Shah Zeb is a lanky Pashtoon from Kohat in what the British named the Northwest Frontier Province and is now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Zeb drives a cab in Washington but like all in the Virginia Tavern group has lived in New York too.In Pakistan, he lived in a narrow alley off Peshawar’s Qissa Khawni or the Bazaar of the Storytellers. So he loves telling stories, especially in cold winter nights. When it is his turn to tell a story, he comes fully equipped – the shisha, green tea and loads of pine kernels for munching.
He drew the shisha close, took a few puffs and began: “When I lived in New York, I met this interesting couple,” he said. “I will only tell half of their story. The other half is obvious. When men and women meet and fall in love; either they get married or do not. You guess how this story ended.”
The scene was shockingly familiar to New Yorkers: fire engines rushing to the site, police cars blocking roads, relatives clustered near police barriers seeking news about victims and survivors — and a column of thick, dark smoke rising from the center of it all.It was Nov. 12, 2001. A plane had crashed in Queens. Residents of the city, still shaken by the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, panicked when they heard a big bang in their neighborhood.
Most people did not yet know what had befallen them — or fallen on them. The facts tumbled out slowly: an American Airlines plane had crashed in Rockaway shortly after takeoff from nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing 251 passengers and nine crewmembers.
Tension tightened its grip across New York. But nowhere was the fear greater than in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, home to a large South Asian community.
“Oh God, let it not be another terrorist attack,” prayed Noor Ibne Mohammed al-Qudsi, a Queens resident who is part-time correspondent for a Middle Eastern newspaper, but whose name has been changed for this article. “There has been a lot of tension in our neighborhood. We do not want any more trouble.”
Two South Asians were killed in the area after the World Trade Center attack.
He rushed to JFK’s Ramada hotel, designated a collection point for friends and relatives of the victims, to report on the crash. They were seeking the impossible. They wanted someone to come and tell them that the crash had not happened, that it was a media error.
They were hoping against hope but were not willing to give up. “Why not? Miracles happen,” an old woman said through sobs and tears. She had a son on the plane. Talking only to a young woman accompanying her, she repeated her mantra: “Miracles happen. He could still be alive. Miracles happen.”
The authorities were not waiting for miracles. They had a city to run — a mega metropolis that was still reeling from the huge tragedy of barely two months earlier.
Tunnels and highways were closed. Access to Manhattan was limited. Security around the United Nations, where the General Assembly was debating terrorism and the war in Afghanistan, was further tightened.
Several subway trains, including the A train, which links Rockaway and other parts of Queens to the city, were still for hours.
Passengers were still nervous when the train started to move again. Holding his notebook, Noor approached a young woman outside the hotel. His fair skin and olive-green eyes hid his Middle Eastern origin and allowed him to mingle with other people when other Arabs and Muslims would not have dared.
Flashing his press card, he said to a young woman: “Can I talk to you?”
“No, I don’t trust journalists,” she said. But seeing his disappointment, she changed her mind. “Only if you send me what you write.”
She was known as Nora — not her real name — a paralegal in a Manhattan law firm. She had come to find out about a friend who was supposed to have taken this flight. She called her friend’s home when she heard the news. No one answered. The office said her friend was on leave but they did not know whether she had taken this flight.
It was getting late to file the story, but Noor stayed with Nora until the passenger list was posted on the hotel door. Amid the tragedy, there was some joy: Her friend was not on it. She was so happy that she hugged Noor.
She gave him her e-mail address when they parted and asked him to send her the story.
“And you never told me your name,” she said.
“Al,” he said and walked away before she could ask his full name.
She was Jewish and he did not want to risk annoying her. Every part of his name was as Islamic as they come and the last even showed his place of origin: al Quds or Jerusalem. His family still lives in the Arab quarter of that most controversial of all cities.
He sent her the quotes he had used from the interview. She wrote back asking for the article. He did not send it because it was in Arabic. Soon he forgot her.
But a week or so after the first meeting, he met her again at the Union Turnpike metro station. She came over and said hello. He was pleased.
She reminded him about the article. He said it was in Arabic and that’s why he did not send it to her. She did not say anything. The train came. They sat facing each other.
“Are you an Arab?” she asked.
“Yes. A Palestinian and my name is not Al either. It is Noor,” he said.
This time the silence was longer. Several stations passed before she addressed him again.
He also told her that he was only a part-time journalist. Four days a week he worked at a computer shop near the Grand Central station.
She said she worked near there.
They both got off at the Grand Central and walked their separate ways. “I will probably not see her again,” he said to himself.
They met again. This time outside a fast-food restaurant, lining up for lunch. They ate together and realised that they both go home late, around 8:30 or 9 in the evening. So that day he left the shop a little early and waited for her at the platform. She was obviously pleased to see him.
It became a routine. They came to work separately but returned home together. She was from another state, where her parents still lived.
She had rented an apartment near the Union Turnpike station when she got a job. Her grandparents had lived there once. She said she had good memories of the place.
Noor said he liked the area because it had a large South Asian population. Although they were not Arabs, like him, the streets and shops reminded him of home.
Soon they were good friends. But the relationship did not go beyond friendship. They often ate together, particularly on Friday nights but went home separately.
But one evening she called his shop. He was surprised because she never called. They always met at the station.
“I have to work late tonight and am afraid of going home alone. Could you come with me?” she asked.
She came to his shop. They bought sandwiches and went over to her office. After eating their dinner, he watched television while she finished her work.
It was already midnight when she finished. She was holding his hand on the walk to the station. The train came around 12:45 but did not break up their conversation.
She had spent six months at a kibbutz in Israel but had never seen an Arab up close. For her they were always “them,” people on the other side of the divide who had to be watched carefully.
He grew up in an area where many joined the so-called martyr brigades to learn how to blow themselves up near a Jewish crowd — the larger the better. It was to escape from these brigades that he fled to the United States 10 years ago. “Had I stayed I would be a suicide bomber by now,” he said.
By the time they got off at the Union Turnpike station it was 1:30 in the morning. They came out of the station and started walking toward her apartment. They were so engrossed in their conversation that they did not notice a shadow walking behind them.
Suddenly, a hand appeared from behind and grabbed her leather bag.
She screamed and pulled the bag away. The man grabbed the bag again. She kicked him in the groin and he bent up with pain.
They left him there and ran away. But they had gone hardly a few yards when Noor saw a flash. Instinctively Noor stepped between the woman and the flash. The knife slid between his ribs and he fell on the pavement.
She screamed for help. The attacker ran away. She bent down and pressed Noor tightly near the wound to stop bleeding. He heard her frantically calling 911 for her help.
“I wonder what my friends in Hamas would think if they see this,” he thought. Then he fainted.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.