Swans Commentary » swans.com September 8, 2008  



10 september 2001: The wasted day


by tiziano terzani





There are days in our lives when nothing happens, days which go by leaving nothing to remember and no trace of their passing, almost as though we hadn't lived them at all. Come to think of it, most days are like that. But when it dawns on us that the number of days we have left is limited, we wonder how we could possibly have let so many slip by unnoticed. But this is how we're made. Only afterwards do we appreciate what came before. Only when something is in the past do we understand what it would be like to have it in the present. But by then it's too late.

For me, and not just for me I am sure, 10 September 2001 was one such day. I remember nothing about it. I know I was in Orsigna, the summer was over, the family had dispersed again in all different directions and I, doubtless, was getting my clothes and papers ready for another winter in India.

I thought I'd leave after my birthday, but wasn't counting the days. That day, 10 September, went by without me noticing, as if it hadn't even been on the calendar. Such a pity. Because for me as for everyone, even those who still refuse to accept it, that day was special, a day of which we should consciously have savoured every single minute. It was the last day of our former life: the last day before 11 September, before the Twin Towers, before the new savagery, before restricted freedom and widespread intolerance, before technological warfare, before the massacre of prisoners and innocent civilians, before the great hypocrisy, before conformism, before indifference and, worse still, mean-spirited rage and ill-judged pride. It was the day before the flight of man's fantasy towards love, fraternity, spirit and joy, was hijacked and turned towards hatred, discrimination, matter and suffering.

I know it seems as though little or nothing in our lives has changed. Our alarm clocks still go off at the same time each day, we still do the same jobs, the mobile phones still ring in the train and the newspapers still churn out their daily dose of half-truths and half-lies. But it's an illusion. The same illusion to which we fall victim in the split second between seeing an explosion in the distance and hearing it. The explosion has taken place, huge and horrendous. The noise will reach us and deafen us. It could even wipe us out. Better prepare in advance, get things ready before we have to run, even if only metaphorically, before we have to save the children or pick up one last thing to fit in a bag.

The world has changed, and so must we. We should stop pretending that all is as it was and we can go on living our normal lives in cowardly fashion. In view of what is happening in the world, our lives cannot, must not, be normal. We should be ashamed of such normality.

The feeling that everything had changed hit me right away. A friend phoned me and said: "Turn on the TV now!" When I saw the live coverage of the second aeroplane exploding, I thought: "Pearl Harbor! We've got another war on our hands here." I stayed glued to the television for hours, flicking between the BBC and CNN, then went out for a walk in the woods. I remember how amazed I was that nature should remain indifferent to what had happened. The chestnuts were beginning to ripen and the first mists were rising from the valley. As usual I could hear the distant whisper of the stream in the air and the tinkling bells of the goats of Brunalba. Nature was completely uninterested in our human dramas, as if we really didn't count for anything and could just disappear without leaving much of a gap.

Perhaps it's because I've spent my entire adult life in Asia, and because I truly believe that everything is one, that as the Taoist Yin and Yang so neatly illustrates, light contains the seed of darkness within it and at the centre of darkness is a point of light - perhaps this is why I came to think that the horror I'd just witnessed was ... an opportunity. The whole world had seen. The whole world would understand. Man would grow in awareness, arise from his slumbers and start to rethink everything: relations between states, between religions, between man and nature, even between man and man. It was a chance for us to examine our consciences. We could accept our responsibilities as Westerners and maybe at last begin to make some progress in our understanding of life.

After what I'd just seen on television and the changes now to be expected, we couldn't go on living normally as I saw the goats were doing, grazing on the grass as I returned home.

I'm sure I've never spent so much time in my entire life in front of the television as I did in the days that followed. From first thing in the morning till last thing at night. I barely slept. The word "opportunity" kept buzzing round in my head. Faced with an official truth, out of a sense of professional duty I have always attempted to see if there were some other angle to it. In every conflict I have always sought to understand the motives of both sides. In 1973, together with Jean-Claude Pomonti of Le Monde and the photographer Abbas, I was one of the first to cross the front line into South Vietnam and talk to the "enemy", the Vietcong. Similarly, in 1996, in an attempt to understand the terrorists who had tried to blow up one of the Twin Towers, twice in succession I managed to get into the "University of Jihad" and speak with Osama bin Laden's followers.

I thought it might help to tell this story again and recount my impressions of that visit, to try and imagine how the world looks from the point of view of a terrorist. But writing it proved hard going.

14 September was my sixty-third birthday. On that same day my lovely working relationship with Der Spiegel came formally to an end. I had served on their staff for exactly thirty years, but in 1997 I asked to go into a kind of hibernation. They agreed.

