put hate-crime deaths following 9/11 at between eight and 12. None of these men is included in the official 9/11 death toll, and so their families do not qualify for financial assistance. But compassion comes in many forms. A year after Hasan’s murder, his family faced deportation back to Pakistan. Hasan’s widow, Durreshahwar, found help from U.S. Congressman Rush Holt. She and her daughters are now all American citizens. Hasan’s youngest child, Iqra, graduated from college this year.
Pakistani-Americans and Pakistanis abroad are misperceived not only because they are purportedly of the same faith as bin Laden and his acolytes, like Pakistan-born would-be bomber Faisal Shahzad, who last year tried to blow up Times Square, but also because of the chronic inability of Pakistanis to see our own country’s complicity in supporting the global jihad ecosystem. Such illusions are bewildering at the best of times. But when they follow instances where Pakistan’s involvement is clear as day, they are downright criminal. Despite what many Pakistanis believe, bin Laden is dead, and he had been hiding here in plain sight all along. Pakistanis cannot ask why it is that the world hates or at least deeply mistrusts us and pretend not to know the answer.
Pakistan and especially its politicians ignore the accounts of Pakistani-Americans affected by 9/11 and its immediate fallout. Popular parties like Muslim League (Nawaz) and Tehreek-e-Insaf insist that the war on terror is not Pakistan’s war, that it has been imposed on the country by the U.S. and their Pakistani collaborators, that Walden will be attained once U.S. troops leave neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistanis want to play the victim, to hold on to thoroughly discredited conspiracy theories, and to continue to deny any Al Qaeda connection to the attacks because the introspective alternative may lead straight to a padded cell. So Pakistanis persist with the self-delusions despite the fact that the terrorists brought the war to Pakistan immediately after 9/11 and, facilitated by a population in mass denial—a July poll by the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Pakistanis do not believe any Arabs were involved in the 9/11 attacks—are in no mood to let up.
Many Pakistanis found occasion to reify their unflattering views of the U.S. after they saw the impromptu street celebrations following Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s whimpering end. “Many people have mistakenly assumed that the celebrations following bin Laden’s execution were projecting hatred against Muslims,” says Hamdani. “This is not true; people were celebrating the symbolic end to a war that an entire generation has grown up with.”
Pakistanis must not look at the world through jihad-tinted glasses, and they should not ignore the gestures, big and small, of compassion and goodwill extended to American Muslims and South Asians after 9/11. America’s real strength is its ability not only to accept its wrongs but to also right them, as it did with the Hamdani and Hasan families. This is one of the reasons that Pakistanis and Muslims from the around the world continue make a beeline for the U.S., to reap the rewards of a pluralistic, egalitarian society. Life and liberty mean something in America. Perhaps someday they will matter here too.
[EDITOR: This is a longer version of the story, “The Forgotten,” which appeared in our Sept. 16, 2011, issue.]