The Accidental American

Sept. 11 was a collective trauma. For immigrants like Mamdouh, it also shifted their politics.

By Rinku Sen Sep 04, 2008

AT 8 A.M. ON SEPTEMBER 11, 40-year-old Fekkak Mamdouh was asleep, having worked the previous night’s late shift from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. His wife, Fatima, lay beside him; she had dropped off their daughter at kindergarten four blocks away and then climbed back into bed. For six years, Mamdouh, whom everyone knew by his surname, had been a waiter at Windows on the World, the luxury restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. He had started working there in 1996  when Windows reopened after the 1993 terrorist bombing in the World Trade Center basement. Mamdouh’s wide brown eyes and the round apples of his cheeks gave him a disarming look of innocence. These mellow features hid the scrappiness that had made him a beloved, though sometimes controversial, union leader.

The first call came from Mamdouh’s sister Saida, who lived in Italy. She told him to turn on the TV. The second call was from his brother Hassan, who lived down the street. “Listen, brother, there was a plane that just crashed through the Twin Towers,” Hassan said. “Guess what? You’re not going to have a job for a couple of months while they fix the place.”

Mamdouh and Fatima turned on the TV thinking of terrible accidents when the third call came—their neighbor telling Fatima to get their girl out of school. Fatima hurried to retrieve her daughter Iman. When she got back, Mamdouh was still transfixed by what was flashing across the television screen. He said, “You watch. They’re going to say it’s Muslims.”

Fatima asked him why he thought so.
“Because they did it in ’93,” he said, referring to the earlier attack.

Without eating, Mamdouh left their house in Astoria, Queens. He went to 8th Avenue and 44th Street, the offices of his union, Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. He and other union members made two lists: one of all the workers who would have been catering breakfast for Risk Management employees that morning, and another of all the places they might be found. Then teams of shop stewards and union organizers set off to search for the workers and track their families. Mamdouh paired up with a colleague, an Egyptian immigrant and now former captain at Windows. The two started out at hospitals, asking who had been brought in. They met many families of people who had worked at the World Trade Center, but they found no actual casualties of the attacks. They worked their way down Manhattan’s west side, where all its hospitals are located. After the fourth one, Mamdouh’s companion, who had been crying steadily, said he couldn’t take any more. He went home, while Mamdouh headed to the morgue on First Avenue and 30th Street, staying there until 3 a.m.

The next night, Mamdouh gave an interview to a cable news channel. One of his friends, another Moroccan, saw the interview and called him the next day to ask why he hadn’t said that Muslims—meaning regular, real Muslims like them—hadn’t done this thing. Mamdouh said that people already knew.

For the next five days Mamdouh ate and slept very little. He spent hour after hour circling the morgue’s lobby carrying a sign: “If you know anyone who worked at Windows or if you worked at Windows, please call the union.” Mamdouh was able to cross barback Mario Peña’s name off the missing list on September 12, and he found cashier Faheema Nasar a full week later, but in the end, 73 of his co-workers weren’t coming back.

A couple of days after the attack, Mamdouh and Fatima went to their neighborhood Pathmark store. She had covered her head in hijab, as she had since her mother died three years before. It was evening and the store was not at all crowded. They were the only people wanting to buy fish, and Mamdouh stood at the counter with her while she tried for several minutes to get the fishmonger’s attention. Eventually, Mamdouh’s patience gave out.

“Hey, she’s trying to talk to you,” he said to the clerk, who continued to ignore them. “She’s trying to ask you
a question.”

“Don’t you know what you guys did?” was the response.
“The World Trade Center.” It was a mumble, but Mamdouh heard it clearly enough.

He snapped. His eyes widened, his smallish frame puffed up.

“What are you talking about, what we did? I lost 73 of my friends there. Maybe you didn’t lose anybody, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The clerk backed up from the counter while Mamdouh yelled, “I want to see the manager!” He yelled some more at the manager, who apologized. Neither Mamdouh nor Fatima would ever return to that store.

