Ever since a young age, Atta was a shy and timid boy. His words were reserved since he wished to serve only those who deserved his service. According to his judgment, in the time and place in which Atta was born, there were not many people deserving of his words. Thus, young Atta was withdrawn from society and friends, and only to his family, he made his worthwhile amends.
Atta was born by the great river Nile in the country called Egypt. The great Nile was the river that gave life to the ancient Egyptian civilization, but it was the great parents of Atta that gave life to him. The river Nile was broad and vast and created the fertile grounds onto which an Egyptian civilization could live and thrive. In a much similar way, Atta’s family created the environment in which their son could live and learn to survive.
His mother wed his father at the age of 14. Barely a child herself, Atta’s mother left her family in order to create a family of her own. Children giving birth to other children was the way people lived in the middle of the twentieth century in the middle-East. Life was the most precious God-given gift, and all the children of God wanted to give the gift of life to their own children. To Atta’s mother, Atta was her greatest gift.
Atta had two sisters, but since they lived in Egypt, a patriarchal society, it was always the boys that were perceived to offer the greatest gift to their parents. Atta was the only boy in the reclusive family that lived by the river Nile. Atta was a mute boy that lived in silence, but he was a boy nonetheless. As the only boy of the family, his father placed high expectations on his only son. His father Mohamed was a lawyer, and as the law prescribed, he wished his son to inherit and sustain the traditions of the family.
The highest traditions in Egyptian society were the religious ones. The family tradition followed the religious ones in terms of importance. Last, but not least were the cultural traditions. Islam was the predominant religion of Egypt, so Atta’s family surrendered to the will of God. Ever since a young age, Atta learned the right prayers, and every day he prayed to God. He also helped with the family chores. But unlike most Egyptian children Atta didn’t socialize much with the rest of society. That was the choice of his father, who preferred stillness and harmony at home above cultural appropriations.
When Atta was ten years old, his favorite thing in the world was to lay under the night sky and look at the stars. The stars stood transfixed on the nightly dome but in-between the stars he often saw twinkling lights that moved in all directions. In his naivete, he thought that these twinkling star lights felt unwanted in the presence of other stars. Atta thought that these twinkling stars wanted to run away from all the other stars so they could be reclusive like Atta’s family. He thought that the antisocial stars wished to take their own light onto some other skies.
Later, his father told Atta that those twinkling lights that moved through the nightly sky were airplanes. In the sky plane, above the air, the airplanes were man-made birds that took people from one side of the Earth to another. Atta had never seen a plane from up-close. He had never flown in an airplane before, but he believed his father. Atta wondered where all these people were headed to in their airplanes. He wondered why they wished to move from one place of Earth to another. Maybe some places of Earth are better than others, and people wanted to fly and move to the finer places on Earth.
As Atta was growing up, he spent a lot of time alone in his room. He didn’t travel much since his family was not the wealthiest of the bunch. So Atta read books on law and religion, books of art and architecture. When he couldn’t travel physically to another land to sightsee the places that left a mark on society, he was only allowed to travel through the words of others who had written stories about their adventures. Through the words of others, he learned to see what others had seen before him.
His father didn’t allow Atta to socialize with the neighboring kids, so most of his days he spent by himself in solitude. Since he couldn’t play like the other kids, Atta had to study. He excelled at school with very high marks that made his parents proud. When one day his father asked Atta what he wished to become when he grows up, Atta declared that he wished to become an architect. He wished to build better buildings in which people could live. Atta wished to architect a better future for his own children.
The days of childhood created a new dream for young Atta; a dream of whom he wished to become when he became an adult. But our childhood dreams are oftentimes just dreams. They are an imaginary fantasy of a child who does not yet understand the greater reality. All children, when young want to become an astronaut or a fireman, and no children wish to become criminals and thieves. But when we look in our reality, we notice that the number of criminals far outnumbers the number of astronauts. Are all our childhood dreams just dreams without any reality?
The greatest fortune when we are born is not how rich our parents are, but rather how rich their understanding of reality is. A child born knows nothing other but that which their parents teach him. Some of us are fortunate enough to be born in very understanding families, but many children are born in misunderstanding and abnormal families. A child could never know his fortune since he doesn’t have any understanding at the time of his birth. Thus, the fortune of Atta and all children is decided later in life, when the children themselves grow up and improve their understanding. And with that improved understanding, we now understand that Atta was not born in a normal family. He was born in an abnormal one.
It is not easy to have a normal childhood in an abnormal family. Even by the standards of modern Egyptians, his family wasn’t normal. The family was too isolated and reclusive. The fact that he was born in the middle east didn’t make his life any easier. Atta faced struggles that many people have the fortune to never face. His struggles toughened him, it made him stronger. With the strength came the inability to relate to the rest of the Egyptian youth. Eventually, there was only way out of his struggles. And the way was to exit the country. Thus one day Atta boarded an airplane and left his land for some other happier lands. In lands far away from his home, he was destined to seek his happiness.
