Goenawan Mohamad is a playwright and journalist from Indonesia who I met a couple of years ago at a conference on international collaborations sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

He happened to be in New York on September 11, and we had dinner together that Sunday night.


Union Square, New York, 13 September. This is the third day since the World Trade Centre was destroyed. The evening is quite hot. People keep coming, some of them wanting to take the subway from the small subway station at the park. No one talks loudly.

On the pavement, a little to the side, surrounded by candles some of which are still burning, and decorated with withering roses and lilies, is a row of posters each measuring around 60 x 45 centimetres, which have been hastily stuck to the ground. On these white sheets of paper, dozens of people are writing or drawing, venting what they want to say following 11 September 2001: the day when on a fine morning two Boeing 767s hit the two tall towers that marked the New York city sky and thousands of people were killed or are missing, because those people—the staff from various businesses in the buildings—were just starting work and suspected nothing at all. A fire with heat around 1000 degrees Celsius struck them, burning everything, melting the steel frame, then pulverizing the two buildings whose height reached almost half a kilometre. And since then, whatever was there is buried, crushed, or strangled, in the debris of cement, steel, glass…

And since then, America has been in mourning, people lighting candles, lighting hope, with cheering or sorrowful words, with angry phrases or faithful resignation, while rescue teams try to find anyone still alive among the approximately 5000 people crushed by those thousands of tons of ruins in the Financial District. The big annual football and baseball matches were cancelled, for the first time since World War II. On Broadway, the theatres turned off their neon lights for a moment before the show, as a sign of condolence. Like the statements on the posters. This evening in Union Square people are bending over to read them. And this Square too has changed: it has become a sanctuary for grief. All around, New York’s noise starts up again, with the roar of the traffic and the scream of the sirens, but in one corner a woman plays bagpipes: blowing the pipes and walking slowly around the Square, respectfully, all alone. The Scottish dirge like a hoarse cry. Noone is brave enough to go close to her, to interfere.

Noone, too, is brave enough to interfere when ten meters to the right, in the midst of that small crowd, a woman with short hair sits, gazes straight ahead, bows her head a little, as though gazing into nothingness, and sings a Gregorian chant in Latin, about God and eternity. Softly, as though singing for herself. Maybe it is indeed for herself. Maybe for those who died. On this day mourning is a private thing, but at the same time it is sharing. It opens, it is opened. A few people around stop to listen. Some seem to be holding back tears.

Not many know each other in the park, but many touch each other. Years ago, Union Square was always a meeting place. When world socialism was still idealized in America in the 1920s and 30s, International Labour Day was always celebrated here, and a million people could come, the orators able to talk on their soapboxes until evening. In the corner: a statue of Lafayette sculpted by Bartholdi. In 1986 this park was renovated with a design by Kuo Ming Tsu.

People gather in this park from all corners of the world, and New York, a failed Tower of Babel, inadvertently displays its paradox: it symbolizes America’s modernity, which tends to unify people in one language, one centre, with capital and media, and maybe produces one theme of conversation. But the energy of this city actually comes from conversation, which could never be of one word, of one source. This city is a place (and not merely the United Nations building on First Avenue) where the word "stranger" does not necessarily mean "foreigner", where while entering an Ethiopian restaurant one can hear Polish being spoken. Among the posters of condolence in Union Square on this evening I find the word "salam" written in Hindi script, and an appeal in English "Let’s Protect our Muslim Brothers and Sisters".

But New York is not merely a city which, like Jakarta, was initially established by the Dutch East India Company, then taken over by the British, and finally conquered by the newcomers—and over that long process became the one place, as Djuna Barnes says, where American truly "don’t find what is specifically American". This metropolis at the same time also often appears precisely as the symbol of America as a whole: to many foreigners, it is sky-scraping arrogance, power that determines history and geography. Some lines from a poem by Adonis, the pen name of Ali Ahmad Said, a Syrian poet:

New York is a woman
holding, according to history,
a rag called liberty with one hand
and strangling the earth with the other

The twin towers of the World Trade Centre that were destroyed, along with the Pentagon in Washington DC, can indeed be easily imagined as the hand "strangling the earth". But what Adonis doesn’t say—he wrote those lines fifty years ago—is that New York and the earth have been strangling each other for the past few decades. The offices destroyed in the Financial District were part of the business and traffic of global funds: Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Oppenheimer Funds, Bank of America…Business Week wrote, after the destruction,: the American economy will experience contraction, and the effects of this will be felt throughout the entire world, particularly by Asian countries other than Japan, which sell their goods to the American market.

