The Children of 9/11 Come of Age

By Nalini Jones

ACCUSED
My Story of Injustice
By Adama Bah

PIECE BY PIECE
The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab
By Priya Huq

YUSUF AZEEM IS NOT A HERO
By Saadia Faruqi

On a fall morning 20 years ago, a student excused himself briefly from the windowless classroom on East 24th Street in Manhattan where I taught undergraduate composition. He returned looking shaken. There is a fire, he said.

We spilled out into the corridors, which were lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. What we saw filled the sky: the huge trunk of the North Tower with clouds of smoke pouring from its wound. A few minutes later the building seemed to fold into itself, collapsing into slow-blooming plumes of dust and ash. I stared at the place where the South Tower should have been for a long time before I began to comprehend that it was already gone.

When I finally made my way outside, I joined a stream of people walking north. The sky ahead was so clear that I could hardly credit the evidence of my own eyes when I looked back. Nothing felt quite real. The distortions of hope were especially heartbreaking: hospitals waiting for the injured who never arrived, posters seeking loved ones who never came home. The aftermath of 9/11 was a period marked by such surreality that in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq over the mirage of weapons of mass destruction. And the unreal made real became an ongoing legacy for Muslim Americans, who faced a staggering rise in discrimination and hate crimes.

That feeling is palpable in “Accused: My Story of Injustice,” a stark new memoir by Adama Bah, who woke one morning in 2005 to find her home overrun by law enforcement officers, “a destructive storm in our apartment.”

The storm was just beginning. Born in Guinea and brought to New York as a toddler, Bah opens her account with the painful reflection that “I didn’t know I wasn’t an American until I was 16 and I was in handcuffs.” Within minutes, she and her father were in custody; he would eventually be deported. Bah was held in a juvenile detention center for over six weeks, subject to humiliating strip-searches and verbal abuse from guards. For half that time, her family had no idea where she was. When Bah learned she was suspected of becoming a suicide bomber, she laughed in disbelief.

Hers is the first in a series of “I, Witness” books, edited by Dave Eggers, Zainab Nasrati, Zoe Ruiz and Amanda Uhle, which will let “young people — who have seen and lived through recent history — tell their stories.” It’s an inspired idea. Adults may find Bah’s story a harrowing read, not least because the child at its center is one whom we, Americans, ought to have protected. Older middle-grade readers may crave more texture, since glimpses of Bah as a schoolgirl are so appealing: the color contacts she tried when “the other girls started wearing makeup,” her pride in her sneaker collection and her unforgettable hope that, when forced to use the bathroom in the presence of guards, “my poop brings toxins.” But a younger audience, reading to discover what happens next, will likely appreciate the brisk pacing and excellent appendices. Although chapter headings such as “Framed” and “Violated” form a narrative of what has been done to Bah, her own actions — and fight to be removed from the no-fly list — are most memorable.

“Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab,” by Priya Huq, is a triumph, a beautifully layered graphic novel about a girl recovering from a hate crime in 2002, and the trauma of a generation before, when her mother’s family fled the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh. Nisrin is a lively, longhaired middle schooler, on her way home from school with her friend Firuzeh in Oregon, when they are accosted by a man enraged to find them laughing “like you own the place.” He towers over the girls, threatening to kill them before he rips the orna — the scarf Nisrin wears over her kameez — from her head. We understand the extent of Nisrin’s injuries from a swipe of red across her scalp, her fingertips coming away red. Hospital scenes flash past, then panels showing Nisrin’s shorn head, the hair slowly growing back.

The narrative follows Nisrin’s relationship to her head covering: from the attack itself to her growing interest in wearing hijab, despite her mother’s doubts and grandfather’s disapproval. It’s an indirect journey that begins with a cousin’s urging and takes Nisrin through unexpected regions of family history. At the same time she copes with discrimination at school and everyday teenage perils, navigating friendships, learning to assert herself and keeping up in marine biology.

Huq creates a powerful visual language through color and scale. Sudden lush views of gardens hint at the beauty of Bangladesh, green moments echoed throughout the novel to signal comfort. The palette changes as abruptly as Nisrin’s moods; scorched reds giving way to blue sorrow, the candy-pink of an unexpected gift, the warm creams of a new friend. Nisrin’s grandfather, a pompous armchair pundit, shrinks to a tiny figure adrift on rolling swells during a family argument about Bangladesh. “We are all very lucky to be alive,” he insists, though his wife notes that “I refuse to be grateful for my own life.”

This is a terrific argument, in which three people who experienced the same trauma have different, nuanced opinions about its meaning, just as Nisrin and Firuzeh must find different ways to heal. Young readers will understand why Nisrin’s mother worries: Will wearing hijab make Nisrin a target? But her story offers courageous ways forward. “I can’t walk down the street and be safe,” Nisrin realizes. “If I can’t be safe … then can’t I at least be proud?”

Yusuf Azeem has his own reasons to be proud, despite the title of Saadia Faruqi’s “Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero.” The newly minted middle schooler is an excellent student, loving brother and son, cheerful friend and ambitious programmer who has looked forward to the Texas Robotics Competition “his entire life.” But his first-day excitement over opening his locker fades when he finds an anonymous note inside: “You suck.”

Yusuf hopes the note isn’t meant for him. But “kids can have enemies too,” he learns in this richly imagined novel, set in 2021 in a fictional Texas town, where a banner at school reminds students to “Never Forget.” Yusuf is more focused on the future, determined to assemble a winning robotics team, but he begins to read his uncle’s boyhood journals from 2001 as notes keep coming and a white supremacist group threatens the safety of his Muslim community.

Faruqi finds engaging ways to explore how myriad tragedies of 9/11 have lodged in our memories, from uncomfortable questions in Yusuf’s classroom to a conflict over the construction of a mosque. His mother, who initially hushes political discussions, emerges as a leader when she addresses a town assembly to point out that “we are Americans just like you.” When a virtual cat that Yusuf programmed for his sister is mistaken for a bomb in his backpack, Yusuf finds himself at the center of escalating tensions, wondering who his friends are.

This is an important question, one that arcs back to the locker notes, Yusuf’s evolving relationships and his family’s sense of belonging in the place they call home. Among the novel’s strengths is the hope it offers young readers, because despite the real menace from those who consider Muslim Americans “the enemy … among us,” Yusuf does have allies. They cannot solve all his problems, but they can see him as we all hope our children will be seen, for their decency, potential and hearts.

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