Two Days That Mattered
Written on: Thu, 6 Oct 2011; 20:58
My name is Soraya Jalali. I was born in a small village on the banks of Lake Assad in Syria. The worst day of my life was when I was standing in the living room, holding my one-year-old grandson, watching the airplane, which later turned out to be carrying my daughter and son-in-law, fly into the second tower. The story I will tell you now is that of the second-worst day of my life, and also that of the day when everything fell into place again.

My grandson, Rabi Idris, was an ordinary 11-year-old boy. He loved to play baseball, spent his afternoons chasing squirrels in the backyard, adored his dog, Sammy, and could not finish his meal without a very sweet desert. There were merely two things that set him apart from his friends: he never really knew his parents and he is a Muslim.

One rainy Monday morning, I got a phone call from Rabi’s school, asking me to come pick him up. They would not tell me what was going on, or even whether or not my little boy was hurt. They simply told me to come as quick as I could. So, I left Jay and Marilyn to run the workshop on their own and hailed a cab. Taking a cab in New York and asking the driver to hurry, is like attempting suicide at every corner. Pedestrians, buildings, other cabs, and incidentally a tree flashed by while a heavy rain cast a dark shadow over everything. Unlike normally, however, I did not even notice all the life-threatening situations that could possibly cause my demise. Instead, every possible scenario skipped my mind. He could have fallen to the ground while climbing a tree, been hit by a car, caused the school to flood, kissed a girl, heaven knows. Shush, stop worrying, he probably just angered a teacher by not doing his homework. It won’t be that big of a deal.

It was.

And that was the second-worst day of my life.

It was the day my grandson beat up a fourth grader. When I arrived at the school, an ambulance was just driving away, and several police officers were talking to Rabi’s teacher. As soon as she saw me get out of the cab, she ran my way and rushed me inside. Not even imagining that Rabi could ever inflict pain on someone else, I had assumed he was the child inside the ambulance. Inside the head teacher’s office, however, was my Rabi. His little face was flushed and he was sobbing mournfully; he wouldn’t even look at me when I said his name.

“What happened?”, was all I could utter.

The room remained silent. Three police officers, the head teacher and Rabi’s teacher had suddenly turned mute. All I could hear was Rabi’s soft whimpering and the sound of the air-conditioning vents. The head teacher was the first to regain his speech. “Rabi beat up little Aaron from fourth grade.” Another long, awkward silence followed. I knew instinctively that there was more to come, that there was something that they were hiding. I did not want to ask the question, but I could not restrain myself. “Why?” Rabi’s soft whimpering instantly turned into loud weeping. I tried to get closer to him, but his weeping had awakened the police officers, and they pulled me away from him.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I screamed. “Will somebody in this damned room tell me what the hell is going on?” I don’t think anyone ever expected me to curse like that, such a nice, old, Muslim lady. It worked, though. The police officer standing between me and Rabi sighed and told me to sit down. What he told me next broke my heart.

“This morning, all of the teachers discussed 9/11 and what happened after with their groups. As we have understood from several of the other students, Aaron’s family sustained quite a few losses during that dreadful day. You have to understand, mrs...”

“Jalali.” I was already starting to lose my patience.

“You have to understand, mrs Jalali, that for many families in this city, the memory of 9/11 is a truly horrific one. Aaron’s family seems to believe that the Muslim world is to blame entirely for the attacks, and I have to say that it is easy to believe such a thing. During break time, Aaron must have said something to Rabi, which caused Rabi to lose control. No one, however, is able to tell us exactly what that would have been.”

Although I already knew what sort of message it would have contained, I had to hear it from Rabi himself. I did not want to overreact in front of the police and Rabi’s teachers.


For the first time, he spoke. “Jaddatee, he said... he said my parents and all their terrorist friends killed his grandfather and his uncle.”

The temperature in the room seemed to drop 30 degrees, while my temper was boiling. The same officer then decided to make matters so much worse by announcing that that really was not a reason to beat someone up. “I mean, really, with Al Qaida claiming responsibility, you really can’t blame the kid!”

