What a stupid idea it was to go back to the bar, I think on my way to the Frankfurt International Airport the next morning. Luckily, I manage to reach the airport on time, only hoping that there is nothing important that I forgot at home. With tremendous excitement I head to the check-in counter. But even before I can get the first boarding card of the around-the-world trip, a man in a suit walks over to me and begins to ask several questions. Since the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th, 2001, I kept hearing about so many incidents where passengers who have a Muslim background, especially those who originate from Afghanistan and Pakistan, were interrogated more frequently, and sometimes even denied boarding. A little bit nervously I begin to answer the man's questions, hoping that he won't believe that I have any reason to be nervous other than being denied boarding before my my around-the-world trip even starts. His questions are straightforward but friendly, from time to time repetitive, apparently just one of several verbal interrogation techniques to see if there are any contradictions in my words. Concomitantly he is analyzing my facial expression, until he concludes that I have nothing to hide.
Inside the airplane, before departure, I decide to read some of the Quranic verses in the book that my brother gave me. In this moment I recall some recent news over a Muslim passenger, who got into some troubles inside of an airplane because another passenger was scared of the Arabic signs of a book that he was reading. Especially in recent years, a one-sided media depiction on Islam has largely caused fear and in certain situations even paranoia among a significant amount of people who live in the West, generating arbitrary connotations that lead to a strong misperception. It has therefore become an unfortunate reality that many common aspects of everyday life in the Muslim world, be it their clothes, general appearance or the words they say, are among many people in the West predominantly perceived in the media context of radicalism in the Islamic world only. This reminds me of one of my German friends, who - while sitting inside a metro with me - confessed to me: "I get scared when I see them", referring to an older Muslim man sitting near us, traditionally dressed, having a long beard. At least she was not as scared as the old German man in a hospital, who shared the room with the father of one my close friends. One day, my brother and I came to visit him. He had recently suffered a heart attack. "How are you feeling now?", we asked him, and the father of my friend said "Allah hu Akbar, Allah hu Akbar", or "God is greater", a phrase that is prevalent in the Muslim community, used for instance as an expression of gratitude. In the Western world, however, these days, this phrase is by many people only known from the news on TV in moments when terrorists are about to blow themselves and other humans up, which is why the German man lying next to the friend of my father who repeatedly uttered the words "Allah hu Akbar" suddenly looked as if he was about to suffer a heart attack. We really live in weird times.
The closer we get to our destination, the more my thoughts begin to revolve around the first time in New York, and I also recall my first flight itself. Next to me sat a friendly New Yorker local in a suit called Michael, who kept chatting with me, at that time a little kid that couldn't hide his excitement visiting the city he had dreamed of visiting for years. When I arrived at the airport, I was received with smiles from the officials. However, I am not a 14-year-old kid anymore, and certain things have changed, I am being reminded again shortly after reaching the JFK Airport. An official looks at my unusual booking confirmation, then he looks at me, then he looks at the booking confirmation again. Two minutes later I sit in the police office to answer further questions. At least it didn't take too long and I was interrogated in a respectful and professional manner. So far, so good. Moments later, I meet my uncle at the Arrival hall. As we look for a taxi, I notice that nearly every taxi driver is Indian or Pakistani, which is so unlike the perception that I had watching Hollywood movies. “You are lucky. It’s been raining the last days. But now it has stopped.”, my uncle says while we head to Astoria. On my first day, after meeting my cousin and her daughter at my uncle’s place as well, I get ready to go explore the Big Apple.
Returning to Manhattan
Once in Manhattan, I begin to act like a typical tourist, enjoying a sunny day in the Central Park, watching people at the Rockefeller Center and for the first time really taking a lot of pictures with the cheap digicam that I bought. On my way to one of my favourite famous spots in New York, I look at the many eye-catching edifices, such as the tall but notably narrow building that says "TRUMP TOWER"". Trump. Isn’t that the billionaire who hosted two Wrestlemania events in the eighties? Standing in stark contrast to the luxury that I see inside of this building is the guy who is trying to earn some money dressed up as the statue of liberty on the streets, kind of stripping the statue of her most notable attribute of pride.
Back in 2000, apart from my uncle's apartment, there was no place in New York where I spent more time than at the world famous Times Square. Although I usually find too many ads annoying, one place is an exception: The ubiquitous billboards right here have a nostalgic effect on me, reminding me of how as a kid, walking alone in this area at night, I was feeling a little bit like Macauly Culkin in the movie Home Alone. Since I am not a kid anymore, I decide to enter a bar, where people are yelling in joy, watching two men on TV beating each other up inside of UFC’s octagon. I only have one drink, and subsequently continue to watch the people in Times Square, where I feel amused the most by the group of girls who distract a police officer and with their charm convince him to let them wear his hat.
