Opinion Watching 9/11 taught me, a refugee, the visceral lessons of Americanness

The twin lights of the "Tribute In Light" in New York City, on March 11, 2002. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Roya Hakakian is an Iranian American author. This op-ed is adapted from her book “A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, I watched through tears as ash fell over the city that had so unceremoniously taken me in as a refugee 15 years earlier. Like all Americans, I was mourning the dead, the pierced skyline, the bereft mood of a people whom I had never seen bereft. But I was also mourning a loss of my own — the loss of the impenetrable fortress I thought I had entered when I arrived in the United States.

The blare of sirens drowned all other sounds. The sidewalks that had teemed with passersby were deserted. Suddenly New York City began to feel like the Tehran I had fled. But while most Americans feared what evil might follow next, I feared that my adopted city might succumb to the same reign of grief my birth city had.

By 2001, a lot still puzzled me about America. I was stunned each time I walked into a shoe store in August to buy a pair of beach sandals, only to find an overflowing stock of fall’s waterproof boots. I laughed endlessly the first time I received a “save the date” card for a wedding that was to happen the following year. I learned the hard way that other mothers were, in fact, not neurotic when they began registering their kids for summer camp in January.

By 2001, there was also a lot I knew about America. I knew how Americans celebrated their New Year, marked their Independence Day and elected their presidents.

What I had not seen was how Americans grieved as a nation.

With nearly 3,000 people dead on 9/11, I expected America to yield to sadness. I thought life would come to a halt. Schools and offices would shut down, joy would become unseemly.

When I was a teenager, every national tragedy had turned into a perennial national sorrow. If a notable figure died, black flags were draped over major buildings, music was banned, schools and government offices shut down, often for days. Weeping men donned black and carried coffins through the streets, while droves of other darkly clad people followed howling, at times beating themselves.

Tears begot tears. The best way to honor the dead was to offer up the most despair. These dead, these “martyrs” — their names replacing the names of squares and streets — were often more present than the living.

For a few days after 9/11, New York appeared as it never had. An odor of horror imbued the air. Armed guards turned up at intersections, tunnel entrances, the foot of every bridge. The city that never slept slipped into a coma, but not for long.

Watching life return to the city was as stunning as the attacks themselves. The buildings that had been damaged or collapsed remained closed, but everything else was open and abuzz.

Memorials were held for the deceased, yet instead of hysterics, there was music and song. Eulogists spoke with affection and humor about the dead, even made spectators laugh. Dogs, forbidden in my former homeland, were on hand for the bereaved to pet.

Americans had every reason to surrender to grief, but I saw them grieve stoically. Their ceremonies were meant to calm, not to incite more tears. Did this soothe the mourners more? Perhaps not. But it dictated to the forces of the living to take charge again, to overcome the forces of inertia.

A single symbol spoke volumes in those early days. In lieu of black flags at Ground Zero, two columns of light were beamed into the night’s sky, taller than anything that had been there before.

For the immigrant, arrival happens in increments as she undergoes major experiences along with the people of her adopted homeland. Now I understood the purpose of the save-the-date cards and the early seasonal preparations. For Americans, the future was so full that it could not be missed.

Conspiracy theories blaming George W. Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been debunked, yet millions of Americans still believe them. (Video: Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

This zest for life is electrifying, but also sometimes unsettling to the immigrant. I saw clearly that I had been a witness to so many death rituals and learned much about the virtues of sacrifice, but I had never given a thought to the future. The past had always been too present to allow us to think of what might come next.

Watching 9/11 taught me the visceral lessons of Americanness, the things that civics classes never could. In turn, I learned things that native-born Americans could not necessarily see.

I saw clearly that there were two Americas: America the country, the vulnerable place that came under attack. But also America the idea, the imperfect repository of hope and vitality, from which, without fanfare, so many anonymous phoenixes rose to show that misery need not be the destiny after tragedy.