Of Pain and place

Documenting devastation near and far-of the body, the mind, and the soul


As my thoughts remain with Chris and his family, I can't help but think of some of my own relatives. I was watching one of the local television stations interview the South Florida neighbors of one of the suspected hijackers, and the reporter asked, "Was there anything suspicious about this person?"

"Well," the neighbor replied, "they were Arabic."

I'm an Arab. Or at least part of me is. My maternal grandfather's parents came to the United States around the turn of the last century from the Middle East. My great-grandfather, Rashid Eadeh, came here from Ramallah, in the West Bank, about ten miles north of Jerusalem. His wife, Jamelia, was born in Damascus, Syria.

They initially settled in Cleveland, where my grandfather was born, and then moved to New York around 1920. My grandfather spoke both English and Arabic, a beautiful language I wish I had taken the time to learn from him. Because my father's parents (the Sicilian side of the family, where I get the name DeFede) died when I was young, most holidays and special occasions were spent with my mother's parents, and that usually meant feasts of Middle Eastern food.

I'm not sure why being Arab is synonymous with being suspicious. Nor am I sure why any news station would see fit to promote that idea. The most suspicious thing my grandfather used to do was force me to wake up before sunrise on Saturday mornings so we could get to the golf course early enough to be in the first foursome of the day, and so he could take advantage of his early-bird senior discount card.

These are dark, somber days in which we are now living. There is no need to make them worse by demonizing entire groups of people.


Finally it's hard to picture New York without those twin towers. My Uncle Ralph was a plumber who helped build them back in the Seventies. In the Eighties my mother spent five years working for the phone company in the south tower. And since the early Nineties, my brother-in-law has worked in the Merrill Lynch building across from the towers.

A few days ago my sister told me she was afraid to go outside. She wasn't fearful of further terrorist attacks. She just couldn't imagine stepping outside her apartment building in Brooklyn, looking out across the water to Manhattan and seeing a gap in the skyline. "There is always going to be a hole there," she says. "I mean, a piece of us is gone."

--By Jim DeFede


NYC, September 13-15
Years ago my girlfriend Molissa Fenley, the anti-ballerina, and I used to walk from White Street in Tribeca, where we were staying, down to West Broadway at Vesey. She loved the surreal height of 1 & 2 Trade Center, the north and south towers, the strange graphite hardness of the financial symbols thrusting into the sky like postmodern pyramids; they reminded her, she said, of life and death, and she later choreographed a dance -- "Feral" -- based on the feelings they inspired.

We'd come out of the quiet, low-roofed nineteenth-century streets of lower Manhattan into the awful magnificence that the square of the World Trade Center really was -- laser-lined buildings of adamantine brilliance around a fountain that dwarfed human scale. Everything about the place suggested astral travel, the triumph of technology, the puniness of individuals -- it was a little like being in Houston.

I hadn't visited WTC since the Eighties, and when, last Thursday, a reporter I knew at the Village Voice broke his sacred vowels and lent me his NYPD police credentials while he went home to shower and change after three days of combat duty, squirreling through the pumice-colored dust of what is left of the place, I was shocked to find that scale still intact. Only now, there is a Jurassic quality. The awesome fountain was buried under alkaline layers of shredded paper and powdered mortar -- simulated volcanic ash from the overground and underground fires that were still popping and smoldering Thursday night, making everyone -- cops, firemen, medical personnel -- and reporters look like Dust Bowl Okies; the WTC square resembled the scooped-out carcass of some movie Tyrannosaur now, with dreadful serrated steel rib cages -- the twisted rebar that held up the walls of 1 & 2 towers until 8:46 a.m., September 11.

I'd eluded the National Guard, deployed across lower Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River, by rolling into the scene on a fire truck from the Eddystone, Pennsylvania, volunteer company, talking things over with Ali Erbugri, a fireman of Middle Eastern extraction. "I wanted to do something," he told me. "A lot of my brothers are getting it." He was also aware of the rising prejudice against Arabs, or "Middle Easterners," gas stations operated by Pakistanis in Eddystone having already come under rock and spray-paint attack ("Death to ragheads!"), and Ali was showing, by his presence, that he was an American, too.

Eddystone FD dropped me near the corner of Church and Duane, and I started down to 125 Worth Street, where I knew a doctor who was moving ice packs, tracheotomy tubes, IV fluid setups, and bandages into the Board of Health building, scant blocks from the fallen WTC; relief workers were beginning to call ground zero "the Pit" because so few victims were coming out alive.

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