Something shifted in Mamdouh that day. The clerk’s accusation had wounded him. Two days after the tragedy, he was ever aware that he himself could easily have died there. He suffered for the loss of his colleagues, and the idea that someone would associate him with their deaths because he was Muslim was shocking. Until then, he had been living the life of a lucky immigrant, getting great jobs in high-end restaurants because he spoke fluent French. He had come to the United States to make money and to be near his younger brother, and although he missed Morocco, he had felt American enough to marry here and have two children who were born U.S. citizens. Despite his prediction to Fatima that Muslims would be blamed for 9/11, he had actually managed to get by for 12 years without noticing American discrimination in a daily way, not toward Black people or Asians, and certainly not toward himself. Now he rewound his history, noticing things that he hadn’t clearly seen before. But he couldn’t yet know how these new insights would reshape his life as an immigrant worker in America.


Collective traumas always take place within a larger context, and that context influences the collective response. Optimists expect survivors to band together, to help each other, and to unearth the event’s larger lesson for humanity. Survivors do indeed band together, but the nature of their bonding is heavily influenced by the political and social context.

In times of globalization, when the reassuring anchors of national identity lose their heft, the dominant response to group trauma is to create a sacred memory of the event in ways that seem to restore that identity. Philosophers call this “sacralizing” a memory. The formation of a community of survivors—which can take place on scales both large and small—often constitutes closing ranks, building a wall around those who experienced the trauma.

The sacralization process relies on storytelling. The story is told often enough to be frozen into the status of the sacred, unassailable by contradictory, or even just more complex, accounts of our reactions to the original event. The group forms around the act of remembering as much as it does around the memory itself, and one’s relationship to the trauma becomes part of the core of one’s identity. Joining the group means passing a series of litmus tests, usually defined by the act of remembering the event in a particular way.

Cultural critic Barbara Misztal says that this reaction tends to require obedience to the interpretation from other people: “This type of memory… is characterized by the sacred and fixed vision of the past and demands loyalty and regulates obligation.” When a group formed through this process attempts political action, it often focuses narrowly on its own self-interest, isolating itself from others or even demanding that others subordinate themselves to the group’s interests.

Inevitably, there are people who are left out of this sacralized narrative, or worse, unfairly vilified by it. These people might form a counter-memory, interpreting the event through a different story that extends the sympathy of survivors toward others, rather than withholding it: “In contrast to [the] uncompromising position of the first type of memory, the second type of memory does not impose such exclusive practices and assists people to articulate wider meaning and to cultivate links with a larger community,” writes Misztal. The counter-memory group will keep some elements of the dominant narrative—grieving for the dead and maintaining the innocence of individual victims, for example. But other elements get a new treatment, as the counter-memory group fights for an interpretation that allows more people into the community.

For 40 years before 9/11, American identity had been increasingly challenged by global trends. Economic globalization and migration had made many people less financially secure while changing the country’s demographics. Policies that freed corporations to move around the world in search of the largest profit margin, along with advances in technology, had transformed our industrial economy into one focused on its information and service sectors. After our immigration laws removed national preferences for Europeans in 1965, immigrants of color began to arrive and settle in large numbers, not just in big cities, but also in rural and suburban areas. While we can see a less racist immigration policy as a more positive development than economic globalization, these things together nevertheless had a profoundly destabilizing effect on American communities.

September 11 is now the collective trauma of record for the United States. The attack itself was brutal enough to break thousands of families and destroy one of the most prominent elements of New York’s cityscape.
Manhattan took on the character of a disaster site, with toxic dust flying across rivers and into neighborhoods. New Yorkers, disturbed by the sight of the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center had stood, struggled to return to their customary collective self-confidence. The event also had an enormous economic impact that stretched from New York City throughout the nation. The mainstream national response to the event sacralized it, relying on trusty, racialized archetypes of Americans as white and native-born, and foreigners as a dangerous, dark threat. The sacralization process, complete with racist stereotypes, merged with the immigration debate, pitting Americans and foreigners against each other and bolstering the idea that the United States should limit the entry of other people.

These archetypes, so prominent in the post–September 11 political discourse, had a narrowing effect on the subsequent immigration debate.