I said everything I had to say on the subject of journalism in my book In Asia which brought together all the long or short stories to which I had been witness. Thereafter I pretty much retired from the world. I now spend a great deal of time in the Himalayas, and greatly enjoy having only natural deadlines: dusk is the time to turn in, dawn the time to get up. I live two hours by car from the nearest village, plus an hour on foot through a forest of giant rhododendrons. There is no telephone or electricity, and the only distractions are welcome ones: animals, birds, the wind and the mountains. I have lost the habit of reading newspapers, and I can happily do without them even when I come to Europe. They just repeat the same old stories, and it feels as though I'd read them years ago when they were written better.

The most beautiful season in the Himalayas in my opinion is the winter. The sky is wonderfully clear and the mountains seem so close. I'd made firm plans to leave, but as the Indians say pointing up at the sky: "Do you want to make Baghawan (God) laugh? Very well: tell him your plans".

So I spent my birthday writing, not an article with a fixed number of lines and an attention-grabbing first sentence, but a letter written off-the-cuff, as if to a friend.

I like writing letters. I've always thought that if I'd been born rich three hundred years ago in Florence, where instead I was born poor, I'd have liked to do nothing but travel the world writing letters. Journalism has enabled me to do something similar, but always with limitations of space, deadlines to worry about and a particular style to adhere to. Now at last I'm free to just write letters.

I emailed the one from Orsigna to Ferruccio de Bortoli, editor of Corriere della Sera, together with a message which said something along the lines of: "You decide; as per our agreement".

For years I'd had a contract with the Corriere, but when it came up for renewal I chose to do nothing about it, for the same reason I've never wanted advances on books before I've written them. I don't want to feel obligations of any kind, to feel guilty or duty-bound to do anything. So de Bortoli and I resorted to a kind of one-off gentlemen's agreement. I would feel free to write whenever, as much and however I wanted. He would feel free to publish it or not, changing no more than the odd comma. And that's how it was.

The letter appeared on 16 September. The title wasn't the one I'd suggested, "An opportunity", but I had no complaints, then or afterwards. It began on page one, and took up the whole of another page. The gist of all I wanted to say was there: the terrorists' motives, the Muslim world's dramatic confrontation with modernity, the role of Islam as an anti-globalization ideology, the need for the West to avoid a war of religion, and a possible way out: non-violence.

The touch-paper had been lit. I finished packing my clothes and papers and went off to Florence, ready to leave. I wasn't really sure about going to the Himalayas. Going back to my marvellous retreat seemed like a luxury I could no longer afford. Bush had only just said: "We shall smoke Osama bin Laden out of his cave." I had to accept that Osama had driven me out of my lair.

For a while I'd been feeling the temptation to return to the world, to "go down to the valley" as they say in the Himalayas when they go shopping. My book A Fortune-Teller Told Me had come out in America in July, and the publisher had invited me to go through the horrible process of "flogging" it. In other words, I had to become a parcel in the hands of some extremely capable and efficient young PR men, the kind who take charge of you and move you round from morning till night, by car, by aeroplane or helicopter, from coast to coast, from one city to another, sometimes more than once a day. They sit you in front of an interviewer from a daily newspaper, who'll have read no more of the book than its cover. Then they put you before the microphones of a radio station for cab drivers, then another for insomniacs, then in front of the TV cameras of some major show or some humbler early-morning programme for housewives, where destiny is discussed between recipes for chicken salad and new types of water-ski. I did this for a fortnight, and my God was it worth it! I came back from that tour in a state of shock, with a frightful impression. I had seen an America that was arrogant, obtuse, completely turned in on itself, full of its own power and wealth, with a complete lack of interest in or understanding of the rest of the world. I'd been struck by their pervading sense of superiority, their conviction of being powerful and unique, and their belief that theirs was the definitive civilization - all without a hint of self-irony.

One night, after a presentation of the book at the Smithsonian Institute, an elderly American journalist I've known for many years took me for a stroll among some of monuments in the heart of Washington: the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which is particularly moving, the Korean War Veterans' Memorial, which is dramatic and evocative, and the site where a Second World War Veterans' Memorial is due to be built.

The first thing that occurred to me was how strange it was for a young country whose founding principle was the pursuit of happiness to have all these monuments to death at the heart of its capital city. My friend replied that this had never occurred to him. When we came to the elephantine, whiter-than-white statue of Abraham Lincoln seated on a great white armchair in a huge white copy of a Greek temple, I found myself saying, "This reminds me of Kim Il Sung", aware that my friend too had been in North Korea.

He was offended, as if I'd blasphemed against something sacred. "We love this man", he said. I refrained from pointing out that a North Korean would have said exactly the same thing, but it was America itself that had given me this impression. The comparison lay not just in the elephantine size of the monument, but also in the fact that the Americans too struck me as having undergone some kind of brainwashing, whereby everyone says the same things and thinks the same way. The difference is that, unlike the North Koreans, the Americans think they are acting freely and don't realize their conformity is the product of everything they see, drink, hear and eat.

