Last week, Representative Peter T. King, a conservative Republican from Long Island, convened hearings into what he says is the radicalization of American Muslims and their supposed refusal to cooperate with law enforcement officials. During the hearings, Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, denounced the inquiry and spoke of the heroism of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a paramedic and N.Y.P.D. cadet who died on 9/11 trying to save the lives of others. Salman’s remains were not found until six months after his death. During that time, his reputation was smeared by speculation that he was involved in the attack simply because he was a Muslim. He was declared a hero posthumously.
Salman’s mother, Talat Hamdani, is among the narrators in the forthcoming Voice of Witness book about post-9/11 discrimination. Below is an excerpt of her narrative. Here, she describes the period following 9/11, during which she and her husband searched desperately for their missing son.
INTERVIEWED IN: Long Island, New York.
The night before 9/11, Salman was going over his application for medical school. He was in his last year of N.Y.P.D. cadet training. After, he would be able to join the N.Y.P.D. as an officer. He had told me that if he didn’t get accepted into medical schools, he wanted to go into N.Y.P.D. forensics.
I last saw Salman that night at 3 a.m. My husband Saleem wasn’t feeling well. He was all flushed, so he called Salman to take his blood pressure. It was fine, but Salman said, “If you feel bad, if you feel something wrong, just call me again.”
WE JUST WAITED FOR HIM.
On 9/11, I left for work early that morning. I was a full-time teacher at Middle school 72 in Jamaica, Queens. I was in the classroom from about 8 a.m. to 10:20 a.m. When I came out of the classroom, there were teachers huddled up in the hallway outside the assistant principal’s room. At first I thought, Let me go see, maybe the superintendent has come in for an inspection. But then I could sense that something was wrong.
I heard the teachers saying that the Twin Towers had been hit, that one had fallen down and the other one was burning. I called my husband. He was crying profusely, and he said, “You know, Salman is there!” He knew it. I don’t know how, but he knew it.
I was trying to convince him Salman wasn’t down there, that he was at work. He was a DNA lab analyst at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which is at 65th and York Avenue—far away from the World Trade Center. But Saleem believed our son had gone to down to the World Trade Center to help, because he would have seen the Towers burning on his commute to Manhattan. Saleem knew he would have gone down there. That’s all I can say. I said to him, “Don’t worry, he’ll call. He’ll come.”
At school, we carried on teaching. I never thought about what it was all about. During the day, I watched television in the school’s media room with other teachers. I found a seat up front. I sat and I saw what was happening. It was so surreal. I just didn’t know what to believe or what not to believe. One of the teachers said, “It must be some crazy Muslim, you know.” Another teacher who knew I was there nudged her not to say it, and she kept quiet. But then I got up and left.
I got home at around 4:30 p.m. My youngest son, Zeshan, was home. He was trying to reach Salman. We called Salman’s office, we called his cell, but nobody was answering. This whole time I was thinking, Salman is safe.
Still, I called up the police department and the ambulance company to ask if they’d sent him down there as an E.M.T. They said, “No, we did not send him.” There was no contact between the N.Y.P.D. or the E.M.T. company. They had not seen Salman at all that day.
I told Saleem “Don’t worry. He’ll be home.” That night, we just waited for him. Nothing. He didn’t come home.
When the telephone systems were up and running and a call still hadn’t come all night, then we got really worried.
We never discussed the attack. I didn’t think it had anything to do with his disappearance. Wars happen in the world. We were definitely focused on finding Salman.
THAT HE WAS DEAD NEVER CROSSED MY MIND.
My husband was crying very badly, so the next day we went to Salman’s office. They said that he never showed up. The security guard went and got Salman’s cell phone for us. Salman had left it there the night before 9/11. We asked the security guy what to do. He said, “Maybe go down to St. Vincent’s hospital. That’s where they have the injured.”
So we went down to St. Vincent’s and there were long lines and of course we were both crying. We went to see the list of the injured and the dead. Every three or four hours they were generating a list. So, we went through those lists. We spent the whole day looking at the lists, again and again.
I felt very hopeful because Salman’s name was not on any of the lists.
Then on the third day, Thursday, we made a flyer for him. It had his picture and it said, “Missing.” We went to Manhattan again, to the Armory downtown. There were so many people over there. We posted the pictures everywhere, in different places. Everybody else was posting their pictures too.
George Pataki, the governor, was there that day. I got this impression he just wanted to have his picture taken, wanted to be in the limelight. I don’t think it mattered to him how many people died or what the people were going through.
That Salman was dead never crossed my mind. I thought that, on that day, he got down there later because he didn’t go to his office, so most probably he had to walk. He would have gone there to help, definitely. He was that type of a person.
FROM MISSING TO WANTED.
Saleem and I went to Manhattan for twelve days searching for our son.
