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Sep 1, 2011

Katharine, “Kadriye,” Branning was one of the passengers on a Turkish Airlines flight to New York on September 9, 2011, a flight which could not reach its destination that inauspicious day. Taken from her book Yes, I Would Love another Glass of Tea: An American Woman’s Letters to Turkey, the following is one of her imaginary letters to Lady Mary Montagu who lived in Turkey three centuries ago.

Unbelievably, about an hour out, the Kaptan came back on the intercom and stated in Turkish that we needed to return to Istanbul yet again. The entire cabin groaned and grumbled, and I began to doubt that I would ever get home that day. Only this time, his voice sounded odd, and he said, very vaguely, that we needed to return because “All American airspace has been closed.” I was immediately seized with panic, for I knew that something very, very terrible must have happened, for American airspace has never been closed in our entire history.

You certainly survived some dangerous scrapes on your travels, both on route to Turkey and on the return trip home to London. In one of your early letters, you relate a hair-raising crossing of the Alps, where your carriage almost plummeted over the precipice into the Elbe. The hazards of snow and Tartars awaited you at every turn on the road after that, and your boat almost capsized during your Channel crossing on your return home. I would like to relate to you the story of a difficult travel experience I had, one of an eventful return to my homeland after a stay in Turkey.

This trip started out on a warm and crisp late summer morning in Istanbul. It was the last day of a glorious voyage to eastern Turkey, where I saw some of the wildest beauty known to man: from the white snowy peak of Noah’s Mount Ararat to the deep cobalt blue of Lake Van and to the intense dark emerald green of the Kaçkar Mountains. It was a day when I felt particularly blessed because I had been lucky enough to witness such stunning examples of nature, God’s most loving gift to man. It was a day with a crystal clear sapphire sky and bright sun. It was the morning of September 11, 2001.

The return trip home announced itself like so many others before it. I traveled the familiar road to the airport filled with an infinite sadness to be leaving Turkey at the end of an intense time of learning, joyful play and living history, mixed with anticipation of the happiness of being reunited with loved ones at home. Candy, halvah, bonjuk blue bead trinkets, lokum, and Turkish coffee were purchased in the duty-free shop; and the last copies of the newspaper Hürriyet were tucked into my carry-on bag. As I passed through the first, second, and third security checkpoints, I commented to myself how thorough these Turks were when it came to ensuring security in this often volatile point of the world. I felt safe.

There was a delay of almost 2 hours before we could leave, due to the proverbial and mysterious “engine problems.” Finally we took off, but after only one hour out in flight, the pilot (“Kaptan”) came on the intercom to tell us that we needed to head back to Istanbul because the pesky problem was apparently still not cleared up. The stewardesses stored away the food service carts, seatbelts were fastened, and we returned, deplaned, and waited another two hours in the same embarkment area. A Turkish Airlines (THY) employee finally announced that a new plane had been found and that we would be heading out shortly. Once again, off we took, convinced that surely this time, all problems were behind us.

Unbelievably, about an hour out, the Kaptan came back on the intercom and stated in Turkish that we needed to return to Istanbul yet again. The entire cabin groaned and grumbled, and I began to doubt that I would ever get home that day. Only this time, his voice sounded odd, and he said, very vaguely, that we needed to return because “All American airspace has been closed.” I was immediately seized with panic, for I knew that something very, very terrible must have happened, for American airspace has never been closed in our entire history.

About a half an hour later, the Kaptan came back on, still in Turkish, and said that it looked like the problem was that a “big building in New York City has suffered some kind of attack.” And then I knew in the pit of my stomach what that “big building” had to be: it could be none other than the one I see day and night from my window of my apartment, standing like a sentinel for the whole world to see: the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. And I knew somehow that the assault was not a mere accident, but had to have been a terrorist attack.