America had frightened me. I'd thought of going back, taking several months to travel the whole country as I'd done with my wife Angela while studying at Columbia University, on the kind of journey European journalists used to make rather than being stuck in front of a computer in New York as they are now, seeing and reading what America wants them to see and read in order for them to repeat it.

The ticket for Delhi was already in my pocket when the same friend as before called me.

   "Have you read her?"


   "Oriana Fallaci. She's replied to you, in this morning's Corriere."

It was 3 p.m. on 29 September, and I had to go round half Florence before I could get a copy. The newspaper had sold like nobody's business.

A great sadness came over me as I read the four broadsheet pages. Once again I'd been wrong. Opportunity? Some hope. 11 September had proved to be no more than a chance to rouse and stir the beast which hides in all of us. The thrust of Oriana's reply was not to deny the "enemy's" motives but his very humanity, which is precisely how all wars become inhuman.

This struck me. Everyone has the right to face old age and death in their own way, but I was grieved to find that she had chosen the way of rancour, grudge and resentment, the way of the less noble passions and the violence that ensues from them. I was truly sorry for her, because I'm more and more sure that violence brutalizes not just its victims but also those who perpetrate it.

I sat down to write. This time the letter would be addressed to Oriana herself. It appeared in the Corriere on 8 October, the day when newspapers were dominated by photographs of Bush and Osama bin Laden. America had begun bombing Afghanistan. I managed to find a copy of the newspaper at Florence Airport. It was dawn and I was leaving for Paris. From there I would be flying to Delhi and then on to Pakistan.

I had decided to "go down to the valley". I was paying out of my own pocket, so I was free not to write if I chose. It was a weight off my mind not to have to "represent" anyone but myself, and to be able write "retired" in the space on the immigration forms under "profession".

These are the letters I wrote in the course of that long journey. The dates show when and where they were composed. Only half of what follows appeared in the Corriere, but I want to make clear that de Bortoli faithfully published every single word of every letter I sent him. I'm grateful to him for this, as I'm sure are many readers, even if at times, especially after an American missile hit the building of the independent television station Al Jazeera in Kabul, I feared another might land with similar intent on the Corriere's headquarters in Via Solferino in Milan.

Obviously de Bortoli and I do not share the same views on everything. For instance, he concluded his 12 September editorial with the famous phrase "We are all Americans", which many have subsequently borrowed. Well, not me. Ultimately I feel Florentine, a bit Italian and increasingly European. But certainly not American, even if I owe America a lot, including the lives of my son and my grandson, both of whom were born there, and in part my own. That, however, is another story.

Basically I have difficulty in defining myself. I've reached this age in life without ever wanting to belong to anything, not a church, nor a religion. I've never belonged to any political party, and never put down my name for any association, be it a pro-hunting or a pro-animal rights group. Not because I'm not by nature on the side of the birds and against the hunters who hide in huts to shoot them, but because I find any kind of organization restrictive. I need to feel free. Such freedom is awkward, because it means every time a situation arises where I'm forced to decide what to think and do, all I have to fall back on is my own head and heart rather than the easy, ready-made line of some party or the words of some sacred text.

I've always instinctively avoided power, and have never cultivated those who wield it. Powerful people have always left me cold. If I ever got into some control-room it was always with a notebook at the ready, on the lookout for glitches. I'm not saying this in order to boast. I'm saying it to reassure those who might be tempted to think, as they read the pages that follow, that I'm part of some cabal or conspiracy, that I have an agenda or am seeking to advance someone else's.

With these letters I'm not trying to convince anyone. I'm just trying to let another voice speak, tell another side of the story, begin a debate so we can all be aware, so no-one can continue to claim nothing has happened, so no-one can pretend they don't know that right this minute thousands of people in Afghanistan are living in terror of being bombed by B-52s, or that some prisoner is being flown, hooded and handcuffed, twenty hours from his homeland to a far-flung corner of American colonial territory in Guantanamo, Cuba to be 'interrogated', while our anti-terror coalition strategists plan some further attack on goodness knows what other country in the world.

So I say: let's stop for a minute, think, be aware. Let's each of us do something, and as Jovanotti says in his poetic song against violence which has reached even these mountains, 'let's save ourselves'.

No-one else can do it for us.





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About the Author

tiziano terzani (14 September 1938 - 28 July 2004) was an Italian journalist and writer. Please read Gilles d'Aymery's introduction to Letters Against The War. You can also check terzani's entry on Wikipedia and visit tizianoterzani.com (in Italian).



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Ode To Peace And Life (Introduction to Tiziano Terzani's book) - Gilles d'Aymery

Letters Against The War (Eight Essays) - Book by Tiziano Terzani

Torture For Fun And Uncle Sam - Book & Film Review by Peter Byrne

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Behind The Curtain Of Ron Paul's Disciples - Gilles d'Aymery

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Neo-Progressives Sell Out To Democrats - Joel S. Hirschhorn

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Published September 8, 2008