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SCENES OF WAR INVADE A FAR-OFF LAND OF PEACE

DHARAMSALA, India - The pallid glow of the TV was hardly noticeable in the restaurant in northern India where I sat with my husband and six other volunteer English teachers.

We were at a table in a back room when I happened to look up and see the word "Live" under the BBC broadcast of burning buildings. As I craned my neck, Alon Gilat, a 23-year-old Israeli man, said, "Oh, there was a bomb in Israel. Two people died."

He's become so inured to violence that he didn't bother to glance at the broadcast, but his friend Idan Greenberg did, and soon he was standing in front of the screen. I followed him. "My god," I thought, "Tel Aviv is burning." Minutes passed before my next thought materialized, "My god, that's not Tel Aviv."

Soon our whole table had gathered around the TV, where banner updates were running across the bottom - four hijacked planes, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon. The Pentagon!

I looked around blankly. I grew up in Buffalo, but I've lived in New York and was to return there after this trip. My husband went to school in Buffalo but grew up in New York; his younger sister Katie's school was two blocks away from the World Trade Center.

Had we been thinking straight, we'd have run to the phone and made sure everyone was OK, but instead we sat dazed and transfixed, watching his hometown ablaze. "Maybe rents will go down," said my husband.

It wasn't callousness, it was shock. An hour must have gone by before we realized we had to contact Matt's parents and tore ourselves away from the BBC. On a broken, dusty lane in the Himalayan village where we'd been living for the past month and a half, other Westerners were walking with glazed eyes and telling us, "The phones are jammed. You can't get through."

On the normally bustling main road, near the Buddhist temple that forms the center of Dharamsala, a Tibetan exile community in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, someone had dragged an old TV into the street. People gravitated toward it, silent and open-mouthed.

The night seemed hazy and indistinct, time moved like molasses, reality was suspended. I saw Kunchok, a Tibetan refugee who works at my hotel, looking quizzically at the screen.

"What happened?" he asked me.

"Four planes were stolen. Two of the biggest buildings in my country have been attacked. Many people are dead." Once I said it, it started to become real, and I said, "We have to go. We have to find an Internet cafe."

Though it was after 11 p.m., one place had stayed open. Inside was every New Yorker in town, trying to open agonizingly slow e-mail programs, sending instant messages and scanning CNN.com. A pacing girl with flashing eyes kept muttering, "Hotmail won't work. Hotmail won't work!"

But our e-mail did work, and within two minutes of sending our message, we had responses. My father-in-law's Brooklyn house was covered with dust and ash, but everyone in his family was OK. Katie had run across the bridge in front of her school, ducking for cover when military planes zoomed overhead, speeding away from the downtown inferno and the bodies falling from high windows. She was at a relative's house uptown, shaken but safe.

Matt's stepfather e-mailed to say that he and Matt's mother were in their offices, waiting until they could get out of the city. All around me, people kept asking each other, "Are you OK?" and shaking their heads.

For the first time in my eight months abroad, I wanted desperately to be home.

In this little town in the mountains, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, where the streets team with Tibetan monks and nuns, Kashmiri Muslim shopkeepers and questing foreigners from across the globe, it's easy to forget the rest of the world. The place is a bubble of sweetness and serenity. Mattand I are working with Tibetan refugees as volunteer English teachers, and we'd quickly been absorbed into the community. But now, as I looked first at my city on the screen and then at the brown lanes crowded with cows, all I could think was, "What the hell am I doing here?"

In the next week, the mountain landscape I live in receded and my world became virtual as I dashed between Internet cafes and TV screens.

The moment I opened my eyes the next morning, I ran to the Mount Everest Cafe, one of few restaurants in town with a TV. It was already crowded with monks, Tibetan teenagers and the Muslim shopkeeper from downstairs, a tiny man in a skullcap who asked me immediately, "Your family? They are OK?"

In the days that followed, I'd think of him every time I read of attacks on American mosques or, even more idiotically, on American Sikhs, or every time I heard someone say, "We need to blow the Muslims back to the Stone Age."