Since his grades were outstanding and he had studied hard his whole life, Atta was able to leave the middle-east and move to the West. He moved to Germany where he continued his study in architecture and urban planning. Atta never planned on leaving his childhood home, but once the option of staying at home was no longer viable, there were no other options left. Leaving home became the only right option. When life becomes impossible to be had at home, life gains the possibility to be gained somewhere else.
There are many lands on this Earth. Each land accommodates different understandings, different values, different cultures. Each land manifests the different worldviews of the people that live in it. If one makes a comparison between the worldviews of Egypt and Germany, one would quickly notice that the worldviews are so different that the views create two different worlds. Young Atta, who for decades lived in Egypt, now was seeing his world and worldview being crushed in the front of his eyes.
The culture shock sometimes can be so shocking that it shakes you to the core of your being. To lessen the shock, Atta looked for things that appeared familiar to him, he aimed to reach out for things he used to know. Atta sought other Egyptian people in Germany that had similar worldviews to his own view of the world. Atta needed to shake less and become more grounded. To become grounded he needed to find other Egyptians who believed the same stories that he believed in. Same stories of family, God, and civilization.
The Germans couldn’t understand Atta, and Atta couldn’t understand the Germans. Attending university in a different country where nobody understands you is not an easy task. It is especially painful if you are not open-minded. By the time Atta reached adulthood, his mind became closed to new ways of seeing the world. Most people during their twenties become close-minded to the ways they see the world. Atta was no different than most people.
Since he read and learned a lot as a young boy, Atta thought that he understood the world. He understood the world, but he thought that the world didn’t understand him. Rather than changing himself, he decided to change the world. Thinking that he was right in his thinking, he assumed that the world was wrong and one day decided that he had to change the world. Changing himself was considered much harder than changing the world.
The story of young Atta gets fuzzy after his stay in Germany. Knowing that he was misunderstood and unloved by the Germans, he often left the country to meet friends and people who better understood him. Atta wasn’t happy in Germany, so he sought happiness and approval in other people who resembled him and his worldview. Through them, Atta sought to find happiness and love that he couldn’t find anywhere else.
Little did Atta know that the friends he sought didn’t have his best interest at heart. Little did he know that his struggles to change the world would put him in a struggle to either accept his faith or embrace his demise. Little did he know that the friends he met were, in fact, his greatest enemies. But since he didn’t have many friends as a child, Atta couldn’t tell the difference between a friend or an enemy.
One pivotal day that forever changed the course of history, Atta together with several comrades that shared his worldview, flew two planes into the World Trade Center. Atta was the mastermind of the terrorist group that caused the attacks on 9/11. Atta was one of the people who decided that if his worldview didn’t matter to the world, then the world should burn. And the world burns faster if he crushed the center that connects the world. That was how the World Trade Center fell. That was the day when the world mourned in shock and disbelief.
Why did I share this story of Atta? Because oftentimes we judge the consequences of action without understanding the sequences that led to it. That is the largest con which we use to deceive ourselves. If we understood all the sequences that led to it, we would never judge. We always see the evil actions that people perform, but we never bother to understand the reasons that led to such evil.
We never imagine that even the greatest devil was once born in the arms of a loving mother, wishing nothing but her loving embrace. We always dehumanize and reject the people who do evil because we think we are better than them. Since we are better, they are worse than us. Since they are worse, their worldview doesn’t matter.
Sometimes it does matter.
Do I approve of Atta’s actions to fly planes into the world trade buildings? Not at all. Those are terrible actions that should never be repeated. Those acts are disastrous to human life and we should do everything within our power to prevent them from happening again. Prevention doesn’t mean increasing security at airports, but rather increasing our understanding of the causes that led to such atrocities.
Here at the end of this first story, I have some questions for you my dear reader.
If one civilization is able to erect buildings that extend to the heavens, and another civilization still lives in caves, which civilization is the one that is more civilized?
If one civilization throws away tons of food every single day while the children of another civilization are starving day and night, aren’t we throwing away the dignity that created our civilization when we throw away that which other children need?
What if the attacks of terror are not an act of evil but actually an act of a cry for help? What if instead of sending our army men to die in war, instead of destroying their dusty caves, instead of sending them our hate and fury, we send them architects and engineers to build homes for their homeless, food for their hungry. What if instead of destroying their country, we try to teach them what made us civilized?
Would they hate us then or would they love us? Will they be our enemies or our friends?
I imagined the story of Atta based on his biography. I wished to know how a young boy could be driven to such cruelty. I wished to know how much suffering one has to endure so that he could wish to inflict so much suffering on others. You can read the full biography of Atta here:
But today I wish to share with you another story. This second story is not imagined since it happened to me. I experienced it through my own life experience. I will share it with you truthfully, to the best ability that my memory allows me. I will share my story because in some aspects it resembles the story of Atta.
