An unassuming Iraqi peasant sitting down to a meal, some Afghan shopkeeper pulling down his shutters and some Pakhtun elder leading a jirga are caught in a circle of death along with New York firefighters and Pentagon janitors.
On the shores of the United States there has been much commemoration, the date having become an iconised day of mourning to invest meaning in two confusing wars.
On Pakistan’s recently violated shores there is sadness too, accompanied with the repeating incantation on all lips: that there is no one tragedy here, many 9/11s, daily 9/11s, many more dead and much more innocence.
Two countries — Pakistan and America — contemporary Cain and Abels battling thus for greater claims to compassion, to righteousness and to tragedy.
It would have been difficult to imagine perhaps the terrible potential of a single day to birth hatred so resilient, so unyielding to reason or understanding and so incapable of being sated by piles of bodies. In the shadow of the falling towers lie two transformed nations battling the ghost of undeserved blame, a violation of American innocence, a destruction of Pakistani sovereignty, locked in the riddle of what came first.
The changes are visible: lines of shoeless, pliant Americans willing to be x-rayed, searched for explosives, groped and patted up and down. A population denuded and manhandled all for their expectations of perfect safety at the cost of humiliating intrusion.
The bitter comedy of America complying with the infinite demands of foolproof security is but one half of the conjoined tragedy of 9/11.
The other is the brash, hedonistic survivalism of Pakistanis; glittering weddings amid suicide bombings, kebab rolls scarfed down in gunfire, cellphones nabbed in mosques, thousands of Pakistanis lying dead in graves in every inch of the country — casualties in the bloody search for purity.
If the millions of one nation expect too much in the form of insurance against danger, however marginal, Pakistanis suffer from the opposite.
Confronted by several dangers too formidable for digestion — bombings by the Taliban, kidnappings by land mafias, targeted killings by political parties, petty gunpoint robberies, the intrigues of surreptitious government agencies — they throw up their hands in collective surrender and deny it all.
They take small risks and big ones, braving streets littered with burning tyres for random errands, praying in mosques bursting with people ignoring the possibility of sudden destruction. Clothed in a desperation born of too much danger and the ever-present proximity of disaster, Pakistanis cling to the memories of normalcy, repeating its hollow rituals before any catastrophe.
It is difficult from their dismal midst to elicit sympathy for a superpower. After all, can those struggling to feed multiple mouths be expected to accomplish such feats of compassion?
How indeed can Pakistanis look past the abundance of America, the fat shiny cars, the clean white people in their storybook houses, oblivious to the horrors of endless loadshedding, unpunished crimes and myriad deadly diseases? This fullness of ordinary America taunts Pakistanis just as much as the bravado of their foreign policy, mocking their desperation.
For Americans, Pakistan is just as difficult to love; a dark grim mystery inexplicable to the ever-buoyant American soul that understands only the obvious and which is impatient with the implicit. The pulsating anger of a country built on a dream and a wish is daunting, even ugly; the exposed misery of veiled women, the silent curses of a million hungry men are too much to digest.
Against the image of the crumbling towers, this fear is tacked too, the fear of a vast number of people whose misery can be witnessed but not addressed, whose fate has come to be tied inexplicably, bizarrely with their own.
And hence, 10 years later two nations fail to see themselves and each other as twins born of a single disaster. One haunted by the expectation of everything, immortality and eternity, the other condemned to an existence poised on nothing, where next year, next week, even tomorrow is too precarious.
Two nations holding the key to each other’s salvation, to the end to a conflict that has wrested from each their very soul, entail compromises that question the value of continued existence. In America, dark prisons like Guantanamo that mock the laws for which the country was created; in Pakistan killings of helpless Ahmadis and Christians slay the fantasy of a tolerant, moderate Muslim nation.
Tied umbilically by fear, Pakistan and America stand apart competing in misery where the victor is the one who best denies the other’s pain. Momentous days rendered memorable by sudden destruction are resting places on the path of history where one is meant to pause, to take stock, to ask where we are, what we are doing; ordinary moments in the lives of millions transformed by the world’s unexpected turn from logic and order.
There has been much asking of just these questions in Pakistan and in America, two countries most changed by the events of 9/11. Under the weight of their transformations, what neither Americans nor Pakistanis have found in the wreckage are good answers.Like all coveted cures, those lie in the realm of forgiveness which terror has rendered forbidden for all victims of 9/11, those that perished in New York and Washington and those that continue to fall in their name thousands of miles away, 10 long bloody years later.
Rafia Zakaria is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy. This piece originally appeared in Dawn.