Mr. Hanel’s hairless head reflects the light of the television screen. September 11, 2001. It is common for Mr. Hanel to refer certain current event lessons to CNN, but not for all classes, all day. I had heard something about New York and The Twin Towers in the seventh grade PE class that morning. But they were mere snippets of other students’ conversations.
From the images being replayed on the CNN channel, I can imagine a blanket of gray dust, smoke, and debris covering everything in New York City. Just looking at the footage makes me feel as if I am suffocating.
I always dreamed of a high-profile corporate job; now I imagine being in the towers, going about my daily work routine through various office and cubicle spaces. There must have been a loud vacuuming sound as the plane neared, shaking similarly to a powerful earthquake, and a terrorizing blast upon impact. The floor would have given out at first before raging fire and heat took over. No visibility, no breathability, nothing but ugly awareness of the end, desperation to say final words and seeing faces for the last time beneath closed eyelids. On the streets, I envision witnessing the crashing of the planes. I can see the gray and black clouds of smoke as they rush upwards, sending debris and dust downwards. There are giant flames licking the tower walls after the second tower is hit.
My classmates are silent in amazed horrification.
Several weeks later, as the nation continues to moan the great loss, a boy in my sister’s preschool class comes to school with his hair cut and mini-version turban gone forever. His mother explains it to my mother as a logical solution in saving her son from hate crime victimization. “His daddy and uncle took him yesterday. He’s the only son in the family. You know they are showing photographs of Osama Bin Laden on television. They show him wearing a turban. How do White people know that we’re Sikh and not Muslims?”
Mummy reasoned, “Now is the time to tell everybody who Sikhs are, not to hide. Who’s going to come and shoot a preschool child?”
“He’ll grow his hair back when he’s older.”
“Once they cut their hair, they never go back to not cutting it.” Mummy said knowingly in the school’s parking lot. She was right, eleven years later, he is still afraid to wear the turban. It’s just an easier way through school too; I’m sure for most children his age. It is intolerable for some to become accustomed to being called diaper head, towel head, rag head, and other such names for the cloth they wear on their heads.
For the adults, being called Osama Bin Laden, terrorist, Al Qaida, or being told to go back to the Middle East will become commonplace.
I sometimes look back and analyze the timing of my own religious development. I began to cover my head soon after September 11th and also began to excel in the singing of devotional hymns according to the Sikh musical tradition. I was especially requested to perform at multicultural and interfaith 9-11 remembrance events with the San Jose Khalsa School kirtan coordinator, Bhai Manmohan Singh, to share the message of the Sikh religion with fellow Americans from different walks of life.
Na ko bairee, nahi begaana. Sagal sung hum kao bun aayee.
I see no stranger, I see no enemy.
Wherever I look, God is all I see.
I don’t think of us and them.
No one do I hate or condemn.
I see God’s image each one a friend.
Of any religion, caste or race.
All I see is God’s shining face.
His smiling face, His gracious face.
Accept as beautiful all His design.
I learnt this truth in sangat divine.
One word resounds in me and you.
In him in her, in me and you.
Beholding in every being his light,
I bloom like a flower in joy and delight.
Translations of the prayer in hand, members of the audience asked us about our religion, about our turbans. I learned answers to these questions as I watched my teachers and parents answer them. I sought out more explanations myself through the Sunday Khalsa School classes at the gurdwara, listening keenly to the volunteer teachers as they instructed on Sikh history. I pondered and also found answers in books.
When it came my turn to answer questions, I knew what to say.
The Sikh religion was started in 1469 by Guru Nanak Dev Ji in the north Indian state of Punjab—a state split in half between modern-day Pakistan in 1947. Guru Nanak Dev Ji spread the message of equality, peace, and cohabitation of persons from all religions, castes, classes, and nationalities. The Sikhs adhere to three golden rules: naam japo– to remember and meditate on the name of God, kirat karo– working hard and honestly to earn a living, and vand shako– sharing the fruit of ones labors with those in need and devoting time to serving the community.
Most people who wear a turban in the United States and many other non-Middle Eastern countries are not Muslim, they are Sikhs. Sikhs do not cut their hair because it is considered a gift from God—there are many spiritual and historical reasons for keeping uncut, untrimmed hair. The turban helps to keep the hair neat and clean. A Sikh wearing a turban is obligated to stand against injustice in any form, the Sikh’s prescribed identity is such that he or she will stand out in crowds and step into the role of protector and leader against injustice. Our whole community was very hurt to see precious lives lost on September 11th and mourn the loss with our American family. We are proud to be American.
My explanation speech gave rise to more questions inquiring about Sikhism, my personal choices, and experiences as an American. The conversation continues.
(Originally published by The Avalon Literary Review in Winter 2013.)
Navdeep Kaur is a Sikh American writer currently obtaining her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from San Jose State University. More of her work can be viewed at http://aarsi-reflections.blogspot.com/ or connect with her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/authorkaur.