At last the plane landed back in Istanbul. The cabin hostess made an intercom message requesting that everyone remain in their seats. The Kaptan came on and gave a message in Turkish, and then made another one in English so that the few Americans on the plane would be able to finally understand what was going on. He spoke very clearly and slowly, not because his command of English was weak, but because he was searching for the right words to communicate his message as gently and carefully as possible. In a voice obviously trembling with emotion, he said: “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen. I must inform you of some very sad news. There has been a terrorist attack on the big building in New York City, the World Trade Center. It is very, very bad, and many people have been hurt. To all the American people on this plane, I want to say I am so so sorry for you and your country today.” And then we heard him sob. To hear that sob made me realize how intense it must have been for him, an ever-gracious Turkish host, to announce that news to us, his “guests” in his aircraft home. The Kaptan must have felt devastated that a plane, object of his livelihood, had been used as an instrument of destruction. He was surely heartbroken, too, because he already knew the terrorists were fellow Muslims. His soft sob made the imagined bang of the crash in my ears all the more loud, and the whole incident became very real for me, although at the time, I had no idea that the Towers were to fall and that the terrorists were allegedly Muslims.

Because of those engine problems, we had been saved the fate of so many others who were flying home to America that day. Instead of being stranded, the few Americans on that Turkish Airlines flight that day had the great fortune, in the midst of all the ensuing chaos, to be returned to a country that would open its arms and take care of them.

When we stepped off the plane and came into the airport terminal, there stood in front of us a platoon of people of all kinds, lined up in total silence. The entire airport staff had gathered there to wait for us: some were officers dressed in suits and ties, some wore THY service uniforms and ties, some were baggage handlers in their grey tunics; there were the char women in their pink aprons standing attention next to their cleaning carts, police officers with their thick black leather belts, food service attendants in their white paper hats, security clerks in their black blazers, and so many others in a blur of colors and clothes. It seemed as if the full airport had come forth to form this very human wall to surround us with their protection. After that point everything became a slow motion blur, as if I were about to faint or as if I were underwater, with people moving towards us but no sounds coming from their mouths. But I do remember clearly all the hands coming forth – those famous magic Turkish hands that appear whenever there is a need – taking us by the elbow and guiding us to the baggage claim area. I do not recall what was said to me at this point; all I remember were their eyes – and it was the sadness that I saw in those eyes that made me realize the gravity of the situation. I distinctly remember, however, a grey-haired, handsome man in a charcoal suit with a walkie-talkie in his hand, who came up to me. In perfect English he said, “Please do not worry, you are being taken care of. We will be taking you by a van to a nearby hotel to stay. It is very beautiful and nice, do not worry. You will stay there for the time it takes for things to normalize and for you to go home again. Do not worry. We will take care of you. But know that when you go into your room and turn on the television, you will see images of a brutality never before seen, and that you will be very upset. There will be someone at a table in the lobby, a health worker, who will be there for you to speak with if it all becomes too much for you. Good luck and God bless you.” And to this day I can still see the sharp dark features of the unshaven face of the skinny man in a ragged black suit coat who stuck out his hand to whisk away my suitcase and to load it in the van for me.

When the few Americans on that flight arrived at the hotel, we were ushered to our rooms with the hushed consideration usually reserved for funeral services. After I entered that room, in that indeed very beautiful hotel, sat down on the edge of the bed and saw those images on the television screen, I knew that the grey-haired man had not exaggerated. I learned of the story of the “attack on the big building in New York.” I learned that it was done in the name of Allah, the most Merciful and the most Compassionate.

I stayed there for a week, unable to get personal news of the tragedy, with only the droning reports of CNN and those never-ending images of the impact of the crash played over and over as if one time was not enough to gouge it in your memory forever. Was my husband safe? Was my assistant, who crossed under the Towers every morning on her commute in from New Jersey, lying flattened under the tonnage? How was everyone in my downtown neighborhood, now closed off from the world, coping with the tragedy? Over and over again as I saw those images of that hole ripped in the sky, I felt as if a hole had been ripped in my heart. When I saw those crushed beams, I felt as if my own bones had been crushed. I clearly remember the next morning when I went out of the hotel to get some air, there fluttering in front of me on a giant flagpole was the Turkish flag – its red color symbolizing the blood of its own fallen – at half mast. It was then that I understood that this tragedy was not one that had just struck my city, but it was affecting the entire world as well.

One night that week when I couldn’t sleep I got up to write a letter. I did not know exactly to whom I should address it, but I just felt that writing a letter would help me in that moment of stress, for putting emotions to paper seemed the only possible outlet for my grief, as the shock of it all had pushed my tears way down deep inside of me. At least for that moment in time, I could control something in the world: the flow of words onto paper in my own proper universe.