I had no clue. I was just searching for him. He could have been dead, he could have been injured. We were still hoping to find him on the injured list. They gave out a list of all the hospitals where the patients had been sent. There were like 250 hospitals between the five boroughs and New Jersey. We went to many of them, and I called many of them. No one had his name.
Soon after, two police officers came to our house. They were a female and a male from the N.Y.P.D. Criminal Investigation Bureau.
I said, “What brings you to my house?”
They both looked at each other, and they said, “Oh, we’re just visiting, just paying a visit to all the victims’ families in Queens.”
The female officer was looking around the house very intently. She came into the kitchen, where I had a big collage of pictures on the refrigerator. There was a picture of Zeshan’s graduation, with Salman, Adnaan, Zeshan, and Zeshan’s friend, who was an Afghani. She said, “My husband works at Queens College Housing.” The police had a center over there, where Salman worked. “Can I take his picture? Maybe my husband will recognize Salman.”
I said, “Yeah, take his picture.”
She took the one with the Afghani kid. I never got the picture back, and they never came back.
A few days after the cops came to my home, a regular customer, a Pakistani man who worked at the MTA, came to my husband’s store and said, “They’re asking for your son at the MTA. They’re asking for anyone who knows your son to step forward.” We’d had the store for sixteen years, so Salman had practically grown up in front of him. The man said, “I know him, he’s from a very nice family.” Then he said, “He didn’t die, he’s being detained. You should write a letter.”
And so we did write a letter to Bush saying, if you have our son just tell us. No response came back, so I sent a copy of the letter to everybody, including Senator Charles Schumer.
To keep hope alive, I kept telling myself that Salman did arrive at the WTC after the collapses and he was being detained by the government, the CIA, FBI, whoever it was.
In October, all four of us—my husband and my two sons and I—decided to go to Mecca just to pray, to get some answers. On October 9 they announced on the television, “Come identify your bodies at the medical examiner’s office.” So I said to my husband, “Before we go to Mecca, let’s go and look at all the bodies.”
The Armory had given us a handout with a phone number. So I dialed that number, and I told them, “I want to see the dead bodies.”
This man on the other end, said, “Who are you? Why are you calling here?”
I explained who I was and why I was calling. I said, “I want to know where we go to look at the bodies.”
He gave me an address, and said, “Okay, you can go out there.”
The next day, we headed to Manhattan. We had Salman’s cell phone, which was the only cell phone we had at the time. The man from the medical examiner’s office, or whoever he was, was calling every fifteen minutes, asking “Where are you now? Where are you going?”
Finally, when we arrived there, it wasn’t the dead bodies; it was the Red Cross Center. So there were no bodies to be seen.
Then, for the next 36 hours, we received phone calls from a man who said he was a detective with the N.Y.P.D. He asked questions like, “What was Salman wearing? Who was he going to see? What was he doing that day? Did he have a girlfriend or not? Can we take his computer? Do you know his password?”
I refused to give him Salman’s computer. I said, “Why should I give you his computer? It’s not needed. First tell me where my son is.”
He called again at 11:00 p.m. and finally I yelled at him, “Don’t you dare call here again.”
He stopped calling.
THE MUSLIM ANGLE.
On October 11th, the evening that we were leaving for Mecca, that’s the day when all the press reporters came back to my house. This New York Post guy came in asking questions, like, “What happened? Where would your son be? What are you doing? Your second son Adnaan is the president of the Muslim Student Association (M.S.A). at Binghamton.” That made me think, Oh, so he’s done his homework, and that is what he is looking at, the Muslim angle.
I said, “I don’t trust you. I don’t want to talk to you.” Then the Newsday guy came in, and guys from the New York Times and Daily News. They told me, “There’s a flyer circulating the N.Y.P.D. with your son’s picture on it. It says Wanted! That’s why we’ve come to your house.”
When I heard that, I was shocked. We were shocked. I remember saying, “He’s alive and he’s being detained, and he will come back.” The hope was so intense.
We then went to Mecca. They day after we left, the article hit the newspapers. The New York Post wrote, “Missing or hiding?”
The article said that my family had gone to Mecca, but that people were talking, that a neighbor had said, “We don’t know if we have a terrorist living next door to us.” But I don’t think any of our neighbors would have said that. All this insinuation, this is just a garbage paper. But the Daily News, the New York Times and Newsday all wrote very fair stories, like “The family’s gone to pray.”
When we came back, there was a message on the answering machine from Congressman Ackerman’s office, telling us to contact the office, that he had news of my son.
I called him. What he really wanted was to interrogate us. He asked, “What was your son wearing that day? Where was he going? What would he be doing?”
A few days later, I think the third time that we spoke, he said, “I’ll be very point blank. Do you think your son would be involved in any wrongful activity?”
