The events of the last couple of days brought to mind two memories that I haven’t thought much about in quite a while. Both took place around the same time, when I attended graduate school at the University of Oklahoma.
The first was the Oklahoma City bombing that took place in 1995. Of course, my first memory is that I was a bit lazy, and a bit sick that morning and called to let my boss and team know that I wouldn’t be in to work that day. I worked at the time at a drug and alcohol treatment center in Oklahoma City. That morning, I would have likely, as I had before, traveled with one of the Centers’ clients down to the Social Security office, located in the Murrah Federal Building.
Not far behind this memory, though, was the experience of several Muslim and Middle Eastern friends of mine in the days and weeks that followed. In those early days, and for some time, Muslims, Middle Easterners and anyone who resembled one were prime targets for law enforcement, the lunatic fringe, and those whose justifiable anger only had a brown face, and a foreign religion to lash out against. My friends were literally terrified. They skipped classes, avoided social gatherings and steered clear of the one, make-shift mosque that existed in Norman, Oklahoma near campus.
We were the victims of homegrown, white supremacist terrorists. But some of our citizens, and mostly the State, inflicted terror on those friends of mine, and those like them, simply because they fit a profile. One that of course turned out to be completely dubious in terms of identifying the perpetrators of the attack.
My other memory was that of an acquaintance I made a couple of years after, as a doctoral student taking a class in the Political Science department. Ayman Omar and I commiserated over class material that we were both similarly clueless about (I recall endless discussions of game theory and such). Ayman was a Sudanese national, who spent much of his life, if memory serves, in Saudi Arabia, due to some of the political upheaval taking place in the Sudan, where his father had once occupied some place in its government.
Ayman and I hung out a decent amount for a while. I’d gone to his home on several occasions, and met his wife. Ayman had the habit of always calling me sir. I tried to disabuse him of the notion that I deserved that much respect, and remind him that I was only twenty five years old.
One day Ayman called me. He had a favor to ask. He and his wife had been back and forth to the Mayo Clinic receiving treatment for his newborn son, who I’d met shortly after he was born. “I want to ask of you three thousand, please, sir,” he said. On the inside, my jaw hit the floor. We met and he explained that he needed help paying for his son’s care while he waited on money from home. He told me that he promised to pay me back as soon as he received his money from home. Perhaps seeing some of the apprehension in my face, he explained to me how his religion compelled him to do as much, that the Quaran forbade him from being in someone’s debt without repaying it.
For some reason, I was compelled to lend Ayman the money. I’d always been taught never to lend someone money that you aren’t willing to part with forever. I lent Ayman the money in this spirit, knowing that I would be eating nothing but Taco Bell and selling plasma to buy gas for my car if he somehow didn’t come through.
Three weeks later, Ayman gave me a call. His son was okay. He shook my hand. He replaced it after with a wad of cash.
Ayman and I lost touch, eventually. The next time I thought about him was sometime on September 11th or 12th, 2001. I’d just moved to New York City days before. Crowds gathered in Washington Square Park not long after the towers were hit, vowing to get those Muslims.
I spent most of my time stunned. But I’d hoped that Ayman and his family were okay, wherever they were. I hadn’t thought about them much since then. Until today.