It was New Year’s Day according to the Ethiopian calendar – September 11, 2001. John and I lounged in Ethiopian carved wood chairs and enjoyed injera and wat, typical Ethiopian fare consisting of sourdough pancakes and spicy stew. We washed it down with tella, the traditional Ethiopian beer.
As our young twins roamed and scampered around our friend’s house, we adults chatted. We were off to a good start in a new school year at the international school we taught at in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and we enjoyed time with our Ethiopian friends after being away for the summer holidays.
Late in the evening, we made our way back to our house and collapsed into bed. Tomorrow would come all too soon, and we would have bright-eyed students waiting for us.
The following morning, September 12, I groggily made my way to school. As I shuffled through the parking lot on my way to my classroom, my teaching assistant stopped me.
“I’m so sorry, Nancy,” Birknesh said with tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry about what happened to your country.”
“What?” I replied. “What do you mean? What happened to my country?”
“I don’t really know,” she stammered. “Something about airplanes and tall buildings. My brother came home from work last night and said he saw it on TV. I’m so sorry!”
I continued toward my classroom a bit puzzled. In my six years in Ethiopia I had never heard anything like that before.
A student of mine came bounding across the grass. “I’m so sorry, Ms. Nancy!” he blurted. “I’m so sorry about what happened.”
“What happened?” I repeated.
“I’m not sure,” he told me, “but it was bad. Something about airplanes flying into buildings.”
By now I was confused. Confused with a capital C. Airplanes flying into buildings? Huh?
A few meters farther, fellow teacher Asit approached me. “I’m so sorry, Nancy!”
And then he proceeded to explain. Airplanes flying into the World Trade Center. Skyscrapers collapsing. Thousands killed.
I dashed off to the teachers’ lounge; the only place on campus where we had a TV. I leapt up the stairs and barged in. The room was packed, everyone crowded around the TV. I pushed my way in so I could see and stood there in horror watching airplanes flying into skycrapers.
The next few weeks passed in a blur. My country. The United States of America. Attacked. And I wasn’t there.
I sat in front of the TV in the teachers’ lounge every chance I got and watched airplanes fly into buildings. I watched skyscrapers crumble and fall to the ground. And I wondered what it would mean for me – an expat. How would this change my life?
The uncertainty of plane travel was the first consequence we found from the terrorist attack – the not knowing how the world would react or what we would find in airports. Flying into and out of the USA became an exercise in vagueness as rules changed daily.
One day we checked in for our flight hours early as recommended. Unfortunately, our little family of four had been tagged for additional security screenings, so we were pulled off to the side and our baggage searched with a fine tooth comb – or so it seemed.
Security guards confiscated John’s bike parts – apparently it would be easy for him to choke a pilot with a bike chain and knock them over the head with a freewheel. Amazingly, they didn’t find the box cutter I inadvertently carried in my carry on.
We continued to live overseas for four years after the 9/11 attacks and watched, first hand, as the reputation of the USA sank. The invasion of Iraq brought that reputation to levels we had never seen in our many years abroad.
In 2005 we moved back to the USA – in part due to the tensions we felt overseas. How much of that was a direct result of 9/11? How much was a response to President Bush’s policies? We’ll never know for sure. What I do know is that the international climate for expats changed dramatically.
Yet still I come back to the very fact that September 11 brings back fond memories for me. Memories of celebrating Ethiopian New Year. Of injera and wat and kolo. Tella. Coffee ceremonies. Shoulder dancing. White dresses with elaborate embroidery. I hope the sadness of the day never outshines those memories in my mind.