Even the most compassionate responses to the crisis reinforced economic and racial hierarchies. The intention to discriminate isn’t necessary—the pull of the dominant story, and the existing context will create the effect.

Mamdouh began his work helping immigrants navigate the relief system as the country sacralized, and racialized, the memory of September 11. As he experienced the effects of that sacralization on himself and others, he began to develop a counter-memory. The fact that he, like many of his immigrant coworkers, had known the traumatic effects of poverty and political repression long before September 11 gave him a broader perspective on the event’s meaning. The fact that he was an immigrant, accustomed to having his national identity shaken up, gave him the capacity to embrace a diverse community.


September 11 highlighted the aspects of immigrants’ lives that already placed them at the bottom of New York’s cultural and economic hierarchy, which they had been able to bypass momentarily while working at Windows. Their poverty, their vulnerability to violence, their problems with immigration status all played a role in how they ultimately interpreted the event.

The government treated the situation as a temporary emergency, but what Windows workers really needed was a political shift; the occasional job training or cash assistance would make no long-term difference in their unstable lives. While many Windows survivors accepted medical treatment for depression and anxiety following the attacks, they also needed jobs, housing, healthcare, and legalization—these were needs that therapy and pills couldn’t meet.

For the immigrants in Mamdouh’s community, their ongoing experience of hardship in turn helped them see the systemic nature of their problems, which would ultimately help them create a counter-memory. For example, Windows banquet server Ataur Rahman, who was 43 on September 11, identified three major traumatic incidents in his life. After a bloody civil war that established Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, he joined a movement to push for a secular, democratic state. His party held power for a time, but was overthrown in 1975 in a military coup. Although Rahman had already lost many friends and relatives to war and persecution, he felt the sharpest blow when the movement’s leader was deposed and killed. “I was afraid that if I lived there, I would maybe not have any future,” he said.

In 1979 Rahman came to New York and eventually found work at Windows. He was nowhere near the building in 1993, when Ramzi Yousef bombed the World Trade Center, killing six people and shutting down Windows for the next three years. Nevertheless, the bombing affected Rahman profoundly. He did not work for a year, believing that the restaurant would reopen quickly. He refused to let his wife work and incurred a large credit card debt. He didn’t apply for unemployment or welfare benefits and the government offered no compensation. Windows reopened after three years, but there was a protracted fight to get all former workers hired back.

When a relative called Rahman to say that a plane had hit the towers again, Rahman felt as though fundamentalists were following him. “I left my country because of that,” he thought, “and now I’m seeing this thing.”

This time, he reacted most intensely. He lost his will to work and felt constant anxiety. He went on antidepressants, frequently switching prescriptions because of the side effects. He slept too much or not at all. He had nightmares. He couldn’t concentrate. He felt unable to plan or even take the basic next steps toward recovering his livelihood. Surrounded by therapeutic options, Rahman used some of the counseling offered to victims of September 11, feeling better for only a couple of hours after each session.

Other workers affected by September 11 had lived through poverty and the dangers of crossing the border illegally. While increasing the number of Border Patrol  officers had no effect on the numbers of people crossing every year (that number remained steady), deaths at the border nearly doubled after 1995 as migrants took increasingly long and dangerous routes to the United States.

Manuel Guttierez (whose name was changed to protect his identity) worked at Ranch One near the World Trade Center, had grown up in Nezhaqualcoyotl, Mexico, in a two-room house that his construction-worker father had built. All his siblings worked as teenagers and gave about half their earnings to their parents. In 1998, he decided to go to the United States, persuaded by his cousins who had already made the trip and had connections with a coyote who would charge only $1200. He had heard stories about people who died trying to swim across river channels or crossing the desert, and others who died because they were shot by border police, but he made himself think positively. Guttierez, whose stocky build belied his talent as a jewelry designer, traveled with a friend and a cousin; the three had vowed to stick together. They flew from their little town to a bigger city, and then took a taxi to Naco, at the border, where they met 60 other migrants and an assistant coyote who guided them across the desert. Guttierez carried a gallon of water, tortas that his mother had made for him and some fruit.

