Remembering the exhausting days in the aftermath of 9/11. This is the first part of a two-part special
I had, of course, been worrying more here about the violence in the run-up to the general election on October 1. I have been very busy, and the increasing election-related violence has not been so good, but actually not as bad as predicted or expected. I was coming back later than usual from office last Tuesday (September 11) night, and after a very trying day, and on the way home, it was obvious that something was wrong on the road ahead -- signs of violence, cock-tail bombs, and shooting.
We quickly turned round and came a different way home. Due to a number of disturbances in down-town Dhaka and in the industrial area (which is on the way to office) that morning following a shooting incident Monday night. Tuesday afternoon, the trouble was getting worse with a sort of BNP (main op-position in last parliament) localized hartal, and it had spread to the Mo-hakhali area (near where we live). So on arrival at home, I flopped down and had poured myself a stiff G&T! The phone rang immediately, and a colleague told me to turn on the TV. Quite horrendous scenes from NY and Washington!
On Friday (weekend here, as you know) morning I was preparing to go to church. Having missed the previous few weeks as a result of work, I felt a great need to go there following the events in America in the last week. I was getting ready to go to church to pray for so much and for so many, when I got the news of a distant relation of mine. He, his wife, and five-year-old daughter perished in the WTC tragedy, leaving an eight-year-old daughter behind too. They had gone “early” to the office to show their young daughter dad’s office on 44th floor for the first time, and the view of NY from his office, and from the very top, on a fine and clear day.
They got caught on the very top with no way to get down. Whenever her dad had left each morning from home, she would say: “Daddy, give my love to the work people.” This day, she was to have given it herself !! So, I have spent the weekend in silent prayer. I did not realize that the tragedy would affect me too.
In the end I did not go to church. How could I bring myself to forgive as the Lord’s prayer tells us to do? Much mental turmoil!! A lot of questioning of my own faith and belief and values.
Yes, the story of my cousin and his family in New York is increasingly painful, day by day. The eight-year-old old, Julie, is currently being cared for by her uncle who is a Jesuit priest, Father Henry (I knew his uncle, also a Jesuit, over 20 years ago in India, and we became friends. It was only years later that we discovered we were distantly related!) He rang me yesterday morning. We talked about forgiveness, etc which was good for both of us, I think. He told me that in recent weeks, his brother and his brother’s wife had been explaining to the girls on different occasions about the world, and why their friends and relations lived all over the world and what things they do.
With photos they had apparently talked about me, and the sort of work I have done and do. Apparently, Julie had put photos of me up on the board in her room with a map of Bangladesh, and yesterday she told her uncle that she wanted to talk to Uncle Julian. So, after I got this intro from Henry, she came on the line. It was one of the most difficult phone calls I have ever had.
A small voice came on the line: “Uncle Julian, Mummy, Daddy, and Amy have gone to God in heaven. Uncle Henry says that they will be OK there. What do you think?” Fighting back the tears, I tried to be a sensible “uncle” from 13,000 miles away: “Yes, I think they’ll be alright, because God is very loving like your Uncle Henry.”
“Yes, I know, and now Uncle Henry is looking after me, but he can’t cook as good as Mum, and Uncle Henry says you are quite a good cook, though not as good as Mum.” “Can I come and live with you for some time?” I replied that perhaps she could come later on with Uncle Henry, but that perhaps I would come to see her first, and that apart from scrambled egg, my cooking was not that good either. When I put the phone down, I just fell to pieces. It is all so very, very difficult to deal with.
Today, again at 5am, the phone rang. Henry told me that there is a bit of a squabble among the uncles/aunts about who will take care of Julie. Till it is sorted out, Henry will be guardian, and he will be the judge and jury. I said that being a replacement father/male figure over the phone was not possible for me, and that he should get some professional help. He reacted angrily, and said that if I did not want to help, it was OK.
I calmed him down, and we talked about it some more. Then a woman’s voice came on the line. She was a child/trauma counsellor who had been listening to all our talk all through on the speaker phone. She said that she understood my common sense attitude, but asked me to stay connected for some more time, as I was currently a very special person in Julie’s life.
It was all very moving. Julie, who had been in another room, then came on the line and re-checked with me if I thought heaven was an OK place for her family. She then said that Uncle Henry had told her that I used to sing in a band and also in the Westminster Abbey choir in London, and could I sing her a song over the phone! I sang her “Five Pennies,” which I expect you don’t know.
Never had such difficulty singing in my life! The last verse talks about heaven, and Henry said afterwards it was most appropriate.
The 5 am calls continue -- Julie’s bedtime in NY. The singing from here continues. “Ragtime Lullaby” from the 1930s yesterday, and “Goodnight, Sleep Tight” today. The relations there, as I have already written, are squabbling about who will care for Julie. The Priest Uncle holding the line. Julie saying that our names are similar, we should be together, and when can she eat my scrambled egg?!
Today it was Old Macdonald. I slipped in a monkey, but Julie interjected that: “In America we don’t have monkeys on farms. Didn’t you know?”
Request for the same as yesterday. I asked why. She said that the way I make the monkey noise makes her laugh. Said that Uncle Henry had cooked scrambled egg which was “goodish”.
Shahidul Haque of SARPV (local disability NGO) thinks God is speaking through me! No wonder I feel so tired. He is, of course, a bit biased, but what he wrote made me feel a bit wobbly and emotional.
It is just after 5:30 am, and I have had my NY phone call. The phone call this morn came early, because Julie wanted to tell Uncle Julian about the video Uncle Henry had promised she could see before she went to bed. I said that I thought it would have been better/easier to tell me about it AFTER the video, not before!
She said that might not have been possible, because she usually falls asleep during a video, and if that happens, Uncle Henry picks her up and puts her in her bed. Quite an amazing conversation really. The families have not, it seems, got very far in agreeing what will happen about Julie’s future, which is weighing heavily on Henry, who, before Julie came on the line, raged about it to me. And you think how many other families are affected. It numbs the mind.
At a young age, I was a King Arthur nut, and read lots of those books. Someone here reminded me of TE White’s “The Once and Future King.” In this story, King Arthur seeks advice from Merlin, his magician and counsel. The following words may create a spark of light in the midst of the present global distress. Merlin’s wisdom is sought at a desperate time for King Arthur, trying to find meaning in a world gone awry.
Merlin speaks: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies; you may lie at night listening to the disorder of your veins; you may miss your only love. You may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics; or know your honour trampled in the sewer of baser minds. “There is only one thing for it, then to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for all of us.”
Let’s hope the world will combat terror with learning.
The concluding part of this diary will be published tomorrow.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh Citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the British award of the OBE for ‘services to development in Bangladesh.