What It's Like Teaching 9/11 to a Class of Arab and Muslim Students in Kuwait: It's Dicey

I teach at an international school in Kuwait. Most of my students are from Islamic countries: Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Bahrain and then some. They are wonderful and respectful young people and I enjoy being with them and I think they reciprocate those feelings. However, on this day after September 11, 2001, I am shocked at their behavior. 

They are jubilant. 

It’s as if school were suddenly let out for summer vacation. And then I am reminded that these are Muslim kids and they have an inborn hatred for Israel and for America by association and that monstrous hatred has emerged from its cave to par-tay. They are in the halls cheering and they are oblivious to “American” in their school name and they are oblivious to me, their teacher, who they profess to honor and even love. 

They are hysterical from an inborn hatred that they feel licensed to fully express, a victory celebration for an inarguable criminal act. They file into class and become subdued once they cross the threshold although I notice sideways glances laced with smiles. Without compunction they ask me ad lib how I feel about the bombing of the World Trade Centers. I feel I have to say something but I want to fall back on, “This is not the time nor the place for that discussion” ... but it is. It most surely is.

“At this point,” I tell them, “I only know that some 3,000 innocent men, women, and children were incinerated and crushed yesterday over an ancient hatred between Arabs and Jews although I am relatively sure that most of them did not share in that hatred, and I am most certain that their deaths will not advance either side’s cause although I am certain that more innocent people will die before it is over but it will never be over. Will it? It won’t ever be over because you cannot even identify your hatred and therefore you cannot rid yourself of it and it will grow fat within you. Did you forget that while you were out in the halls celebrating the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans that I too am an American? Yes, you look down at your feet now not in deserved shame but in sheepish embarrassment. Please note that it took me to remind you because you were too caught up in the jamboree of your hatred to be considerate towards me and all the other Americans around you, your teachers, your principal, your counselor, and some of your peers. And by the way, there were 371 non-Americans killed in the attack, Arab nationalities among them.” A lovely sweet covered Egyptian girl raises her hand.

“Yes, Miriam.”

“But sir, people die every day. Why not Americans?”

I am stunned at first and then I realize that she has not framed her question the way she’d like and I understand her dilemma. Besides having English as her second language, she wonders why Americans in general are living lives of relative privilege, comfort, and autonomy while Palestinians live as Israeli captives in squalor and often die wretchedly on their own land or are denied the right to return to their homeland. But I can’t answer her question in a way that won’t just add to her quandary and I don’t want to risk an answer laced with anger. 

What I really want to tell her is that once the smoke clears from the conflicts that arise from America’s unwavering defense of its independence, what emerges is an America that has a unique, unspoken creed of humanity that has forgiveness at its center and where a never ending suffocating shroud of hatred cannot form. In spite of charges of imperialism, the Marshall Plan in Europe and  SCAP in Japan helped those countries who were not far removed enemies rebuild and become U.S. allies and economic powers in their own right. I also want to tell Miriam that I personally support a Palestinian state and the Right of Return and I am adamantly opposed to U.S. Israeli-centric policy along with many, many Americans, but I am not allowed to express my political views in this venue. So I am honest in another way, which always works. “I cannot answer that satisfactorily, Miriam, but I wish I could,” and I flash a smile.