It has become customary for me to wear my American flag shirt every year on September the 11th. Interestingly, I often get curious looks and mixed comments from members of my campus communities. Perhaps it is just that my t-shirt is rather eye catching because of the size of the flag (as you could see in the picture below). I suspect however that it is a little more than that. As any other strong symbol, the American flag immediately creates images and stirs memories in the head of the person encountering it. The campus communities to which I have belonged over the years have had diverse populations and it is not surprising that people would react in different ways to my shirt but I still find it fascinating that no one ever considers what the flag means to me. It is always about others projecting their own perceptions and experiences on my decision to wear that shirt.
The first kind of reaction usually comes from undergraduate students who were very young at the time of the tragedy. Many of these students don’t even realize that it is the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC. “You are very patriotic today!” many of them would comment, only to seem surprised when I remind them of the date. After many years, I am not surprised anymore but every time I find myself thinking about my older friends and colleagues who appear to often lament the lack of awareness about important historical events that they had personally witnessed but that had become dead words on the pages of overpriced textbooks that students do not even read.
The second sort of reaction comes from people who seem bewildered that someone from an Arab or Muslim background would be wearing such an ostentatious sign of support to America. Their looks say so much even when their mouths remain closed. Some do exclaim, “good for you!” or something similar, whatever that means. Maybe a number of them are proud of my seeming betrayal of “my” people who are everywhere portrayed as helpless in their hate of everything American. Maybe not.
The third kind of reaction and the one that, to be completely honest, makes my blood boil comes from those who make sure to point out my shameless selling out to Uncle Tom. Here again, there is a particular look that comes my way. It is a distinct look and I cannot interpret it but as a form of disgust at my fashion choice. Certainly, I might simply be delusional and thus impose my own perception on the innocent looks of people that I encounter. Nevertheless, it really doesn’t help when that same disgusted look is also present on the faces of the few who have no problem telling me what they really think. A representative comment in this category came last year from a gentleman who should have known better but who sarcastically asked me, “are you celebrating the Iraq war?”
My life experience has shown me that it would be a mistake to expect of people to often acknowledge your individuality and unique experiences. You are who they think you are and if you don’t like it, tough luck! Without being interested in completely sharing the why and how of my choice in this setting, I wanted to just highlight a couple of elements on the subject. I consider myself privileged to have had a chance to become part of the American experience and I am proud to be an American. It does not mean that I agree with everything that happens in America nor does it mean that I support every policy of the American government. This seems rather obvious and yet for some reason people keep missing it. What it does mean is that I became a member of both a unique community and an amazing process that is generations in the making… or, let’s say a community entangled in a process with many flaws but with a much larger promise. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in pushing a tiny bit that process in a more positive direction within my own locality and to make its outcomes a little better with my very limited means. That is what the flag represents for me.
In no other day does this become more relevant to my own history than every year on the anniversary of 9/11. It was an extremely traumatic event at a personal level for obvious and not so obvious reasons that I might detail elsewhere in the future. At the same time, it was a moment of transformation for the very young man that I was. Time had come to find and wear a critical hat that led me to embrace learning and searching beyond what I had inherited and unquestionably accepted. Interestingly, on the day that I realized something was different, I felt very lonely and I cried a lot. Yet once I stopped crying, I was overwhelmed with hopefulness. I remember that moment vividly. Only on two other occasions did I experience a similar feeling and react in that fashion: on the day I landed in New York alone after leaving Morocco for the first time and on the day of my American citizenship ceremony when most people around me had their friends and families surrounding them while I was again alone. Just me and my little American flag!