In the beginning, 9/11 was a local story — it was the intimate grief and shock and incomprehension that so profoundly shook us those first days and weeks. Over time it morphed into something political, and we came to see the tragedy through the wide-angle lenses of foreign policy and law and the other spasms of governance it inspired.
But even as the specific event blurred into unspecific politics and symbolism over the years, it continued to affect individuals in concrete ways — ways that Fremont resident Hamid Sayadi claims he paid a price for.
His story is one of the many that have both nothing and everything to do with 9/11. A witty and eloquent Kurdish-American in his 50s, Sayadi waved the flag of his adopted country and cheered its military for three decades — all to end up stripped to his underwear one day, in the boiler room of his workplace, he says, a ragged and sobbing husk of his former self.
The truth of what happened to him, and why, lies shrouded in the fog of endless war, and in the fog of work as well — that odd space where strangers are forced to co-exist for years on end. In that double blindness, even if the parties involved could agree on facts, who could say for sure what was appropriate and what was cruel, even unlawful? . . .
“It was very nice, I had no problems,” Sayadi says of the beginning. But two months later Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and in January 1991, Congress authorized the use of military force to push him out. Life for Sayadi at NUMMI wasn’t the same, he says.
First, a rechristening: co-workers began calling him “Ali Baba,” he says. Another simply referred to him as “Kuwaiti.” He shaved his mustache so as not to draw comparisons to Hussein. Sprinkled in with the insults were constant requests for tutorials on all things Iraqi — perhaps benign curiosity, perhaps a way of emphasizing his differentness.
“People were very thirsty for information about that area. And who knows about this? Ali Baba knows. They’d listen to the news at night, then come to work the next day and ask what Iraq is about, what Kuwait is, who Saddam is. I tried to enlighten them. I’m a symbol of that area,” he says, adding with a laugh, “anyway, I knew my geography. I had every National Geographic that came out since I came to the U.S.”
Even as his co-workers were teasing and grilling him, Sayadi was proudly hoisting the American flag every night after work, and says he shook hands with governor Pete Wilson at a massive rally in support of the U.S. military actions.
When the Gulf War ended, things calmed down at NUMMI. Like America itself, Sayadi enjoyed a decade of relative peace at the plant. Then came 9/11, and overnight everything changed.
“Oh, NUMMI hires terrorists now?” was the sort of remark he says he heard commonly. His presence among co-workers invariably brought about mention of jihad or terrorism. One day, he was told by a superior that his lunchbox needed to be searched. When he asked why, he said he was led to believe he was considered a possible suicide bomber.
“I just opened the lunch box. I was dumbfounded. I was so shameful. I didn’t know what to say. That was the point when I should have said something to the media — ‘Look what happened to me.’ But I was so ashamed. I thought, maybe he’s right. I’m from (that region), I deserve this.” (MORE)