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OP-ED: A 2001 diary

  • Published at 12:43 am September 14th, 2021
9/11
A day seared into memory REUTERS

Memories from the grief-filled days after 9/11. This is the concluding part of a two-part special

September 30

It is, of course, quite amazing that (it seems) she has taken it in her stride. That the family was at the top of the tower was as though they were “stepping up to heaven,” as she has told me. This last Sunday there were two phones. First: “Do you know when my birthday is?” “Yes, early November.” “What date?” “November 6.” “Uncle Henry says that you are very busy and will not be able to come to my birthday. If you cannot come to my birthday, I will never talk to you again.” 

Phone slammed down. Uncle Henry phoned back at once, and in the back there was the sound of a girl laughing profusely at her Uncle J. And then later in my day, Sunday morning there, just before going to (her) church, she rang to ask me what she should say in her prayers in church. I asked Julie what her Uncle Henry said. 

She shot back: “But, Uncle Julian, I am asking you!” I told her what I had prayed for at church in Dhaka on Friday, and said that I had asked God that Mummy, Daddy, and Amy, should be OK in heaven. “Oh, that’s cool, you’ve done heaven.” She is also very reassured to know that my parents and my brother are there and will keep an eye. 

It is quite a roller-coaster of experiences. Not sure that I will ever be the same again. This all happens in the early hours of the morning, and then I head off to the Bagha Club for a swim. Therapeutic and a time when nobody can watch me weep quietly, and there has been so much of that. I find I am near to tears all the time, but somehow I am able to derive a spiritual strength from it all. 

I suppose it was like that when we lost our Mum at an early age. I then get through the day OK, but I have become aware of the frailty of myself. In a way it has come at a very sensitive time. 

Like many, I have discussed with religious Muslim friends, and I have been surprised that though they pray five times a day, they do not really know what jihad means. I have looked at the teachings of Islam as well, and have delved into the Bible for words of comfort and reassurance. Some of the psalms have been near to the mark, surprisingly so. 

Psalm 55 with words like “I am distraught by the noise of the enemy because of the clamour of the wicked.” “Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, ‘O that I had the wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.” 

And 119, v82 says: “My eyes fail with watching for your promise; I ask, ‘When will you comfort me.” Isaiah 51, v19, also covers this. Job 19, v7: “Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice.”

I have remembered the time I lived and worked at the birthplace of Buddhism, Bodh Gaya, in Bihar over 30 years ago. The sayings of Buddha: “It is as if the sun and the moon have left the sky.” That is a bit of how I felt in the days soon after coming to terms with Julie’s loss. But also I remembered what Buddha said: “Every problem comes to you with a gift in its hand; we seek those problems because we need their gifts.”

And remembering my days in India, I remember Gandhi Centenary Year in 1969, not least because October 2 is Gandhi’s birth anniversary. In those celebrations at the Gandhian ashrams in Bihar, I had the privilege of meeting some of Gandhi’s compatriots, including the tall, towering figure of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an Afghan/Pathan who features in the film Gandhi, and was known as “The Frontier Gandhi.” Very poignant remembering him as we focus on Afghanistan today.

I try to get my head round a saying of Anne Frank, and frankly, I am not doing well at this. “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Is there any goodness in the hearts of the terrorists? Yes, of course, there can be. They can be good to their own children and family. And so the turmoil goes on.

I have gained much from a Native Indian prayer:

Hold on to what is good

even if it is a handful of earth

Hold on to what you believe

even if it is a tree which stands by itself

Hold on to what you must do

even if it is a long way from here

Hold on to life

even when it is easier letting go

Hold on to my hand

even when I have gone away from you

In Islam’s Book of Knowledge, it says: “Three agents destroy religion: An ill-tempered scholar, a tyrannical leader, and an ignorant theologian.”

In the backstreet bookshops here, I am searching for a book originally published in 1941: “The Sayings of Muhammed.” It has recently been re-issued by the Citadel Press, wherever that is. It was written by someone deeply involved in India’s freedom struggle, Allama Sir Abdullah Al-Mamun Al-Suhrawardy. In the Calcutta riots, he gave shelter to Gandhi in his house. Gandhi wrote the foreword to this book, and at a time when many are bent on an eye for an eye, it is good to read: “I have read … the sayings of the Prophet with much interest and profit. They are among the treasures of mankind, not merely Muslims … A reverent study of the sayings of the different teachers of mankind is a step in the direction of … mutual respect.”

