Despite everything she had been through in the last ten years, Talat Hamdani, a Pakistani-American substitute teacher in New York City, was still caught off guard when her 7th grade student called her a terrorist.
“Why did you call me a terrorist?” asked Talat.
“Because you guys attacked the twin towers,” replied the 14-year-old.
It’s an accusation that would hurt anyone, but for Talat Hamdani, it cut to the core. That’s because for her, 9/11 was not just a national or even a global tragedy, but a deeply personal one.
And even today, she remembers every detail of the day her life changed forever,
“It’s a very clear Tuesday,” Talat remarked to her younger son, Zeeshan, as she drove him to college on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Her eldest son, Salman, 23, a cadet with the New York Police Department and a certified emergency medical technician (EMT), was still in bed at their home in Queens, when she left at 7:15 a.m.
At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre. According to the 9/11 commission’s report, in the 17 minutes between 8:46 and 9:03 a.m., the largest rescue operation in the city’s history was mobilised. Well over a thousand first responders were deployed, an evacuation began and the critical decision was made that the fire could not be fought. Then the second plane hit.
As the news spread, chaos ensued. With phone lines jammed and communication nearly impossible, Talat wasn’t initially worried when Salman didn’t answer his cell phone in the hours after the attack. He was trained as an EMT after all, and she reasoned that he would have rushed to work on a day that his particular skills would be greatly sought after.
But then minutes turned into hours, and day turned into night and still there was no word.
“The night passed and then we got worried,” says Talat. “He was not like this. He always called in when he was late.”
The next morning, she went to Salman’s office at Rockefeller University in Manhattan to find more about his whereabouts. No one had seen him. Salman had not checked into work on September 11th, 2001.
Talat tried to piece together what had happened to her son. She reasoned that he probably heard about the first plane hitting the tower on his commute to work on the no.7 train. As a certified EMT, he would have gone directly to lower Manhattan to help. She knew Salman was the type of person who went out of his way to help people. But she did not know where he went from there.
As she was leaving Rockefeller University, the security guard at Salman’s office made a curious remark that stuck with Hamdani. “I have a friend in the FBI,” he said. “I will ask him if your son is with them.”
As she left Salman’s office, she joined many others who were desperately searching for their loved ones in Manhattan. Her first stop was St Vincent Hospital. Maybe he was injured, she thought. Then she checked at the morgue — maybe he was dead. But there was no sign of him.
Talat walked the length and breadth of Manhattan, searching for her missing son, her lungs hurting from the dust now rising from the debris of the towers, her feet aching — but she would not give up her search. Days turned into weeks. Still, there was no sign of Salman. The atmosphere was thick with distrust and hostility as much as with dust from the destruction of the towers. When Zeeshan started printing ‘missing’ flyers for his brother Salman, his co-workers were taken aback at the name ‘Mohammad’ on the flyer. They advised him to drop the ‘Mohammad’ from the posters. Talat says some of the flyers were ripped apart nevertheless, even on her own block.
Two police detectives dropped by her house later that month, saying they were visiting families who had lost loved ones on 9/11. In the house, their eyes froze on a picture of Zeeshan’s graduation day. Salman was posing with Zeeshan and another boy, who was originally from Afghanistan.
“Who is that boy?” asked the detectives.
“It’s probably one of his class fellows,” replied Talat. They seemed satisfied as they left. But she began to develop doubts as to the real purpose of the visit.
Could it be that Salman was alive and in custody? After all, scores of Muslims were being detained in New York and family members were often being kept in the dark. There was still no sign of her son in the lists of the dead or injured, so the Hamdanis began to hope that their son was in fact being held and interrogated. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate.
Talat Hamdani decided to write a letter to the White House, pleading with President Bush to let her know if Salman was being held by the government. But a month later, the Hamdanis had still had no word. In despair, Talat decided to travel to Makkah to perform Umrah and pray for her son’s safe return.
On her flight to Saudi Arabia, on October 11th, 2001, memories of Salman’s childhood raced through her mind. He had been born in their home in Karachi’s Nazimabad area, and had come to America with his parents in 1979, when he was only a year old. His favourite movie had always been Star Wars, and his devotion to the film had survived into adulthood. The number plate of his Honda read ‘Young Jedi’. He loved playing cops and robbers, she recalled, and even as a child had shown a desire to help others.
“He used to bring sick pigeons home to nurture them back to health,” Hamdani says now. “Most of us can see the pain of others, but he could feel the pain.”
It didn’t come as a surprise then that, spurred by his desire to help others, he opted to become a doctor.
All these thoughts and more raced through her mind but in particular she recalled the visit made to her house by a reporter from the New York Post just a few hours before she left for the airport. He had questions about Salman, and the Hamdanis told him whatever they knew at the time. Her son was still missing and the family thought he could be one of the many Muslims who had been detained by the government after 9/11.
