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Where were you on September 11, 2001?


ROGER MITTON was under an African volcano, quoting Sophocles before chatting up waitresses

CURIOUSLY, this week a flurry of articles appeared claiming that the world did not change after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Many of these op-eds ran in publications which, a decade ago, took the view that the world definitely did change on that fateful day.

Ah, well, Homer nods, and it all reminded me that when the calamity occurred, I was literally under a volcano: the now-extinct Mt Meru, which towers over the town of Arusha in northern Tanzania.

After climbing the 4,566 metre peak, I descended and checked into the Hotel Impala, where I shaved and showered for the first time in four days.

The hotel’s restaurant was almost full, but I manwwaged to snag one of the last tables, under a small tree at the edge of the courtyard. Above me, the crystal clear East African sky was speckled with more stars than I’d seen in my life.

A waitress, bemused at my reverie, teasingly interrupted and handed me the menus and lit a candle on my table. Slim and pert and gaily chatty, her mood was infectious, and I bantered with her before sitting back to further savour the moment.

The air was full of chatter and laughter, there was the smell of incense and curry and charcoal and perfume, the chink of glasses and knives and forks mingled with the clatter of pans and the swoosh of flames from the open ovens.

It was loud and busy; it was tranquil and still. The cosmopolitan array of diners spoke in many tongues and people were dressed in a bewildering variety of styles. At a big table in the centre of the yard, a family of Muslims in flowing robes and silken shawls and colourful headscarves delved into mounds of dishes with their right hands, each new platter being double-checked by the patriarch.

Beside them, a Hindu couple and their children laughed and ate and spoke on their mobile phones, while nearby a quartet of executives, two white, two black, drank red wine and discussed business with consuming intensity.

Opening my journal, I made some notes and then turned back the page to write up the events of September 11, 2001.

Up in Mt Meru’s highest camp, I had gone to bed early so as to get up at 1:30am for the final four-hour slog to the summit. Aside from a silent ranger who had to accompany me in the darkness, I was alone at the top and watched the ultramarine change to gold as the sun slid up behind Mt Kilimanjaro to the east. There was little wind, but despite our padded climbing gear, it was bitterly cold and I only had time to take a few pictures before my camera froze. When we set off down, we moved fast and were back at the base camp by early afternoon.

It was there that I first heard about the terrorist attacks. What shocked me most was that the Twin Towers had collapsed. I had started to write this up when the waitress returned with my meal – tender fish tikka with spicy dal makhani and garlic naan – so I put my journal aside and dived in.

As I ate, I glanced at one of the local English-language papers and read a story about the impending trial at the UN Tribunal in Arusha of those charged with genocide.

They were alleged to have conspired in the 1994 holocaust in neighbouring Rwanda, when up to one million citizens were killed in a bloodletting that has few parallels, even in the plays of Sophocles.

While hundreds of thousands perished, the “civilised” world stood by with a passivity that is contemptible.

After my meal, I chatted more with the waitress, perhaps more than I should have, because the next day I had to catch a flight to Zanzibar.

Somehow I made my flight, and Stonetown – the main urban centre on Zanzibar island – immediately reminded me of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. I loved bicycling around its narrow serpentine lanes.

Then, before returning home to Bangkok, I signed up for a tour to Kizimkazi at the southern tip of Zanzibar. It is a small town whose Shirazi mosque is amongst the oldest on the East African coast, dating from the early 12th century. But I went not to visit the mosque, but to go swimming with dolphins. My tour group was a cosmopolitan bunch: Israelis, Dutch, British, Kenyan, Canadian and Tanzanian.

After the hour’s drive to Kizimkazi, we piled into a wooden fishing boat and headed out into the bay.

We had to go some distance before any dolphins appeared, but when they did, I was the first to jump in and strive to swim with them. It is not easy, especially as the boatmen steer at the dolphins, which scares them into diving down deep.

Still, once or twice I got almost within touching range. They look much whiter under the water and also oddly human. They have been swimming off Kizimkazi for as long as anyone can remember and doubtless always will.

When I arrived home in Thailand, there was a story in the Bangkok Post about the genocide trial in Arusha, and also a review of a book by former weatherman, Bill Ayers, which described the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

At that time, I had just begun my studies in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia, where in 1968 I was to join Jerry Rubin and other members of the Students for a Democratic Society when we occupied the UBC Faculty Club.

Rubin came to Vancouver with some other SDS bods after the Chicago riots. He gave a wild speech wearing a Viet Cong flag, and asked what the most sacred place on the campus was. The cry went up: The Faculty Club (only professors and lecturers allowed in).

“Let’s take it,” roared Rubin.

So he led a mob of UBC students, me included, to occupy it, which we did, and drank the booze, and some nutter stripped off and swam starkers in the ornamental pool. It made a big splash in the local media, but Rubin had scarpered by then.

Those were my thoughts then, and it’s not odd that I should remember them now as that fateful anniversary comes around again. Just as, last month, I remembered the Chicago mayhem when I watched the rioting in London.

What goes around comes around, and we move on. Our zest for life undiminished and unchanged.

It did not change after 9/11. And it will not change in future. That’s what swimming with dolphins taught me.

Man will always strive. For wonders are many, but none is more wonderful than man. That quotation, which opens Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, is taken from the ancient Greek play Antigone, by Sophocles, and is as true now as it was then.


Where they were: Phnom Penhites share their stories




Luigi Colombo, 63, Italy

I was working at home as an engineer. A friend phoned me up, telling me to watch TV. At the beginning, I didn’t think it was real. I thought it was an accident. When the second plane crashed too, I understood that it was real. I did know that it would be strange for the USA to have an accident like that.



Johanna Emmerick, 26, Germany

I was actually in the States as an exchange student. I was still in high school. We heard about the crash on the radio. Then, in my next class, I remember it was a Spanish class, we just spent the entire day watching it on TV. At the time, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go home.

Seng Daravuth, 36, Khmer
I had just moved from Cambodia to the US, where I lived in Long Beach. I was sleeping when my aunt called me from Cambodia. The first thing I thought was that something had happened in Cambodia. She was crazy, she told me, ‘The world is coming to an end’ and ‘Everybody’s gonna die’. The rest of the day, I didn’t believe it.

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