Thursday, September 11, 2014

On Being in Spain, September 11, 2001

Looking at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, Through Innocent Eyes

Pure bliss. That’s exactly what I felt on September 11, 2001. I was admiring this spectacular view of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, exactly one week into a two week vacation. 

The Alhambra, originally constructed in 889 in southern Spain as a small fortress, was later rebuilt by a Moorish king as a magnificent royal palace for the last Muslim emirs in Spain. It was taken over by Catholic monarchs in 1492 and allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries before European scholars rediscovered the Alhambra in the 19th century and major restorations began at that time. Today, it is one of Spain's national treasures, exhibiting the country's most significant Islamic architecture. Moorish poets described it as "a pearl set in emeralds," a testament to the color of its buildings and the forest surrounding them.

We had tickets to tour the Alhambra the next day and had spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the colorful and quaint town of Granada on foot. I had read in the Lonely Planet guide that President Bill Clinton considered the view (pictured above) from San Nicholas lookout to be the most beautiful place he had witnessed a sunset. After hoofing it up the winding, hilly streets we arrived at the lookout point and I clearly remember thinking “this is my place, this is where I belong.” My love affair with Spain grew by the day.

Although it wasn’t crowded, others milled around and soaked in the beauty of a picture perfect day in the Atlas mountains. My travel partner first noticed a man looking at us and when I turned he had an anxious expression and approached us. In reality, he just wanted to hear our accent.

Our new Canadian friend snapped this picture moments after
we learned of the terrorist attacks in the United States on
September 11, 2001.

I will never forget the exact words of this Canadian. He asked if I was from the U.S. When I said yes, he replied "have you heard what is going on?" I shook my head no. He said: "Both the World Trade Center towers are on the ground and the Pentagon's on fire."  Whoa.

The final week of our vacation was significantly altered from that moment. Southern Spain, and the country in general, spoke less English than I expected. Given my broken Spanish, it was difficult to get information. We ran down the winding streets into town and stopped at the first tavern with a television. I expected English subtitles. A naive assumption, of course, and the only image we saw was the second plane hitting the tower time after time and listening to a news anchor rapidly speak in Spanish. It wasn't until four days later when we arrived back in Madrid and secured a Sunday London Times that we learned details of the attack. Horrors such as box cutters and people jumping from the top of the World Trade Center were revealed to us along with brave stories that epitomize the human spirit like Todd Beamer's command of "Let's Roll" before attempting to overtake the hijackers. But, throughout that final week of vacation, we were treated with a kindness and dignity that I will always cherish. From complimentary dinners to hugs, kisses, and prayers, we met so many people and experienced things because of the international crisis back home. 

Perhaps my passion for Spain (I hope to retire there half time) is rooted in this experience. It’s the place where my innocence of the world was forever marred and I allowed the people of Spain to comfort and hold me for a week. I left the next Tuesday on one of the first regularly scheduled Delta flights since the attacks. The compassion offered so generously by Spaniards made for a softer landing into the reality of my country being in both crisis and mourning.

Here are a few images inside the mystical Alhambra, which is a United Nations World Heritage Site.