One morning about eight days later, the hotel staff called to say that we were to be ready to leave in an hour: the US airspace had opened and that we were being sent home. We were to be picked up at the hotel by a special THY van and taken to the airport.

Before leaving, I went to the front desk of the hotel to ask what I owed them for all the expenses I had incurred staying there: the luxurious room, the breakfasts, the vain phone calls, and faxes home. I did not know the protocol of such a situation, but I wanted to make sure I had taken care of everything. The young woman at the front desk just looked at me, bowed her head, and whispered, “You owe us nothing.” I could not bear to look at her, overwhelmed by the hotel’s charity, the intensity of this tragic event and my incapacity to thank her for the role she played in my well-being. I could not speak but handed to her the envelope with the letter I had written on that night I was unable to sleep. She looked at the addressee, visibly moved, and then back at me, and quietly said “Thank you.” And it was only then that my tears started to fall, as if all the immeasurable solace and tender consideration provided over the past week made the horror of the event suddenly too much to keep inside.

We piled in the busses and arrived at a still-hushed airport and boarded the flight to New York City, mirroring the same steps of a week prior. No one talked much on that 11-hour flight home: everyone was either too frightened to be in the cursed skies, in one of these apparatus now associated with an instrument of mass destruction, or quite simply because we were all apprehensive about what we would find once at home. The city I found when I arrived that night was as quiet as the plane. The former glorious view onto the World Trade Center from my Greenwich Village apartment was now filled with a billowing, yellow-grey cloud, glowing in the day from the sun reflecting off all its dust and in the evening from the giant high-intensity lights set up at the site. The furnishings of my home were covered, that day and for many months to come, with the pulverized dust of those fallen Twin Towers and the ashes of its 3,000 victims. Each day as I cleaned it away, day after day for months, I ceremoniously repeated prayers and recited Scripture for all of those innocent souls reduced to the dust I was wiping away.

New York City healed, the United States healed, and I healed. We are still living the consequences of that ignominious event up to this day, some small, some large, some local, some international. In many ways, I wonder if the recovery from that day was for me harder than most Americans. Although I personally suffered no loss of life in the crash, I still felt a tremendous loss to my city and in my faith in my fellow man. I felt betrayed by Islam, this faith that had earned a special respect in my heart; I felt betrayed that several fanatics of this religion I considered so pure and so noble had tarnished it beyond apparent forgiveness. I could not believe that the Islam I knew, through my studies, through my life shared with Muslims, through the many Muslims I had met in Turkey, those who believed in a God, the most merciful, the most compassionate – could be anything like those who had done this act. When I saw the dangerous turn my grief was taking – veering towards doubt, bitterness, and deception – I knew it had to stop. It was then that I made a vow. I perhaps could not control the outcome of all the events in the world, I reasoned, but I could control my immediate sphere, the orbit around me that I influence. It is said that perhaps everything in life happens in order to help us live. And so from the horror of that day, I told myself that I needed to recommit my efforts to support understanding between people and religions and that I needed to continue more than ever my dedication to fostering cross-cultural relations. It made me realize that if a person like me, who had such respect for Islam, was feeling such negative emotions against Muslims, what must the average American be thinking? I needed now to be a bridge-builder more than ever.

The Turkish part of my 9/11 story has one last chapter. About five months after the incident, I returned to work after my lunch break one day, and the front desk receptionist handed me a very large wooden box. A THY envelope with my name on it taped to it. The letter was from the New York director of Turkish Airlines, extending his wishes for my well-being and telling me that he desired to offer this token of appreciation on behalf of the THY staff for my letter, the one I had addressed “to Turkish Airlines and the People of the Republic of Turkey” and left at that hotel desk months before and which had finally come into his hands. It was inconceivable to believe that after all that had already been done emotionally and materially for me, that the warm arms of the Turks were continuing to surround me with compassion and goodness.

Inside of that giant box, encased beautifully in an elegant walnut and glass frame, was a large, oval plaque in silver. On this plaque, inscribed in fine cursive calligraphy, was the iconic message “Maþallah” which translates as “how beautifully God created” and is used by Turks to mean “may God protect you from all evil.”

Yes, Turkey – this magnificent and most generous of nations – has shown me that I must never doubt the infinite goodness of my fellow man.