There was something immensely comforting about watching the horror unfold among people from at least three continents and four faiths, and knowing that everyone felt the same way.

Still, it seemed somehow wrong to be here. In the e-mails I got from friends and in the interviews on BBC, beneath the shock and the terror, you could feel something a lot like exhilaration. People were saying that the world had changed, that what had seemed crucial 24 hours before became trivial, that the streets were filled with fear and sadness, sure, but also with solidarity. The country had come together, and I couldn't help feeling that I was excluded from something . . . ineffable.

"This is going to go down as a historic New York moment that I missed," said Cari Sobolewski, a 27-year-old from Manhattan. "It's forcing people to realize what's important, and I wish I was participating in that. Here it's not real yet. I have to live with not knowing what it's really like there. It's all filtered through TV and e-mail. I feel like I'm lacking something now."

Yet some people were relieved to be here. The Westerners who flock to Dharamsala tend to be pacifist and leftist, and many were torn between patriotism and concern over the blood lust fomenting at home. In a place where nearly everyone is conversant with the various subcontinental religions, the attacks on Sikhs seemed particularly shameful.

Margaret Ferrigno, a 20-year-old Hampshire College student from Rochester, is here with a group of exchange students studying Tibetan. Many of them were vengeful and eager to return home, she said, but Ferrigno was happy to stay put.

"I don't know how to deal with America right now," she said, speaking angrily of the attacks on Indian immigrants that fill the papers here. "If I go home and everyone's waving American flags and saying, 'Let's just crush people who are against us,' it would really kill me. I'm preparing myself mentally to see a lot of suffering around the world."

Meanwhile, the All-Terror-All-The-Time media coverage sparked an emotional backlash among some young Tibetans. "There are thousands of people dying all over the world every day. Why does the world stop when they're Americans? When it's our people, no one cares," said a man named Lobsang.

Yet for me, distance and media banality couldn't totally keep out the truth -- that for many people, my people, the world and their ideas about it had been sundered.

An Israeli couple in my hotel, Saul and Carol Fust, have a 28-year-old son who works at Manhattan's Deutsche Bank, directly across from the Twin Towers. They were stunned for half an hour after hearing the news, and then they raced to call their boy. It was 1 a.m. in New York when he picked up the phone, and Carol burst into tears. She said she's always been very left-wing, but in the next few days, she thought, "Let's go in and bomb Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq off the face of the Earth."

A sense of violence has intruded into this far-off abode of peace. I asked my students, many of them monks, what they would do if they were the American president. "I would destroy Afghanistan and make big war on Muslim people," said one monk, a gentle soul who ordinarily refuses to kill mosquitoes.

Still, just as so many Americans have come together and shown their better natures in the face of barbarity, so have the disparate people in this little place. The day after the attacks, the Dalai Lama held an impromptu ceremony at his temple.

Ordinarily, people who want to hear the Dalai Lama speak have to queue for hours for registration and passport checks. This time, though, while leaders elsewhere in the world were drastically beefing up security, the Dalai Lama dispensed with the usual precautions so he could address everyone immediately.

That Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of monks and ordinary Tibetans -- many of them stooped old men and women in traditional dress who probably couldn't have found New York on a map -- converged to pray for my country.

The address was in Tibetan, but at least a hundred Westerners sat through it and the hour of chanting that followed. Tears were in their eyes, but the atmosphere was full of poignant compassion rather than rage.

"I felt tremendous warmth. The Dalai Lama gave off security -- he didn't need it, he gave it," said Sobolewski. "All those people passionately praying for peace and for America -- it was like the biggest hug I've ever gotten in my life."

I'm not a religious person, but as I sat under the benign smile of a big gold Buddha and listened to the resounding mantras around me, the vicious electric high that comes from mainlining disaster faded, and I was left crying for the first time since the madness began.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG, a New York native, is a freelance writer on an extended trip abroad.

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