This time, no officer was going to pull me away from my grandson. I took his hand and pulled him out of the head teacher’s office, saying, calmly but firmly, “Rabi’s parents both died on September 11th, 2001, and I will not hear any such allegations again. Rabi is coming home with me and you will be sure that this is not the end of it.”

The days that followed were rough, to say the least. Rabi was not speaking at all, I could not get him to even say what he wanted for dinner. Even Sammy could not get close to him. He was sitting in his room all day, watching youtube videos of the airplanes flying into the towers, over and over again. Still, he had not shed a single tear since we left that office. It was frightening to see a little boy change from a lively, enthusiastic lad into a serious, quiet boy, in the matter of a day.

I went to visit Aaron at the hospital. He was recovering, and after he heard that Rabi’s parents had died during the 9/11 attacks, he was clearly resentful for what he had said. He explained to me that his grandfather and his uncle had both died, and that his mother had never forgiven the ethnic group which they blamed for this terrible loss. The conversation we had was good, and I think it helped both of us in dealing with the situation. The atmosphere changed, however, when his parents walked into the room. His mother especially, was very upset and no matter what Aaron said, she could not accept me as another human being, with painful memories and a broken heart.

It hurt to realize that this woman was so stuck in her pain that she failed to understand that several, horrible people killed her father and brother, not the entire Muslim people. She screamed at me, pulling me away from her son, threatening to call the police. I tried to calm her down, but soon thought better of it. I left, defeated. This sorrow was of the kind that I could not deal with.

Rabi never quite returned to being that careless, beautiful child that I had loved so much. The experience truly broke his innocence. But he did regain his speech, though not his ability to cry. I found a different school for him, where his classmates accepted him for who he was: the quiet, thoughtful, Syrian boy, who was so very nice to everyone. Because that’s who he was. It was as if he was trying to make up for something, trying to apologize to the world for what he did that day, simply by being nice.

He finished high school two years ago, and is currently studying International Relations at Columbia University. Still lives with me, helped me set up my very own jewelry shop. Quite a businessman he is, he takes after his father. In his spare time, he works with the local Muslim communities, helping them settle and integrate in the New York society. He tries to help them to understand the way Americans look at us, and how to deal with the inevitable allegations.

Yesterday, he came home from his volunteering job. He had taken a group of young Muslim men to the 9/11 memorial, to show them what happened to New York on that fatal day. It was a difficult day for him, seeing his parents names on the memorial, as well as those of so many others. One of the volunteers at the center walked up to him, to talk to the group and to explain what the memorial was all about. It wasn’t before long that Rabi and Aaron recognized one another. Aaron recovered entirely from the beating Rabi had given him, and had clearly dealt with the event by taking up this job as a volunteer. Rabi showed him his parents’ names and Aaron showed Rabi the names of his grandfather and uncle, both firemen at the time. For the first time in so many years, Rabi was able to cry.

Tonight, I’m cooking Rabi’s favorite dish: baba ghanoush with baklava for desert. We’re having Aaron over for dinner. I think this is the day we can finally put that terrible day behind us and truly move on with our lives. I still don’t know whether I did the right thing, so many years ago. Whether I should have shouted at the officers, whether I should have made Rabi switch schools, and whether I should have visited at the hospital. They were all choices I made in a rush, while I saw my grandson suffering, languishing.

However, I do think that the most important things I gave Rabi during his lifetime, are love and pride. Love, because that is the one thing every child needs the most when growing up. And pride, because Rabi deserved to be proud of his heritage, of who he was and what he represented. I am incredibly proud of what he has achieved over the years, and of the person he has become. I am looking forward to speaking with Aaron tonight. I’m sure he has a few stories of his own to tell, and I will be surprised if this is the last we see of him. Rabi seemed very impressed by Aaron’s appearance, and most of all by his understanding.

Yes, I am sure now. This is the day Rabi and I, and Aaron as well, will find peace again.


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