Repairing the soul of the Empire City

New York is not a city – it is an apparition, a phantom, a vision.

Twin Towers lights
One World Trade Center, colloquially known as ‘Freedom Tower’, will be completed in 2013 [GALLO/GETTY]

Almost a decade has passed since the mournful, heartbreaking collapse of those two gentle giants of the WTC in New York City – a decade that has just ended with a leading credit rating agency, Standard & Poor (S&P), downgrading the United States AAA standing to an AA rating, for the first time ever in history. 

Empires: They don’t make ’em like they used to. Which is worse – the two giant AA phallic symbols of an empire cut deep and down in the full daylight of history, or its AAA rating circumcised by one notch to AA for the whole world to see, all in span of just one decade? Is this what Fareed Zakaria meant, perhaps, by “the post-American world”?

Did anyone remember – or did we all miss – the tenth anniversary of March 2, 2001, when the Taliban began dynamiting the twin Buddhas of Bamiyan on the orders of their leader, Mullah Omar? Between the two mirror images of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the towers of Manhattan, falling to the terror of fear and fanaticism, how many more monuments, buildings, innocent lives, have perished in Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Baghdad, Basra, Kazmain, Gaza, Beirut, Tripoli – how many widowed, orphaned, how many victims of intentional and accidental drone attacks, how many refugees, how many nightmares? “We don’t do body counts,” the US General Tommy Franks is famed to have once said. What do generals count? Will empires ever be held accountable?

Whether or not generals count, things don’t look good on the home front for the monopolar empire. Just short of two years after the severe financial crisis of 2008 that ushered Barack Obama into the White House, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the American empire has something far trickier than al-Qaeda to fear and fight. The deficit reduction plan passed by the US Congress has evidently not gone far enough for the agency to keep the superpower at AAA standing. The finicky investors are losing confidence. Huge debts, unemployment at 9.1 per cent, fears of a double-dip recession, the man at the helm, who preached “the audacity of hope” to get there, is now facing a home front weaker than on that frightful Tuesday morning on September 11, 2001.

Empire in decline

This enemy is from within, and it ain’t no “Muslim sleeper cell” either. It is homegrown. It is greed. It is the Republican Party giving birth to a nightmare it calls the Tea Party. If during the Bush era (2000-2008) the world was menaced by the neocons, the Obama era is plagued by a Tea Party that makes the neocons look like pussycats. If the neocons were psychopaths taking their class notes from Leo Strauss’ lectures for global domination, these Tea Party sociopaths are targeting the very foundation of a civil society. 

The decade marks a spiral down: The Republicans begat the Conservatives, the Conservatives begat the Neoconservatives, and the Neoconservatives begat the Tea Party. We thought Newt Gingrich was an antiquity. Now we need to decipher Rick Perry. The criminal attacks of 9/11 unleashed the state-sponsored terrorism of the neocons upon the world, and the terror of the Tea Party now threatens to cripple the very function of the state apparatus and with it the very fabric of civil society.

Their darling, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, just won the Iowa straw poll, adding momentum to her populist Christian evangelical fundamentalist campaign for president. Sarah Palin was a decoy. This time the UK should dispatch a “supercop” (James Bond?) this way to sort out the political riots. Imagine the world’s predicament: You run away from an Islamic republic, fearful of a Jewish state and its matching Hindu fundamentalism, just to end up in a Christian empire – where Florida pastor Terry Jones is burning the Quran and the Christian Zionist John Hagee is preparing for the Armageddon, before Reverend Harold Camping revealed that in fact the “Rapture” would take place on May 21, 2011, and the world would end. 

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The empire – what empire? Forget about Muslim terrorists – China, to which the US owes more than it can afford to pay back, is now asking the US to address its “structural debt problems”, even demanding an international supervision over the US dollar. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) is turning in his grave. 

All of this is Greek to New York. New York is not a city. It is an apparition, a phantom, a vision – a frontier outpost of a territory yet to be conquered, possessed, named. Americans will have sooner conquered and colonised another planet than claim New York as the capital of their empire. It is not. New York is unruly – it is a trojan horse – its belly full not of terrorists, but of insomniac workaholic immigrants all on a heavy dose of stimulus.

