By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Then, one morning a few weeks after the attacks, as grief, guilt, and rage still bubbled, Rodriguez saw Aïcha el-Wafi's picture in the paper. El-Wafi's son Zacarias Moussaoui was perhaps the most loathed person in America, the suspected so-called 20th hijacker. In the accompanying story, el-Wafi told the press that her son had been brainwashed by Islamic extremists in England. By November 2001, el-Wafi announced that Moussaoui had written a letter to her declaring his innocence, and she believed him.
El-Wafi would continue to stalwartly defend her son against both the charges leveled against him by the U.S. government and the public's condemnation, and she told a British newspaper recently that Moussaoui "was the child I never had a problem with."
But if one believes el-Wafi's eldest son, who wrote a tell-all book about his brother Zacarias, Aïcha el-Wafi was an austere single mother who headedperhaps even created, he saysa dysfunctional family. In turn, she has dismissed these claims. (Moussaoui's attorneys have blamed his father.) In any case, she has said on a British website, "Although I am not responsible for the choices my son has made as an adult, I still feel guilty because I gave birth to him."
Phyllis Rodriguez says she hadn't given much thought to Moussaoui's mother until she saw el-Wafi's picture that morning. The image shook her, she recalls. She recognized something familiar in el-Wafi's expression. "I felt for her as a mother," Rodriguez says. "I thought, 'I'd like to meet her.' I knew I would like to reach out to her because I felt sorry for her. And I also thought, 'Good for her, fighting for her son.' "
Rodriguez considered calling Moussaoui's defense attorneys to get in touch with her, but she was too consumed by her own loss. To her surprise, nearly a year later, the opportunity presented itself.
Renny Cushing, who ran an organization called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, had found Rodriguez through an anti-war letter that she and her husband had written, and Cushing figured she would be sympathetic to his proposition of getting the two together. Cushing, in touch with el-Wafi through his work with French death penalty abolitionist groups, e-mailed Rodriguez to see if she'd be interested in meeting el-Wafi during her next visit to the United States.
Rodriguez was amazed and surprised by the invitation. Though she wondered if it would be too painfuland she wondered whether el-Wafi was going to ask her to sign up to help Moussaoui's case, which Rodriguez says she would have refusedshe immediately said yes to the meeting. She also helped Cushing find a few more 9-11 family members who might also be interested.
A few weeks later, in October 2002, Rodriguez, her husband, and four other relatives of 9-11 victims met at noon in an empty conference room at a local university. The group talked nervously among themselves and froze every time they heard the main door creak open. It had only been about a year since the attacks, and emotions were still raw. Because the Rodriguezes did not yet know whether Greg's remains would eventually be found, they had not even had a proper burial for him yet. She didn't tell many others about her meeting with el-Wafi because she was afraid that people would react negatively.
After half an hour of nervous chatter, the group heard el-Wafi and her entourage's footsteps echoing through the long hallway. Rodriguez and her husband rushed to meet her at the door.
Aïcha el-Wafi entered the room timidly, almost catlike, Rodriguez recalls. There was a weighty silence. And then, impulsively, Rodriguez says, she approached el-Wafi and wordlessly embraced her in a bear hug.
El-Wafi spoke first, and she surprised her audience. "I don't know if my son is guilty or innocent," she began, "but I want to apologize to you for what has happened to you and your family."
The group spent the rest of the afternoon together. Rodriguez was struck by el-Wafi's boldness and her sense of humor. She was moved by el-Wafi's life as a teen bride, domestic-violence victim, and single mother. The two also seemed to have a lot in common: cooking, needlework, and of course, the love and loss of sons. El-Wafi showed Rodriguez a snapshot of Moussaoui from his youth, dressed in a school uniform. Rodriguez told her about Greg. Before she left, Rodriguez asked el-Wafi to keep in touch.
And they did. El-Wafi would send Rodriguez a postcard from Morocco while she was there for her nephew's wedding. Rodriguez would reciprocate by sending a postcard from her first trip to Cuba, her husband's birth country. They sent each other family pictures with quick notes jotted on the back. There were sporadic phone calls and e-mails, simple exchanges of pleasantries since Rodriguez was forced to rely on her rudimentary French.
But in April 2005, when Rodriguez learned that Moussaoui had pled guilty to conspiring to fly planes into American buildings, she knew that her relationship with el-Wafi was about to change.
Phyllis Rodriguez realized that after Moussaoui's plea, there would soon be a sentencing trial, and that she would be confronted by memories she'd worked so hard to keep tucked away. And Rodriguez sensed that if it were going to be difficult for her, it might be even worse for the mother of the accused.