Every year we collectively put ourselves through the torture of remembering 9/11. I can’t flip a channel this morning without finding a show with a bunch of talking heads reliving every single moment of that gut-wrenching morning. Some cable news channels will replay the entire 9/11 news cast; allowing their viewers to re-experience the horror of that morning as if it’s happening all over again. All under the guise of “Never forgetting.” As if any of us would or can ever forget.
While much of the world is absorbed in re-living 9/11, I want to share a 9/11 story that I’ve never heard anyone tell before. One that has profound meaning to me and, I think, many others who were at the Fox Valley Mall on the same day I was, maybe a week or 10 days after September 11, 2001.
The Fox Valley Mall gets a bad rap. No, it’s not as upscale as Oak Brook. Hell, it’s not even as upscale as Woodfield. But it’s small and close and, when you’re stuck in the house with a 7-month old, all day, it qualifies as high-falutin’ entertainment. See, as a young mom with a small baby, walking around the Fox Valley Mall was in the rotation of “things to do where the baby might be quiet for a while and I can interact with other adult humans.” Some days we walked around the mall, some days we walked around the park, some days we walked around the Brookfield Zoo. Intellectually stimulating? Not once I read every single piece of information on ever single animal at the zoo, no. But it got us out of the house, and, in those days, getting out of the house was tantamount to oxygen.
So it was a week or so after 9/11 and I was finally brave enough to hit the mall. Not that I wasn’t furtively glancing around at every brown guy I saw (I’m not proud of it, but there it is), I was. We all were. September 11 had shaken us to our cores, and we had no idea what this new world had in store of us. In the panic and misinformation of those fragile, early days, a suicide bomber at the mall seemed like a distinct possibility.
We’d all heard, of course, about the Muslim Americans being physically and verbally attacked by (presumably) rednecks after 9/11. And I’d been saddened to hear that a group of men had been harassing women in hijabs, the traditional head scarf worn by many Islamic women, at our very own Fox Valley Mall. Undoubtedly, this was a lone idiot or two. In a community as multi-cultural as Naperville-Aurora, this surely couldn’t be the new norm?
But sure enough, a week or so after 9/11, 7-month old Aidan and I found ourselves back at the Fox Valley Mall, playing in the children’s area, eating in the food court, and, as always, walking, walking, walking around.
I had just gotten a heaping plate of orange chicken (don’t judge me) from Panda Express when I first heard yelling. My heart dropped to my stomach as a I saw security guards rushing towards a group of men sitting at one of the tables. There was yelling and arm waving and the security guards looked very, very concerned. “Here we go,” I thought, “This is what you get for curing your baby boredom with retail therapy.” I may have actually seen stars while I waited for the blast to kingdom come.
But when I calmed down enough to look at what was actually going on, I saw a table of two women in hijabs. One was gesturing angrily to the security guards. Another appeared to be crying and rocking her small child. In that moment, I knew exactly what had happened. A group of (white) construction workers had started shouting at these women, who were probably at the mall because they were as desperate to get out of house as the rest of us moms, because they were Muslim. Muslim, and, therefore somehow culpable for the attack on the World Trade Center. Get it? I still don’t get it.
So eventually, the security guards left, the construction workers left, and there we all were, sitting in the food court, contemplating how to navigate this new world where we hated each other so much we hijacked airplanes, dive-bombed buildings, and screamed at women and children outside Sbarro. The Islamic women continued to sit in the food court long after the construction workers had left. One clearly frightened and unwilling to leave the sanctuary of the food court (they were American, what can I say?) and the other vibrating with rage and indignation.
A few women got up and went over to talk to them. Trying to reassure them, I guessed. Telling them to let it roll of their backs. “Don’t let the haters get you down,” and all that good rot. One woman in particular, a stunning blonde in a black track suit who was the embodiment of the Naperville mom, looked as angry as we all should have been. After she walked away from trying to comfort the women, she took a scarf from around her neck and wrapped it around her head, trying to imitate the hijab the Muslim women were wearing. She walked back to her table, said something to her friends, and they, too, dug in their bags for something to wrap their heads in. I grabbed a baby blanket from Aidan’s stroller and did my best to make a rudimentary hijab. It was kinda crusty and smelled like spit-up, but at the time, it didn’t matter.
Soon several women who had been lingering in the food court with their small children did the same. And just like that, the Fox Valley Mall food court suddenly boasted dozens of moms sporting a cornucopia if colorful head scarves. The Muslim women were sitting near the elevator, and as most of us had strollers, we all had to pass them on the way up to the first floor. As we passed, we all made eye contact and smiled. They nodded and smiled back, the older woman looking more surprised than angry, the younger woman’s eyes shining with gratitude. As for my eyes? They were leaking. Leaking with pride in my community, with sympathy for my Islamic sisters, and with a deep and abiding belief that women should run the world. My heart grew three sizes that day.
It was one of the moments that you realize was special after-the-fact. In the days that followed, I heard stories of women around the country taking to wearing hijabs in support of the Muslim members of their communities. Knowing that other American women were standing up to hate and bigotry took some of the sting out of the difficult days and weeks that followed.
Why did we all do it? Because, at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. For the women of the Fox Valley Mall to say “You won’t bring your misplaced hate and anger into our world.” To say “We reject the way you are treating our American sisters.” To say “There is safety in numbers. You can’t hurt all of us.” In those tender, impotent days after September 11, it was all we could do.
And that’s the story of how, during a time when hate was all the rage, a bunch of bored moms at the mall took a stand against intolerance and reminded each other what America really stands for.