With two locals from New Jersey I have a few more drinks, before I take the metro back to Astoria. From a city as big and busy as New York is, I would not have expected people being that sociable. Even in the metro I get to meet several locals. One of them, a Greek woman, tells me that I have taken the wrong metro, after I tell her that I am on my way to Astoria. “You must have confused this line with another line, because they both have the same name and go in the same direction”, she says, and is offering me to drive me to Astoria with her car once we reach her place, which I thankfully accept, once again positively surprised by how much the people that I meet here in New York take care of other people. Back at my uncle's place, I have a rest and prepare for the next day. There is just one more place that I need to see with my own eyes, the one place that has changed so tragically.
10 Years in the Making
Emptiness. The first word that comes into my head, as I reach the final place that I wanted to see. The first time when I was standing here was in 2000, shortly before having the greatest moment of my entire 3 week trip to New York as a kid. Growing up in Germany, surrounded by American pop culture, seeing New York’s cityscape in Hollywood movies and listening to the music of many artists from that city, like many people around me, I always had this dream to one day go and visit New York. That dream eventually came true.
When I was a fourteen-year-old class clown, who did not get along with the teachers, it was almost certain that I would not pass the 8th grade. Only a few weeks were left, when I received a phone call from my dad, who was out of town doing business, and because he knew what I had been dreaming about traveling to New York for a long time, he decided to make a deal with me: "If you somehow pass the 8th grade, I will book you a ticket to New York and you can stay at your uncle’s place".
Suddenly I was highly motivated, learning every day. And there was only one chance for me to make it, to receive the best mark you can get in English and to get a "so-so"-mark in French. As we eventually got the results of the tests, I felt like the happiest kid on earth when I learned that in the closest call I ever had in school, I passed. This was the moment where, for the first time, I felt like if you really work hard, you can achieve your goals. A month later I traveled to New York City for the first time ever, ate as many Oreo cookies as I could, because at that time the Oreo cookies were not sold in Germany, but more importantly, I explored many of New York's major sights that I had previously only seen in the movies. "Let's go to the World Trade Center", my uncle said after visiting the Statue of Liberty. At that time I didn't even know what the World Trade Center is. Of course I was familiar with many of the world famous landmarks of New York, but "World Trade Center" sounded like business and rather boring to a kid who had no idea that the World Trade Center actually designates the two highest structures in the world. Two hours later I was standing on top of that building, overwhelmed by the incredible view on New York. It was a moment that I would never forget.
20 Years in the Making?
My thought bubble bursts while I keep looking at the place where the twin towers once stood. Already shortly before landing I notice this gap New York's skyline. But the surreal feeling is even stronger as I stand right in front of Ground Zero, where ten years ago an elevator took me to the top of the world's highest building. And now all I see in front of me is a construction site. Only recently they have started to build what will become the new One World Trade Center building. "Are you sure that you don't want to join?", I asked my uncle before leaving his flat. "I don't go there anymore", he said, subsequently expressing how bad and ashamed he felt because terrorists had misused our religion to kill thousands of innocent civilians. The day this happened, I was asleep until I received a call from Billal, one of my very close friends. "Switch on the TV", he said with some kind of urgency and hung up the phone. So I did, and like many other people, I first thought that this must be a scene from a movie. It wasn't an easy time for Arabs living in the US at that time either, I begin to think, recalling the statistics on hate crimes towards Arab people in the US shortly after 9/11 that we discussed in a seminar at the university not too long ago. Many of those hate crimes where of anti-Islamic nature, although the majority of Arabs living in the US are actually Christians.
As I am standing and watching the construction workers doing their job, looking at this emptiness that is sought to be filled, I picture myself returning to New York one day again, when this will no longer be a construction site. In 2000 I was on top of the World Trade Center, in 2010 I am standing in front of Ground Zero, and who knows, maybe 10 years from now, in 2020, I will be standing on top of the One World Trade Center.
Megan and Curtis, two New Yorker locals that I meet in a bar near Ground Zero, decide to give the newly arrived traveler a good time and organize an improvised, free pub crawl. Luckily, I could still walk and behave properly after this night, because at my uncle’s place, a surprise is waiting for me. My uncle and aunty from Virginia came to see me and spend some time with me in New York, before we head to Springfield together. Just like many relatives that I would meet on this trip, I had not seen them fourteen years. Among other things, we of course discuss my Around the World trip. My aunty and uncle smile as I mention Malaysia and my plan to visit the Batu Caves, because they had been there before. Listening to them talk about this place builds up my anticipation even more. Malaysia will be the first country, in which I will be all by myself, without any relatives or friends. Before going to bed, my uncle, who has traveled quite a bit as well, gives me an advice for my journey: “When you travel, you have to remember one thing: Whatever you do, always be flexible.”
On our last day in New York, my relatives and I spend our final hours back at Times Square, before driving to their place in Springfield, Virginia. In New York, I was reminded of my first trip, when I was a fourteen-year-old kid. In Virginia, I already knew I would be reminded of an even more distant past, when I was a six-year-old kid, because not far from my relatives’ place lives an American family that used to live in my hometown of Offenbach. They were our neighbours. Soon I would have the chance to reunite with my first ever best friend and his mother.