My trip around the country proved to be relieving and transformative. The concept of the vastness of Earth, space and time was reinforced by having been surrounded by unobstructed land and skies.
I had lived in Brooklyn for a couple years at that point, surrounded by concrete and brick. I felt such relief to find that there was still so much natural space out there: miles and miles of uninhabited untouched land. We even encountered wild cows at one point in Nevada and a herd of moose in California.
There was one particularly special place we camped at that I would like to describe, because I see it as very symbolic. In my mind it came to represent the central phase in my transformation to a confident person. It is White Sands National Monument in New Mexico – a vast gypsum desert.
There are gentle rolling dunes like you would see in pictures of the Sahara, only the sand is as white as snow. Although it is always sunny and hot there, the sand itself never gets hot. There are almost no living creatures to be seen there, save stark black, beautiful beetles and the occasional bird.
It was amazing to sit on the hilltops staring out over a pure white rolling landscape as far as the eye can see in every direction. Often out in the distance we could see a storm; dark clouds pouring rain down on some faraway location, yet we were always untouched by it.
It was surreal.
I had the sense of being removed from everything, and being in a pure place; a blank place, yet filled with utter beauty and enormity.
At that stage of my life, I had begun stripping away obstructions. I had all but stopped watching any television from early on in my college experience. I was very selective, spending time with only a few choice friends who shared my passion for art and hard work.
For the cross-country trip I felt the need to live a very basic, bare-minimum kind of life. To do without the usual luxuries and comforts I was so accustomed to. I wanted to test myself and push my boundaries.
Purposefully living a simple life, sleeping in a tent, subsisting on oatmeal and vegetables cooked over a small fire out in the open wilderness felt good for me. It was a step in a process I can see in many arenas of my life.
I didn’t want to take anything for granted. I wanted to get down to the bare roots of myself and understand what I was made of. I wanted to push myself and strengthen myself inside and out.
I wanted to be sure that my mind was my own – that my views and opinions were not just regurgitations of what had been fed to me, by the media or anyone else. I was stripping everything away so that I could find purity, strength and resilience.
Back at school, although I continued to fervently challenge myself in the arts, I also began to broaden my studies and to enjoy other subjects that I had previously disliked. I suddenly found myself enthralled with the content of my history classes.
My history professors became the closest to me of all my professors at that time, to the point that we even met and discussed things outside of school and maintained contact long after my graduation.
I began more avidly reading literature, as well as the newspaper, and my interest in philosophy faded while I began following world events and politics more than I ever had before. I enrolled in a political philosophy class, which turned out to be crucial to my discovery of Islam.
It was that semester that I witnessed the tragic crime of September 11, which shook me profoundly.
My class that day started at 9am. We had a large picture window facing the Twin Towers. I arrived in my classroom that morning to find one of the Twin Towers burning. I joined a few other classmates looking out the window at this very startling sight, wondering what had happened and imagining all the damage done and possible lives lost.
We were all utterly shocked as we watched the second plane slam into the other tower. To me, the plane looked like some sort of military plane due to the angle I saw it from and the shadow causing the plane to appear black.
I was overcome with the desire to flee to a remote place, fearing that more attacks would be inevitable. My class was dismissed. I went back to my apartment and by the time I got up to the roof of my building the towers had collapsed.
Sitting in my apartment watching the news didn’t feel right. I felt a sense of despair and urgency. I needed to do something. My roommate and I set out on our bikes. We rode to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, which overlooks the part of Manhattan where the Twin Towers had stood.
I didn’t know what to do.
Over the following weeks and months the burning stench of the wreckage remained in the air.
I returned to the promenade frequently and gazed across the water. I went over the bridge many times to ground zero. I felt drawn to it, longing to help in some way or do something, anything useful.
I was so upset.
It really bothered me that the message of the perpetrators of the attack was not made clear at that time. I wanted real answers.
This brought our human vulnerability back into my mind – the reality of mortality. It burst the lovely bubble of safety we had enjoyed.
This new reality hung over me every day just like the awful smell of the horrible disaster hung in the air.
Within me there remained the yearning to find more answers about how something so horrific could happen to us, and who could possibly do such an unthinkable act.
At school I had two very pertinent courses. The political philosophy class I already mentioned and an amazing history class. My history professor was a vibrant and intelligent woman who shared many of my feelings about everything going on in the world. It was helpful to have her at that time. She was always willing to answer my questions and discuss issues with me.
I saw the relevance of history to our modern life clearly, maybe for the first time in my life…