It's rare when we find ourselves as the right person in the right place at the right time. More often, it’s an unsatisfying mix of those and other variables: The place is right, the timing is spot on — only you were off.
I was 22 years old, and one day into an internship at the ABC program “Nightline,” when the Sept. 11 attacks happened. They woke this country up from the slumber of the 1990s, and in my case, from a jet-lagged coma in a corporate housing unit down the street from the Pentagon. In a week, I went from a sheltered college existence to having ash on the balcony from the smoldering crash site nearby.
My fellow interns and I soon realized we weren’t ready for the real world to introduce itself so cataclysmically. A White House intern friend, exhausted by the unending hours of TV coverage, marched to the video store one night, bought a VHS copy of the movie “Notting Hill” and proceeded to wear it out with almost nightly viewings. I went in the other direction and consumed hours of news coverage, studying what occurred from every angle, as if I were still cramming for a final exam I needed to ace.
It will forever be a dark time for this country. It was also a terrible time in American history to look or appear even remotely Muslim. A Pakistani-American colleague stopped wearing a prayer ring — given to her by her grandmother — that had Arabic script on it because she got suspicious looks on the subway.
My friend and roommate, who like me is Indian-American, waited up for me that first week after I’d stumble out of the office at 3 a.m. He did this partly to get the latest news, but also to make sure I was safe from the kind of random retaliation Muslims and even non-Muslims like myself were enduring.
As the country was putting the pieces back together, we were suddenly forced to construct our identities in a post-Sept. 11 world. And I had it easy; no turban, no beard, and a tendency to overcompensate with niceness.
We had a villain back then: Osama bin Laden, the man who caused all that pain, anger and anxiety. Monday is the fifth anniversary of his death. News outlets will most likely focus on what has replaced him, the fragmented, nihilistic terrorism of groups like the Islamic State. But I’ve been thinking back to the months after Sept. 11, when Bin Laden spoke to us through video and audio messages — and I voiced them on screen.
The tapes arrived randomly, throwing the newsroom into a frenzy and immediately becoming that evening’s lead story. One day, a news producer asked the office bullpen if anyone wanted to voice-over the English translation of Bin Laden’s latest ominous message. My hand shot up.
In hindsight, this was not something a rational brown male should’ve volunteered for so enthusiastically.
My first time in the recording booth, I was feeling my way through. I sat up straight, careful not to rustle any papers, which the sensitive microphones would pick up. In truth, I was trying my best to not sound like the immature college kid I knew in my heart I still was.
I did a second take, this time offering to do a Middle Eastern accent, because I fancied myself pretty good at accents and assumed I had license as someone of South Asian descent. A producer on a deadline is prone to say, “Yeah, whatever,” more than is advisable, and it all seemed innocuous enough. It even provided some gallows humor. Who’d we get to voice the most feared man in the world? The guy who routinely messes up printing out copies of the scripts.
After another tape came out, I stepped back into the booth. I wanted to go beyond a generic accent this time and impersonate Bin Laden himself, as if Emmys could be awarded for “Best Performance of a Radical Jihadist on a Network News Show.”
Bin Laden’s voice was soft, meek; not exactly the fiery orator his apocalyptic worldview seemed to warrant. I tried loosening up my posture and speaking from the back of my throat, hoping to give his voice-over more of a laconic, nasal sound.
I soon wondered whether the goal shouldn’t be mimicry, but to convey the true threat Bin Laden posed, to add a menacing tone to his banal voice of evil. I joked that my parents could brag to their friends: “Oh, your son is a doctor? Well, our son is busy instilling fear into millions of people.” I was acting every day anyway, trying to convince the world I was an adult able to function in a professional environment. This was just an extension of that.
Then came the day I got the review I had been waiting for. One of the executive producers, an intimidating presence whom I managed to disappoint at seemingly every turn, approached me.
“Are you the one doing the accents on the Bin Laden tapes?” he asked.
“Yeah!” I beamed proudly. Here it was. The pat on the back I was waiting for, the validation I so richly needed and deserved.
“Knock it off,” he said tersely, as if I was merely one of a hundred fires that needed extinguishing that day.
I was certain I’d be fired. More troubling, “knock it off” felt like a succinct critique of who I was at that time. It was as if he was saying, whatever you think you’re doing here, whomever you’re trying to be — knock it off. This is real life. This is war. Grow up. It’s not about you.
I did one more Bin Laden voice-over. “We stress the importance of martyr operations against the enemy,” I said, delivering it plain, without emotion — exactly the way I should’ve to begin with.
Years later, I watched the celebrations after Bin Laden was killed. I can only hope that moment provided some amount of closure to the families of his victims. The deeper he went into hiding, though, the more he lost his terror grip on me. My favorite detail to come out of the compound raid — other than the stash of pornography — was Bin Laden’s attempt to rebrand Al Qaeda with corporate-sounding names like “Restoration of the Caliphate Group.” He had ceased being our villain, and was now apparently working toward a Master of Terror Administration degree.
Five years after his death, Bin Laden seems buried in our collective consciousness, as deep as his body is in the ocean. What remains are those tapes, and our memories of that time. It was a moment in my life when the best advice I could’ve received was simply “knock it off.”
Nihar Patel is a writer and director in Los Angeles.