Author of Poetry and Prose
By Augustine Tagaste
A Bright Future
It began in the spring of 2000 at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. My senior year at the Institute of International Studies was winding down and I was struggling not to become a fifth year senior. Eventually I would have to stay after graduation and complete two courses over the summer before receiving my actual diploma.
I spent the previous semester studying abroad in Prague, Czech Republic, and made my way back to Peoria in January via our family farm in Puerto Rico. Life up to that point was easy for me; I was from a privileged family with the means to do whatever I pleased. Even my move from the fraternity house into an apartment with two sorority girls was prearranged and waiting for me upon my arrival.
During my first week back I met Ali while walking into a welcome back party at a small bar near our apartment. He was a lively and heavy set fellow from Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) with a clean shaven head and surrounded by a rainbow of women. It was easy to like him and he quickly introduced me to all the other Arab students. I had already become cosmopolitan and international, and it was a lifestyle I embraced.
By the last semester my major specific course requirements had already been satisfied, so I only signed up to take general education requirements. One of them was Eastern Religions, and on the first day of class I walked in to find Ali along with my new friends laughing in the back of the classroom. When they saw me they signaled and invited me to sit with them. I chose the course due to a lack of anything better to do but it ended up being the one that would change my life forever.
As the semester drug on I found myself spending most of my time with Ali and his friends. They seemed worried about the fact that I was a dedicated agnostic and recovering Catholic, and one day they invited me to the mosque and taught me how to pray like a Muslim. I took to it well and continued learning from them until at an evening meeting with Ali’s friend Osama I converted to Islam. Back then I was a heavy drinker with an affinity for pot, so the full conversion was a slow process. I became exponentially aware of the world around me and interested in the Middle East.
Everything continued normally for the rest of the semester and I never isolated myself from my old friends or fraternity brothers. I tried to maintain an even keel and broad spectrum of focus. However, all that would unfortunately change in June after graduation.
I stayed behind to complete my two remaining general education requirements, and therefore my official graduation date would be in August. Ali and some of the others were taking the same summer courses I was and we spent all of our time together. Finally, towards the end of June they invited me to go with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, for a weekend visit to see some of their friends from UAE studying there. An army of horses could not hold me back from the chance to go on a road trip. But hindsight being 20/20, I should have said “No”.
Ali, Badr (from Jordan) and I arrived in the middle of the night to an apartment on the outskirts of Cincinnati. We were greeted by Majid, an older student from an aristocratic family in Abu Dhabi. It was his apartment and he seemed to be the Amir (leader) of the other Arab students there. Faisal and his brother Basset also welcomed us with genuine smiles. They were the sons of an important government minister in UAE. But the one I liked most was Helal; he was a warmhearted and friendly guy that told one joke after another until we were all crying from laughter.
As we settled in to eat dinner and play cards, two serious gentlemen arrived to speak with Majid. They had just driven up from Florida and desperately needed his counsel. When I asked Ali who they were he firmly stated that they were bad men, “crazy”, and I should ignore them. Of course this aroused my curiosity and forced me to try and speak with them.
Majid took them into his room and an hour later they emerged shaking hands and reassuring each other. The subject of their discussion would only become clear several months down the road. Nonetheless, everything seemed to be well and they joined us for dinner. But throughout the meal everyone was relatively quiet and it seemed as if these uninvited guests scared my friends into forgetting their joy at spending time together.
After finishing our meal one of the men spoke to me and asked me who I was. “I’m Omar (my newly adopted Muslim name) from Puerto Rico, and who are you?”
“I am Mohamed Atta and I recently moved to the United States from Germany. I am learning to be a pilot.” He replied.
We talked a little about Germany and a little about Puerto Rico, but he wasn’t really interested in me until I confessed that I was a supporter of independence for Puerto Rico from the US. He was unaware of our colonial situation and ongoing struggle for recognition under international law. At this point he became intensely interested in me and my politics, so he walked me out onto the balcony so that we could have a more in-depth conversation.
The tone then turned increasingly anti-American and rebellious. Being young, foolish and idealistic I went along with it. He then turned and pointed towards a dark blue van parked near the apartment. He said: “That is the FBI and they have been following me since I came to this country. They are afraid and useless, don’t worry, we can do what we want and they won’t interfere”.