I said, “No! I know my son.” And that was the end of it.
Then, one very peculiar thing Ackerman made us do, he had us write a letter to Attorney-General John Ashcroft. He said Salman may be with the I.N.S.
We said, “Why?”
He said, “Because he’s not born here.”
“Even if he’s a citizen?”
“The dividing line is whether he was born a citizen or not.”
So we wrote a letter to Ashcroft asking him to tell us if he had our son. Ackerman led us to believe that Salman was detained, so we were hopeful again that he was alive.
I have yet to find out why they would begin to suspect him, as opposed to helping us find him. I think maybe it was the fact that he did not work down there at the World Trade Center, and I called them up the second day asking, “Did you send him down there to help?” Maybe that could be it. There was so much fear and suspicion at that time. And his first name is Mohammad. Maybe that caused it, who knows. But it was wrong, very wrong.
A BAG OF DUST.
I went back to teaching in November. By this time, there was nothing more my family could do to find Salman. We were just thinking that he was alive and he’d come back home one day. Every day we would check the New York Times because they were disclosing the names of the dead and the injured. His name was never there, and I would tell this to the boys. So we were all still hopeful.
Also we had heard on the television about a big dragnet that detained many people. What had happened was there was a committee, a senatorial meeting, and Ashcroft was summoned to it, and he was asked by the senators, “How many people do you have detained?” So the more I heard about what was going on with the government, the more hope I had that my son was detained.
Then, on March 20, 2002, we received the first piece of information about his whereabouts.
We were going to sleep in the living room. Since 9/11, we had been sleeping there because my husband had said, “Salman will come home one day and he doesn’t have a key, so I don’t want the house to be locked.” So he kept the door unlocked all the time and he slept over there in the living room, and of course I had to sleep with him. I couldn’t leave him alone. We used to spread a couple of blankets on the carpet, and then sleep right there.
These tall men in overcoats knocked on our door at 11:30 p.m. that night. They said they were from the precinct. They did not show badges but I let them into my house because they said, “We’ve just identified your son’s remains. This is the medical examiner’s number. You can call them right now and confirm.”
My husband just collapsed to the floor and broke down, poor guy. I told them, “Okay, you’ve done your job—you guys have gotta go now.”
I told Saleem, “Listen, nothing’s going to change anything. Let’s go back to sleep. No need to call anybody. We don’t know who these people were.” I just wanted to calm him down.
Then the next day we went down to the Medical Examiner’s office at Bellevue hospital. A man from the office came, and he said, “They found the lower part of his body.”
I said, “Okay, prove to me that this is my son. I want to have his DNA tested by my own person.”
So he pulled the file towards himself, and he said, “You know, Mrs. Hamdani, go get yourself a lawyer. If someone wants to test it, they have to do it in our presence. Whenever you’re ready, we have the remains.”
My brother, who lives in New York, handled everything. The remains were sent to the funeral home in Queens. They say they gave us his lower body. The medical examiner’s office said they’d given us his lower body. But I’m sure from that big debris that was there at Ground Zero that they didn’t find any bodies; all they gave anybody was a bag of dust. Everybody got dust. Nobody got any body parts. My sister tried to prod the bag; she told me there was just dust in that bag, that there were no bones in there.
I don’t know what to believe or not to believe, honestly. They gave us a pair of jeans and a belt that were found in the debris. They were Salman’s. But the jeans were not burned or anything. They had cut one of the legs to get it off, but there were no bones.
On March 21, we went to California, where my sister lives. I knew there would be a lot of press outside my door again, and I did not want to talk to them. We came back in April, a day before the funeral.
THAT’S HOW I WANT TO GO.
On April 5 2002 we had the funeral. The N.Y.P.D. arranged it, so Salman got an honorable funeral under the American flag. I think after Congressman Ackerman investigated, the suspicions about Salman were put to rest.
The funeral was at the big mosque in Manhattan, on 93rd Street on the east side. I made a collage of his pictures. The N.Y.P.D. had the bagpipe player play the bagpipes, they brought the casket in, they laid it upstairs. There were about a thousand cadets there.
Mayor Bloomberg came, Ackerman came, Commissioner Kelly came.
My family all spoke at the funeral, and the cadets spoke too. Salman got a very honorable funeral. That’s how he wanted to go. He had expressed it at the funeral of a sergeant who had died in ‘99. He’d said then, “Mama, that’s honor. That’s how I want to go.”
You can say it put a closure to all my misgivings, and the cycle of, “Could he have made it? Could he have not made it?” It put everything to rest.
At that point, I took this as a redemption of his dignity. The slander that had been done in his name was taken care of. And he was sent off with honor.
This excerpt will be available in issue 38
of the McSweeney’s Quarterly.