October 12

Julie continues, largely unscathed. It is really quite amazing. The frequency of the calls is less which seems OK all round and Uncle Henry says she is OK. Instead of talking to me every evening, she talks about me to whoever is there to listen. Today morning, the phone did ring, and Henry spoke to me. Then the other phone rang, and it was her laughing her head off. So there was I with one receiver at each ear. Quite hilarious. As Henry said, we felt tears of laughter coming on us which is a feeling we had forgotten. 

A friend from CUSO days was here recently to evaluate RDP-4 of BRAC. She was quite scathing in some of her comments. She had left Ottawa before September 11. After returning to Ottawa she has mailed: “I sense the reduced economic activity. Unemployment is up, air plane travel has been reduced by half, and even in the stores, and cafes there appears to be less laughter. Mind you, I am comparing this to before I left, when it was summer -- where people are more carefree. But there is a change due to more than the weather.” Sobering comments to say the least.

 October 29

Julie continues very well. The phone calls are less, but when they happen, just as amazing and thrilling and loving as ever.

My Ottawa friend has again written, which is of much interest: “I read the papers every day with great care -- the city paper, the Ottawa Citizen and the Globe and Mail, the National Paper. The ‘War on Terrorism’ usually covers five to six pages every day, sometimes six, and is almost
always on the front page. It is worth reading every article to the end. Yesterday it was reported that the bin Laden family from Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its money from the United States and ended its ties with its US investment advisor -- the Carlyle Group: A politically connected investment firm. Apparently, the break was by ‘mutual decision.’ The bin Ladens sold their investment worth $2.2 million back to the firm because Carlyle invests in buyouts of US military companies. The New York Times (another paper I love to read) reported that there was criticism of the bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia newspapers, which strongly suggested that the family
might profit from the increased US military spending. By coincidence, George Bush senior, is an advisor to Carlyle. Can you figure this out? Doesn’t the world have strange connections?

“The CBC interviewed a reporter today from The New York Times. She is the editor of a daily page in this paper, that is dedicated to the victims of Septemebr 11. She described her job as making ‘cold calls’ to the family member name, given as a contact in NYC records. She says she is always surprised by who she talks to. Sometimes it is a spouse, other times children who have been left parentless, sometimes an aunt or uncle, a distant relative or a friend.  

She asks the family if she could interview them and have photos. She is a reporter with 20 years of experience, and she states that this is her hardest assignment. Most of the time she ends by crying with the families. She said she has a new appreciation of the heroism of living ordinary life -- which is the sense that she conveys to her readers.

She also said that hardly anyone mentions work, even though most of the people killed were highly skilled workers. (Of course, she is interviewing family members who often don’t know anything really about the work of their loved ones). She said she is having second thoughts about what is important in her life. I am struck by how much everyone was affected.”

November 7

Yesterday was Julie’s birthday, her 9. I phoned this morning to get them at 6pm their time yesterday. Uncle Henry had told her that I would probably phone spot on 6pm and she picked up. Very emotional, more for me than for her. “Now my birthday is complete. You could not come, Uncle Julian, but you phoned. I love the book you sent and I want you to write another for my friends.” Lovely sentiment, I thought. “As you could not come here for my birthday, I’ll come to you for yours.” Very special little person.

She said she was going off to play and was mailing me a piece of cake! I felt very OK, warm, good at this point BUT … on to the phone came the uncle who is squabbling with the aunt about who will look after Julie. Crude abuse at me for interfering and for trying to kidnap Julie. It was so unpleasant I put the phone down. 

Later Henry rang to apologize and to reassure me that Julie had not heard this. She was in another room. He said that he was his wit’s ends. I am still smarting from that attack, though it is much less since the swim. 

Much, much later …

Following the counsellor’s advice, gradually was weaned off the phone calls and contact more or less disappeared because in 2010 Father Henry passed away. Julie’s life was settled, and she is now (2021) married with two children.         

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.’

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