What were those hijackers thinking, really? What were people thinking who applauded Mohammad Atta and his friends when they were prepared to die and prepared to kill thousands of people when, with courage doubling as cruelty, they crashed two Boeing 767s at a speed of 400 miles an hour into those two buildings where 50,000 people work, almost all of whom could have been killed? I can only guess: in the minds of Atta and his admirers, there is a world made up of only two halves: America and non-America.

The irony of all ironies is when this two-halved world is also in the head of President Bush, and in the heads of many Americans themselves. "America has been attacked," they yell. "This is the Second Pearl Harbour!" The Stars and Stripes is posted on the doors of houses, on fire engines, bicycles, bar windows in East Village, tall buildings in Times Square, on chests as an emblem, around heads as a head-cloth. God Bless America is sung at almost every opportunity. A comedy playing near 42nd Street even changed some of its final lines so as to be more patriotic. A guest on the morning program of Fox News television asked why America has to consult with other countries, "The Brits" for instance (as he called them), in order to take steps of revenge.

America and non-America…as simple and attractive picture perhaps, but we know that this earth is more complex. In a ceremony at the United Nations, in their office on First Avenue, commencing with a small string orchestra awkwardly playing the song New York, New York, the President of General Committee of the General Assembly Han Seung-Soo stated his condolences for the people and government of America. This Korean quoted John Don’s famous sentence: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent…"

Every man is a piece of the continent: that evening on Union Square I saw this clearly. But it appears that Americans view their country precisely as an isolated island—precisely when sympathy is conveyed from all fronts, and precisely when even the leaders of Syria and Lybia censure Atta’s shocking terrorism.

Terrorism—and not attacks like Pearl Harbour: a deed of courage but also a massacre, for those killed at Pearl Harbour were 3000 military, not almost 5000 civilians like in New York, for the Japanese attack in Hawaii sixty years ago happened when America was readying for war, whereas in New York there were no troops, no state of alert, just trading offices occupied by people in ties, unarmed. And not all of them were even American. On one news broadcast I heard there were 300 Pakistanis killed. A Bangladeshi working in a café on Bleecker Street told me that fifty of his countrymen had disappeared. No, this was not Pearl Harbor over again: terrorism is a sign that geography is over.

Yesterday, around midnight, I was walking with the composer Tony Prabowo, cautiously approaching the ruins in the Financial District. The shops and sidewalks were completely deserted, dark. One could see only from a distance huge spotlights illuminating the area where around two thousand people were working, digging the ruins, day and night, seemingly unceasingly. The smoke was still rising above the old buildings around Chambers Street, like a ghost appearing after a gigantic creature has been exterminated. Police were standing all around. The National Guar, in battle gear and fully armed, took turns guarding. An armoured car went by accompanying the long trucks bringing huge equipment. The dust from the ruins clouded like the smoke of ammunition. On the side of Thompson Street, which had become obscured, an American flag was planted on a low pole, as though marking a demarcation line. But there was no foe to be seen. There was no enemy-country fighting over territory, with battalions and huge armadas.

Terrorism springs from precisely the opposite: from the non-existence of battalions and armadas. Terrorism at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries spring from a psychology of defeat: Atta and his friends knew that they would not become winners. They chose death. With death and their defeat, they attacked the force that they considered The Winner, as though to drive home, with a terrifying yell, that the winner is the upholder of injustice in the world of here and now. And thus attacking terrorism contains a different challenge: how to act so that victory is not the same as further strengthening of imbalance. In other words: being mindful of how great the danger is of an awesome power that has no self-doubt that it is just, right…

On the second day after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, I went to Washington Square, a square that used to be a mass cemetery when New York was struck by an epidemic, a public garden that in the early nineteenth century was a place where the executioner hanged people. In front of Memorial Arch, a marble gate 100 years old, which became the gate to this park, was also a line of candles, bouquets of flowers, and paper with written messages. On the left, there was a little scrap. And there, in neat handwriting, was quoted something from Nelson Mandela: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most".

At night, people came and the candles were relit in the park. And when everyone had gone home, when it was late, in a corner not far from there, a man stood alone. In his hands, a saxophone. He was playing Amazing Grace, husky, broken phrases, and then he went. I wanted to wave to him, but I knew he would not have seen. And the streets became strange, completely silent***

Date: Friday, September 28, 2001 11:14 AM

Dear Eve,

I've got e-mails from Jakarta saying that there were 4000 people demonstrating against US. It worries me so much. Against the war is one thing, a good thing, against Americans is something else; it can be bigotry.

There is something terrible in the mind of people inflammed by God and country, isn't it?