New York City dazzled, of course, and a road trip with an uncle and his family from Wyoming through the Rockies to California where Mickey Mouse greeted us in Disneyland, was a lesson in the sheer vastness that is the United States.
But then I fell in love with an American and I flew to NYC to meet him for the millennium celebrations and even though we fought and I gave him back his engagement ring, I agreed to marry him and I did what I vowed I'd never do: I left my job and my home for a man.
The year after I moved to be with him in Seattle, early one Tuesday, his mother called us from her home at the other end of the country – three time zones away in Florida – urging us to turn on the television because something terrible was happening in New York. I rushed to awaken my brother and his wife who were visiting us.
That morning of 11 September 2001 as we watched the twin towers crumble on live television, America and I would develop a bond that has proven deeper and more enduring – for better or worse, through sickness and health – than the one I had with my now ex-husband.
"If this is Muslims, they're going to round us up," I told him. He took the day off work and we didn't leave the apartment for two days, worried that my sister-in-law would be attacked for her headscarf. A drunk unsuccessfully tried to set our local mosque on fire; the neighbourhood stood guard outside the mosque for weeks afterwards holding signs that read "Muslims are Americans".
"What's it like to f**k a terrorist?" a group of young men asked the white American husband of a Pakistani-American woman I knew.
I left my husband a year after 9/11. Not because he was an American and I an Egyptian, nothing to do with culture or religion; nothing to do with 9/11. We brought out the worst in each other. But before we separated we visited NYC one more time together for a friend's engagement and we went to pay our respects at the site of the attacks. I had no words. Just tears and prayers as we took in the gaping hole, the makeshift shrines of teddy bears and notes desperately seeking the whereabouts of loved ones.
Ironically, he now lives in Asia and I've stayed in the US. I stayed to fight. To say that's not my Islam. To yell Muslims weren't invented on 9/11. Those planes crashing again and again into the towers were the first introduction to Islam and Muslims for too many Americans but we – American Muslims – are sick and tired of explaining. None of those men was an American Muslim and we're done explaining and apologising. Enough.
I stayed to give my middle finger to Tea Partiers who tried to intimidate a group of us in 2010 because we supported the right of an Islamic community centre to build near the site of the attacks. They came to bully us and I bullied them right back. I wanted them to know Muslims will not be intimidated so think twice before you try to bully another one.