I was born in Eastern Europe in the last decade of the 21st century. I was born in a country that at the time of my birth was falling apart. That country was called Yugoslavia. When things are falling apart, the hardest thing to do is try to keep everything together. The fall of socialism revealed a house of cards that was unraveling in front of the eyes of my parents. Luckily, when the country was falling apart, our family was growing stronger. I was just a child back then, so I had no idea what was happening around me.
As a child, I was also quiet and shy. Much like Atta, I preferred to keep things to myself. But unlike Atta’s parents, I was lucky enough to be born in a family that had a rich understanding of reality. My parents weren’t rich, but they allowed me to go outside and play with other kids. They encouraged me to socialize with others and only through my experience I learned what it means to have friends and enemies. My parents created an environment in which I could become more independent from a young age.
A happy family is happy in only one way. An unhappy family is unhappy in thousands of different ways. My family wasn’t happy, but at least it wasn’t too abnormal. That allowed me to become somewhat normal. Unlike Atta, I didn’t believe in God so my world was not shaped by unseen forces of reality. My reality was created only by the forces that I could see. There was no God onto which I imparted judgment. For all my unhappiness, I only blamed myself. Since I blamed myself, I found many different ways to improve myself. The more I improved, the less I blamed.
When I was about 10 years of age, our culture was on the verge of civil war. Then, the war happened. War always brings economic destruction and poverty. I was just a child. I couldn’t understand everything that went on around me the way I understand it now. The company my father worked for was going bankrupt, so there were lots of worries, uncertainties, anxiety. Hard times were on the horizon and many of my countrymen didn’t know if there was any light at the end of the tunnel.
In these hard times, I remember one event that gave me much joy. One day when I was in grade school, our teacher told us to line up in front of the school gym because we will receive packages of surprise gifts. This had never happened before. My friends and I were elated. Gifts and surprises are the two things that all children enjoy above all. In empty shoeboxes, we received all kinds of toys from other children from rich European countries.
I was so excited to open the shoebox that I opened it immediately. Inside I saw some fluffy animals, some plastic toys that moved or made noises. But among all the toys, I found one red car that became my favorite. I remember playing with that red car for weeks and months. The red car brought me so much joy that I forgot all the worries that were going on around me. The red car became my new favorite thing in the world. When the world around me was falling apart I found joy in playing with the little red car.
After a year or two, the war transformed into peace. Eastern Europe was still filled with poverty, corruption, suffering. Things were still hard in my country, but at least there was peace. Since there wasn’t much opportunity for advancement, destiny decided that I shall leave the country and seek happier lands somewhere else. After my eighteenth birthday, I left my country and boarded a plane for the United States.
I attended university in the United States for four years. I experienced culture shock and all sorts of other shocks, but my childhood made me resilient enough to sustain them. I met people from all different cultures, different views of the world that expanded my own view of the world. I learned that countries are just imaginary lines that people draw in the sand to create their own individual identities. Identities that told them that they are superior to their neighbors. There were many things that I learned in the land of freedom, and the most important lesson was how to be free.
Today, I live in western Europe. I live close to the border of Germany where Atta used to live. Sometimes I wonder what are the real differences between me and Atta? Was I luckier to be born in a more understanding family? Was I luckier to read the right books rather than the wrong ones that paved the path to my success and Atta’s failure? Or perhaps I was luckier to have met the right people who wished to build things rather than destroy them?
Nobody really knows the answer to these questions. At least I don’t know the answer.
But now, sitting here, I remember the little red car that was gifted to me by some unknown child from Sweden. When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why another child would want to give away his toys in a shoebox to an unknown child in eastern Europe. But now I understand. That little red car that I played with in my childhood gave me hope, hope that in some unknown lands there are children that cared for other children.
That little red car gave me joy. It gave me hope. It gave me hope that goodness still exists in the world. It taught me that a small act of kindness is never small. All acts of kindness, no matter how large or small, are always kind. If we never extend our arms to give kindness to others, their hands might one day extend to take our lives. If we don’t place anything kind in their hands, their hands will reach to take our hope.
I truly believe that the gift of the red car subconsciously made me want to leave my own country so I could seek that kindness. A little red car made me want to leave my family and move far away to pursue that kind of happiness. I believe that an anonymous Swedish boy gave me more happiness, kindness, and hope that I could have ever asked for.
I wonder what would have happened if Atta also received a little red car in his childhood? Would his life turn out differently? Would the twin towers of the World Trade Center still be standing if he too received a little red toy?
Now we stand here, of the precipice on new uncertainties. We are drawing new lines on our imagined borders and building walls to protect us from the enemies. But I wish that we erased all borders. I wish that we recognize that we are all one people with common struggles in life. I wish that we keep our borders open so we can freely trade goods and ideas.
We never know if on the other side on the border hides our enemy or our friend. We never know if our future will be better or worse, but at least we must have a future. We should make friends with our future.
If you still decide to close all borders, if you still decide to erect walls that separate all of humanity, my greatest wish is that one day you send a little red car to some country in which the children are suffering.
A little red car for you might be worth nothing, but to another child, it might be worth the world.