Watching 9/11 taught me, a refugee, the visceral lessons of Americanness

On Sept. 11, 2001, I watched through tears as ash fell over the city that had so unceremoniously taken me in as a refugee 15 years earlier. Like all Americans, I was mourning the dead, the pierced skyline, the bereft mood of a people whom I had never seen bereft. But I was also mourning a loss of my own — the loss of the impenetrable fortress I thought I had entered when I arrived in the United States.

The blare of sirens drowned all other sounds. The sidewalks that had teemed with passersby were deserted. Suddenly New York City began to feel like the Tehran I had fled. But while most Americans feared what evil might follow next, I feared that my adopted city might succumb to the same reign of grief my birth city had.

By 2001, a lot still puzzled me about America. I was stunned each time I walked into a shoe store in August to buy a pair of beach sandals, only to find an overflowing stock of fall’s waterproof boots. I laughed endlessly the first time I received a “save the date” card for a wedding that was to happen the following year. I learned the hard way that other mothers were, in fact, not neurotic when they began registering their kids for summer camp in January.