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.