The group left at 8 a.m. to walk in a long single-file line across the desert to Arizona. The coyote told them not to talk, just to follow. Guttierez and his companions started at the middle but dropped to the back because his portly cousin was slow and got tired a lot. They had to go through seven barbed wire fences (put up by farmers and the Border Patrol). Each time, they had to help his cousin pull the barbed wire wide enough for him to squeeze through. At 10 p.m., they were the last of the group to run across the highway to the waiting point where vans would take them to a hotel.

Until then, things had been fairly smooth. But the van Guttierez was in—the last of three—broke down after only a few minutes. The driver used his cell phone and a four-door sedan arrived to take them to the hotel. Fifteen people crammed into that car, lying on top of each other. Guttierez was on top of two men in the back. The driver got a call saying that the police were following them, so the driver sped up, erratically swerving all over the road. At one point, Guttierez looked up to see a big truck coming right at them. He had heard stories of people crashing and prepared himself to die at that moment. The driver lost control of the car, which nearly flipped over, but Guttierez was lucky. He survived.

Once he was living in New York City, Guttierez himself never went back to Mexico because he couldn’t take the risk of being caught. He’d intended to stay in the U.S. for two years and then return to rebuild his business, but by 2001, he was already a year past that deadline.


When memory is sacralized, the survivor’s sense of belonging tends to shrink. Protecting one’s self and one’s memory from attack becomes the most important thing. Out of fear, survivors shut others out; only people who experienced the trauma are allowed into the community. Only by refusing to freeze such a memory, by seeing it not as a dramatic, unusual incident, but rather as a part of the patterns of human society, can survivors expand their identities to allow empathy or build political solidarity.
In the United States, this urge to sacralize the memory of September 11 played out at the both micro and macro levels. At the micro level, benefits for September 11 survivors were strictly limited to those who had been in the World Trade Center on that day. These decisions were based on judgments about who was deserving and who was not. These judgments played out in the differing compensation settlements from the federal Victims Compensation Fund, out of which the children of stockbrokers got millions more than the children of janitors. Private charities operated along similar lines.

So much money poured into the private September 11 Fund, for example, that administrators ran out of families directly affected by the attack, yet the fund’s directors and donors refused to broaden its mandate to address the systemic problems that emerged—widespread job loss and the need for housing rehabilitation. For example, taxi drivers were initially excluded from public relief benefits, and advocates had to argue that the loss of Lower Manhattan business affected them even though taxis aren’t attached to a particular part of the city.

At the macro level, the political decisions of Congress and the president drew a line around America as victim, and that line was further used to marginalize Muslims, South Asians and immigrants in general. Here too, key judgments were used to justify a new disregard for civil liberties. First, the word “illegal” increasingly came to represent human beings and families in the popular culture. Their “illegality” was then viscerally attached to terrorism, directing Americans’ fear and scrutiny toward undocumented immigrants of a particular color rather than toward, say, U.S. foreign policy. These ideas would open the space for institutions and individuals to separate immigrants from Americans, in deed and in law.

Much has been made about how undocumented
immigrants have broken American law and so shouldn’t be rewarded as criminals. Mamdouh thought of them in light of his own experience. He felt that all the hand-wringing about “the law” was somewhat overwrought. Many people from poor countries simply can’t get legal immigration, even if they are well-educated professionals. Such so-called law-breakers had worked for years at Windows and been excellent employees and good men. He could imagine the conditions that had made otherwise honest people lie to ensure their own and their families’ survival, having experienced some of those conditions directly. Mamdouh knew that but for a stroke of luck, any Windows worker could have died that day. If the planes had hit at 4 p.m., he too would have been dead. Others had come even closer.

Mamdouh knew that restaurant workers had had problems before that day, and that those problems would continue. What he didn’t know, however, was that the most vilified of those workers, the undocumented, had had a decent chance at changing their status on September 10. That possibility had been swept away by the emerging September 11 narrative.

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Rinku Sen is the publisher of ColorLines.