The capital of this would-be empire is somewhere else – a Romanesque architectural lookalike meeting clumsily with the forsaken southern gentry, held together inside “the Beltway” for fear of contaminating the rest of the world. New York City is farther from Washington DC than from the moon. Washington DC is J Edgar Hoover. New York City is Joe Pesci. 

NYC: In a class of its own

New York City is the physical embodiment of its own memorial gathering – for otherwise it has absolutely no memory. It is gloriously afflicted with a short attention span. It cannot remember anything. It is drastically different from London, Paris, Tehran, Cairo, Casablanca, Istanbul, or any other cosmopolis. The best way to compare New York City to other major cities is on New Year’s Eve. Paris has its Eiffel Tower, London its London Eye, Sydney its Sydney Harbour Bridge, etc. They become the centre of New Year Eve festivities.

What about New York? Times Square is a vacant space. Nothing is there. No monument, no structure, no edifice. The only thing that defines Times Square on New Year’s Eve is the people that have gathered there to celebrate. Their celebrations done and champagne popped and kisses exchanged they go home and sleep, and tomorrow morning nothing is there – except huge billboards crawling over the walls, and yellow cabs and tourists buses sneaking up and down Manhattan. At the centre of Times Square stands nothing – just like Tahrir Square. People define it – people make a makeshift human monument in the centre of it – and when they leave so will the monument – that’s why people stayed in Tahrir until Mubarak left. If there ever were to be a revolution in America it will have to start from Times Square: Silmiyya, Silmiyya


New York does not flaunt its character. It tailors itself around every character. Paris has a “take it or leave it” attitude, so does London, Istanbul, Mumbai, or Tokyo. Not New York. New York is too big to be arrogant like that. If you come to visit New York, it would charm and tease you – but it will not bother you – for New York is exceedingly shy, and it has built the façade of all those glitzy billboards to cover its modesty. To cover its shyness from strangers, it pretends it is busy doing something else – always something else – but it is watching you closely, from somewhere up in one of those high rises.

But if you come there to live, New York treats you differently, with respect, opens itself to you, shows you all its nooks and crannies – all the while trying to figure you out – who you are, what you want, where you want to be, how much insomnia fate has invested in you. Then before you know it New York has wrapped itself around you, made itself your city – and you will never be able to live anywhere else. New York belongs to no empire. It is a frontier town – made of masses of millions of insomniac immigrants, memories of their parents and birthplace of their children, having made a picture perfect image of their unfolding dreams they call “New York”.  New York is the tweet of planet earth to the possibility of life in our galaxy. 

The self-surfacing soul of New York City is self-regenerative. It dies every evening and is born again from its five boroughs every morning – remembering nothing. New York is immemorial – could not care less for histories, for it is busy making and remaking them. When the militant Zionists occupy Fifth Avenue to flaunt their power on “Salute to Israel Day,” just a few blocks away from the parade New Yorkers are watching the leading Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s “The Time that Remains”. Frustrated Zionists, watching Edward Said commanding global attention for the Palestinian cause from Columbia University in the City of New York, called my university “Birzeit-upon-Hudson.”  

The Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi, a New Yorker now for more than three decades, was shooting his exquisite homage to New York, Marathon (2002), precisely during the fateful year of 2001, one of four films he has made in his beloved city, while being an inspiration to the widely celebrated Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, whose Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007) are among the first post 9/11 visions of the City from the vantage point of its labour immigrants, from the in and out of the Empire. Between Amir Naderi and Ramin Bahrani, New York has revealed its self-regenerative soul to its native immigrants, while Zach Snyder and imperial Hollywood were busy making the testosterone-infested CGI image of their juvenile delusions in 300

New York is for real – and, as Dominique Strauss-Kahn learned the hard way, it will cost you a lot if you were to fake it. 