I understood what he was and what he intended to do with his life, therefore I felt it was my duty to speak for Puerto Rico. It behooved me to plead the case that we not be included in their war map of the United States. He assured me that the island was safe but that something was indeed coming this way. He had barely finished that last sentence when Majid called for him to come inside so they could say their goodbyes.
Once they were out the door Majid spoke with me privately and asked that I not pay attention to anything Mohamed said to me. He also talked with me about his past as a soldier for his country and his contacts within its security services. A military ID from the United Arab Emirates was even produced for my benefit.
After that, youthful exuberance got the better of us and we rejoined the group to drink beer, smoke shisha, play cards and tell jokes. It was a fun weekend, and I eventually forgot about Mohamed Atta and our little chat.
Crisis of Faith
Time marched on and I managed to complete my summer courses and secure my official graduation. By then I had been accepted to a postgraduate program in international law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. I was now Omar from Puerto Rico to all whom I would meet (although I never legally changed my name).
Aberdeen was the opportunity of a lifetime and I drank in every minute of it. I immersed myself in Scottish culture to the point that I even adopted the accent and the mannerisms. An excellent mimic, I blended in to the point of no detection and began to slowly curb my religious beliefs and affinity for the Middle East. I even got a girlfriend from Belfast to help me consolidate my credentials as the international man about town.
Unfortunately, this joyride was short lived. On September 11, 2001, I was in the pub with my friends when I received a phone call from my mother where she simply cried: “We are under attack”. At the same time the landlord tuned all the TVs to the news and we all stared in shock at the images of the Twin Towers burning. The world, our world, was forever changed.
As I watched with angry indignation a dark feeling of guilt surfaced from deep within me, and I remembered the little chat in Cincinnati. “Please don’t let it be him.”
When the BBC declared that they had a picture of the ringleader I didn’t have to look, I already knew. It was no surprise when I lifted my eyes and saw his picture on the screen, it was Mohamed Atta. He robbed me of my soul that day, and I have spent all my time since then trying to get it back.
Some Muslims at the time were emboldened by this dark victory, but it had the opposite effect on me. I questioned my faith and everything I had come to understand. It appeared ludicrous to me that the God I loved and adored would require such brutality in His name. That was the start of my crisis of faith, faith in Islam and faith in rebellion for Puerto Rico.
I eventually obtained my degree in international law and continued exploring the world for what it was worth, but I could never again be the person I once was. None of us could.
The ensuing war in Afghanistan had my complete support, as did our intelligence services. I tried to share what I knew with them then, but they ignored me and I simply opted to keep silent. Instead I threw myself into academia and nonprofit work. I pursued anything that provided some hope of redeeming my character and spirit.
It was when George W. Bush said that we had to attack Iraq that I stopped to revisit what had happened that night in Cincinnati. I was not blindly vengeful like the rest of the country and I was not apologetic like other Muslims. The deceitful manipulation of the many by the few became my new target; the source of my anger and frustration.
When I dissected that evening and looked at it in pieces I found clarity. Our government knew these men were operating within our country, but it was too arrogant to protect us. These men only represented a small minority of Muslims at the time; the numbers only really grew after the attack. They had covert help from forces unknown, still to this day. This triumvirate of failure is how the events of September 11 transpired, and Iraq had nothing to do with it.
There is no greater frustration in life than to understand reality and watch the political elite manipulate the masses into a warped idea of reality. As a nation we broke the Middle East and collapsed our own economy to make a point. Yet we still have not learned the lesson. We are not at war with a culture, a religion or a race. We are fighting highly motivated individuals that represent only themselves within a greater power struggle.
I personally knew the ringleader of the 9/11 terror attacks, and what I know about that day is that there was nothing I could have personally done to stop it. But there is something I can do to stop it from happening again. There is something we can all do, we can talk.
We must have an honest worldwide dialogue infused with reason, mutual respect and, above all, love. Love for our fellow humans as Jesus commanded us to do a long time ago. We didn’t listen then, but we should listen now.
A smarter man than I once said that when people stop talking bad things happen. How true it is when we consider the worldwide orgy of violence that has followed that dark day. We as a nation must be clear about our history and the role we play in it.