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Overwhelmed by the events, el-Wafi had already returned to France when the verdictlife in prisonwas returned. Rodriguez says she called el-Wafi as soon as she heard the news. "Even if it doesn't sound that great, this is the better option because he's alive," Rodriguez says she assured el-Wafi over the phone. "Now, take care of yourself and try to get some sleep."
They also made plans for Rodriguez to visit el-Wafi. Rodriguez began improving on her French, and she used it when she spent three weeks in France with el-Wafi this summer. During the trip, they took walks through Narbonne, had hilarious nights out at bars in Paris, and because their unusual friendship cannot be extricated from politics, became the subject of numerous French newspaper articles and a German documentary that showed them chatting animatedly in the shade of a monument at a seaside village.
"Neither of them is innocent about the political aspect of their friendship," notes Joe Agne, a pastor at a White Plains church who has met both women. "But it's not a political calculation. They are two women who are really connected."
After the trial, Rodriguez was no longer secretive about her friendship with el-Wafi. She was also starting to feel less concerned about people's reaction to it. "How I grew up, in the '50s in a left-wing family, I saw the fear that McCarthyism and the Cold War and the Red Scare engendered," Rodriguez says. "And when I found myself, through an accident of history, being in a very political position about a friendship with Aïcha, I was scared. But I'd say no, I can't let the fear stop me."
Some friends and family have openly expressed their support, while others privately shake their heads in disbelief. "I was surprised," says Ben Waltzer, a longtime family friend of the Rodriguezes'. "[Phyllis] has befriended the mother of a man who aspired to be part, but couldn't make the cut, of the fascist gang of thugs that murdered her son. But it's also indicative of her struggle to construct some meaning out of the event. I respect her for it. I'm unsure I'd be capable of that, though."
Others are less diplomatic. "I haven't heard Moussaoui's mother denounce her son's actions," says Peter Gadiel, whose 23-year-old son worked on the same floor at Cantor Fitzgerald as Greg did. "If [el-Wafi] hasn't admitted to her son's barbarity, then she's unworthy of any attention from any 9-11 family. That kind of relationship is beyond comprehension. It's more than odd; it's nuts. That kind of attitude is pacifism gone mad. It's turn the other cheek until the other side destroys you. It's blaming yourself instead of them. If Moussaoui became a terrorist, then his mother had something to do with it."
But those close to Phyllis Rodriguez say the solace she gets from her friendship with Moussaoui's mother requires no justification. "I was a little surprised when I found out," admits daughter Julia. "Not because it was out of character but because it's such a big thing, and I was afraid it would be painful for her in some way. But it's proven to be a great thing for my mom, a way to focus her energy in a positive direction."
The two women have also recently joined a touring British art-photography exhibit called the Forgiveness Project, a collection of photographs and stories of two people from opposite sides of a conflict who have chosen to come together. "Desmond Tutu says that it seems like an altruistic thing to do, but forgiveness is actually in one's own self-interest," Rodriguez says as a way of explaining her relationship with el-Wafi. "Because it kind of lifts a burden or anger and hatred from youI'm not saying you don't flip back and forth, but it feeds something very deep. And there are different definitions for forgiveness. It doesn't mean, I forgive you for killing my son. It's saying, 'You did something that's really awful, but I want to see what makes you tick as a human being.'
"I'll never face the murderers of Greg and all the people on that day, but that first meeting with Aïcha, I was so shocked when she asked for forgiveness and she apologized for what had happened to our families even though she wasn't responsible for what happened."
But ultimately, for the two mothers who find themselves at the opposite ends of a historic tragedy, a nagging guilt was what initially tethered them together. In very different ways, both Greg Rodriguez and Zacarias Moussaoui were confused and brooding young men searching for something that their mothers didn't understand. To Phyllis Rodriguez, that Greg chose to find his answers through wacky hairdos and dropping out of school rather than by joining an extremist sect seems more a matter of luck and circumstance than a triumph of her superior mothering. "We don't really know how our children are going to interact with the world, or how they're going to internalize experiences," Rodriguez says.
Her friendship with el-Wafi, she says, has dissolved her guilt. "In trying to help Aïcha overcome the terrible feelings of guilt that she has from her lack of ability to prevent bad things from happening to her son, I am explaining these things to myself, too," Rodriguez says. "I tell her things like, 'You did the best you could.' But I'm also telling it to myself.