The next day, October 12th 2001, the Post published an article with the headline, “Missing or Hiding? — Mystery of NYPD Cadet from Pakistan.”
The article went on to quote Hamdani directly:
“…Mohammad Hamdani’s mother is convinced the government already has her son in custody, simply because he’s a Muslim.
‘They have him. I don’t know who ‘they’ is -it could be the CIA, FBI or any of the other task forces, whatever,’ said Talat Hamdani.
Hamdani was last seen, Koran in hand, leaving his Bayside, Queens home for his job as a research assistant at Rockefeller University, but he never made it to work.
His family distributed missing-person fliers in the fear that the 23-year-old, who is trained as an emergency medical technician, went instead to the World Trade Centre to help and was killed.
But investigators for the FBI and NYPD have since questioned the family about which Internet chat rooms he visited and if he was political…”
When Talat finally reached the Ka’bah, tears welled in her eyes and she begged God to reunite her with Salman. She knew her son was not a terrorist. Later, while she was still in Saudi Arabia, Hamdani received word that New York Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office had called the family unexpectedly, saying he had information about Salman. She returned from her pilgrimage with a renewed sense of hope.
Ackerman met with Hamdani and questioned her about Salman, his politics and the family.
“He indicated that Salman might be with Ashcroft,” says Hamdani, referring to the US Attorney General. After the meeting, Ackerman asked her to write to John Ashcroft for more information about Salman.
“He did not deny that Salman was alive,” she says, referring to Ackerman, as her voice begins to crack. “He gave us hope.” Alas, this too was a false hope.
The answer finally came a full six months after Salman had gone missing. In March 2002, two police officers knocked on her door a few minutes before midnight. Salman’s remains had been found at ground zero, along with an EMT bag containing emergency medical supplies.
“His body was found in 34 pieces,” says Hamdani, as she breaks down during an interview nearly a decade after September 11. Pausing for a few minutes to find her voice, she continues. “Only his lower body was found. I’m not even sure it was his. But the jeans I was given were his.”
“I was hoping he was detained,” she says. “I couldn’t accept that he was dead. I couldn’t accept it.”
The truth had finally been revealed. Far from being involved in the attacks, Salman had rushed to Manhattan after hearing of the attack. Heedless of his own safety, he had entered the smoking towers to try and help people. It was this heroic mission of mercy that he was engaged in when the towers fell. He had died a martyr in the truest sense of the word.
206 days after his death, Salman’s funeral was held at the Islamic Cultural Center, New York City’s largest mosque. With the coffin draped in the American flag he was buried a hero. In April that year, the Rockefller University also announced the establishment of the Shaheed Mohammed Salman Hamdani Memorial Fund, a scholarship meant to benefit Pakistani-American students. At the funeral, Congressman Ackerman presented Salman’s family with a U.S. flag that had flown over the Capitol building, noting that Salman was “a hero and a real martyr in the finest sense.”
But years later, Hamdani feels her son is being discriminated against, even in his death.
“When I received formal documentation for the 9/11 memorial, I discovered that Salman’s name is not going to be honoured in section one, with first responders from the NYPD and FDNY,” she says.
“His name will be in section six, as a person who happened to be there at the time,” she continues. “His sacrifice should not go to waste. He should be honoured.”
Hamdani complains that this type of discrimination hurts her twice as much. Not only did she lose her son but she has to fight for his legacy because he happened to be a Muslim.
“If injustice is done with your son,” she says as her voice begins to crack again. “You have to fight it.”
These days, Hamdani lives by herself in Suffolk County and works as a substitute teacher at Lake Grove High School. Her husband, Saleem, a convenience store owner, died in 2003, his health declining rapidly after Salman’s death.
“Before 9/11, I was like most Pakistani women,” Hamdani admits. “I didn’t know a lot about politics. But everything changed on September 11th, 2001.”
Hamdani joined an advocacy group called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which tries to channel the grief of 9/11 family members into action to break the cycle of terrorism and war. Today she is an activist and spokesperson, fighting against what she sees as the unfair stereotyping of an entire community. This is her American Jihad.
When controversy over a proposed mosque near ground zero flared up last year, Hamdani was the only Muslim 9/11 family member to speak out at the local community board hearing.
“Oh my God, it was horrible,” says Hamdani, recalling her experience. “I learned the meaning of heckling that day.”
She received hate mail in response to her public defense of the mosque. One of the e-mails read: “All Muslims are not terrorists. But all terrorists are Muslims. Go back to where you came from.”
Talat says she is determined to clear the cloud of suspicion weighing down Muslims in America by spreading awareness about the stories of ‘real’ American Muslims like Salman at public forums and in the media. Her son may have died ten years ago but her spirit remains undefeated. There could be no greater tribute to the young Jedi who gave his life while trying to save others.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 11th, 2011.