We New Yorkers neither remember nor forgive that gang of criminals who violated the physics and poetry of the Twin Towers – you cannot forgive what you cannot remember, and for that gang the fate of anonymity is worse than ignominy. We New Yorkers categorically denounce the neocon abuse of our sorrows to wage war against humanity. To many of us in New York, Osama bin Laden and Donald Rumsfeld are the same charade on different banners – one perturbed soul in two crooked bodies. One of them has now met his creator – the other should be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

The US has declined over the past decade, in part due to Rumsfeld’s ‘shock and awe’ war in Iraq  [EPA]

Rumsfeld did to Baghdad one hundred times worse than what Muhammad Atta did to New York, and one hundred thousand times worse in the twenty-first century than what the Mongol warlord Hulagu did to Baghdad in the thirteenth century. He may have gotten away with it – but the US didn’t. In the span of a decade, and precisely because of the “campaign of shock and awe” that Rumsfeld launched, the United States has gone from the presumption of a superpower to the daunting recognition of its economic bankruptcy, political impotence, and global irrelevance, with the democratic rise of Arab Spring exposing the sheer banality of its military might and its garrison state of Israel alike. 

Against the avalanche of memories and identities, a New Yorker is just a New Yorker – citizen of an Empire City made of many races, creeds, and nationalities – Jews, Christians, Muslims, and blessed atheists, or else Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, Turks, Koreans, Chinese, Africans … and from any and every exit off the New Jersey Turnpike you can count or imagine. 

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, located at the World Trade Center site, on the former location of the Twin Towers destroyed during the September 11 attacks in 2001, is planning the inauguration of a major landmark. A forest of trees with two square pools in the centre, designed by Michael Arad, an Israeli architect, on the footprints of where the Twin Towers once stood, is to commemorate the fallen giants and the victims who perished on that day. The design is both sombre and majestic.

The politics of mourning

But what is it exactly that the memorial is supposed to memorialise – in a city that thrives on too many memories to remember every night and thus gets up in the morning having completely forgotten itself? If you were to look at the southern tip of Manhattan these days, you may notice the imperceptive rise of a new, soon-to-be 1,776-foot-tall centrepiece of the resurrected Ground Zero, just like the newborn child of two Afghan or Iraqi parents perished in the campaign of “ending states” by “shock and awe”.

Soon after the horrid events of 9/11, Jacque Derrida delivered a public lecture at Columbia University in which he talked about “the mourning of the political”. The Algerian sage was teaching his audience that day, in an auditorium with standing room only, that what we were witnessing in the US was not just the mourning of those who perished on 9/11, but that in fact we were mourning the very notion of “the political” as we have known it. At the conclusion of his speech a curious member of the audience asked him, point blank and publicly, if he thought that “the politics of mourning” that we were witnessing in the city would perhaps preempt “the mourning of the political”.  He pondered the question exquisitely, publically – not even to his own satisfaction. He said he had no crystal ball. New York is a crystal ball. 

The events of 9/11 could have brought the US to the bosom of the world if, as Derrida had taught, we were to allow a proper mourning of “the political” as we had known it, and as it has marked us. Within days, George W Bush was on the site of 9/11, his war machine was throttling full blasts, the neoconservative chicanery of the Project for a New American Century dusting off its plans to dominate the world, and the politics of mourning (to this day, and marked by an Israeli architect winking at a Muslim atrocity) has preempted that mourning of the political

The wounded soul of New York was restored by the evening of 9/11, as Kandahar, Baghdad, Gaza, and Beirut were waiting to be burned. On Wednesday morning, 12 September, New York was back to normal, buzzing, humming, working, feeling, building – oblivious, as always to “history”. New York dies with the death of every New Yorker, and New York is born again with the birth of every child in its five boroughs. We mourn the death of New Yorkers we have lost in and by the blessing of the New Yorkers born to us every day. 

New York is not an imperial city. It is the Empire City – an empire of its own. No other city in the United States is quite like it – and thus they all aspire to it. It is not America. It is what America wants to be – but cannot. It is the worst thing about America – that there is always hope for it.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His forthcoming book, The Arab Spring:  The End of Postcolonialism is scheduled for publication from Zed in April 2012.    

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.