Our current HuffPost Book Club pick is "What It Is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes. We are talking about different aspects of the military experience over on our Book Club page; this entry was created as part of the discussion; go to the page to have your say.
I can put myself in your shoes very well; it's a skill I've always had. My ability to empathise has been a blessing as well as a burden in life. So when I start thinking of writing about the implications of war, I've already formulated a list of different thoughts you might be thinking. I imagine you to be - most likely, given the publication - an American. Perhaps Christian, possibly Jewish or atheist. Someone whose background is different to my own. In my head, I have listed the prejudices that are very real, so real that they create real-life conflict, and are destructive. You might be thinking, "Ok, so an Arab Muslim girl wants to talk about war? Let's prepare for the Islamist preachiness, for the barbaric slogans, for the death-to-Amreeka chants..."
I come from a small Gulf country called Oman, which shares a border with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as sharing the Strait of Hormuz with Iran. It is a unique place to live in, and I feel immense pride in my country. I was born, however, in Paris, and lived there for the first 10 years of my life. So I feel as though my multicultural upbringing has given me a great perch from which I can view current events, and formulate opinions slightly more independent of national/religious bias than the rest of my compatriots.
Oman has not been actively involved in any war, apart from quelling a potential civil uprising in the South of Oman in the 1970's, a matter which got the British SAS forces involved briefly, but that was snuffed out pretty quickly, and life moved on, I guess. So you might be wondering what I might have to say about war and its implications, given the fact that I've never been in direct contact with one. The fact that I come from a country which has benefited from peace for such a long time might make me more sensitive to its implications.
The first example that springs to mind is discussing the Gulf Wars with my mother. She says we were lucky not to be living in the Gulf at the time of the crisis, tells me stories of a friend of hers in Kuwait who gave birth to her child in the dirty basement of a house where they were hiding out from an intense episode of gunfire or bombings.
A Saudi woman I met whilst at university in England tells me of her longstanding hatred against Kuwaitis. She explains that her grandfather in Riyadh owned several hotels, and that during one of the wars, he took in Kuwaitis by the hundreds and housed them in his hotels for free, out of perhaps some act of great generosity. He was hurt to be repaid this kindness by returning to his establishments and finding them defiled, trashed and generally vandalised by the people he selflessly took in. This resentment he harboured was so strong, that two decades, two generations and one continent later, it has flourished in his granddaughter and attempted to ensnare me as well (but at this point I have to say I have nothing but love for my Kuwaiti neighbors!).
More directly affecting me, more sinister and telling of the shady, ignoble side of war, are the friends and family who have mysteriously disappeared over the years, from airports in Egypt, mosques in Bahrain and homes in Iraq. The latter being my grandfather, only to be later reported dead, the cause buried forever, along with Saddam's reign. My mother, in Paris at the time, was pregnant and had a miscarriage from the shock. My grandfather Dawood, baby brother Ibrahim and my mother are casualties of a war that I was still too young to comprehend.
One of my most memorable teachers at school taught one of my least favorite subjects: Arabic. He was what I guess we would call a pan-Arab nationalist; he believed strongly that all the Arab nations belonged together as one country, that the borders we continue to abide by are imaginary demarcations from British and French colonialists, and that us Arabs have been lulled into complacency by the excessive consumer culture that has been foisted on us, facilitated by petrodollars. With the distance of many years between us now, I am now able to say that I have definitely been influenced by his many, many (many!) theories on these matters. At the time, however, I remember alternating between smirking in my seat and biting back with purposefully disparaging comments; something about him was unpleasant, and I thought it was his ideas. I was too young then to understand what it was that disconcerted me. Upon reflection, I see that his ideas were valid; arguable, but totally valid, if not ultimately correct. It was his bitterness that put me off.
He exuded a bitterness that had set his face into a caricature of the Angry Arab. Fist often raised, mouth turned down in a grimace of protest. And pure, unadulterated rage. He would rail at a classroom of 15-16 year old mainly Omani kids, telling us to wake up, to start using our brains, to stop believing lies that were being passed off as fact by virtue of their publication in a newspaper, to learn about our history, and to question everything. I often wish I could speak to him now, I feel that I missed a chance to learn a great deal more than pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and the convoluted, impenetrable rules of Arabic grammar and syntax.
I know why he's bitter now; this teacher is a proud Jordanian, a nation of people which has swelled its ranks by the millions from its neighboring Palestine. They have seen, by proxy, the implications of war to a magnitude I cannot even begin to imagine. Combine that with a feeling of helplessness at the fate of those suffering (including your own), your country's mineral wealth and societal poverty, the unending hypocrisy of his rulers, and the rulers of neighboring nations, 'Western' countries backing Israel and watching it grow into a veritable world power, and then to come and teach young children who then proudly display Nike shoes, fret over the coolness of their DKNY bags, and discuss the latest episodes of Friends... wouldn't you feel the slightest twinge of bitterness? I recognise his feelings now, and both respect and pity him. He is another casualty of war, maybe a more dangerous one. I imagine that it is people with thoughts and experiences like his that lead to desperate acts of war, of vengeance, warped into thinking of themselves as brave and selfless.
My conclusion after having worked through all of this, and the message which I hope you will take from this, is that never think for a moment you are the only one side that is suffering.
You might be physically safe from the effects of war. But war is an insidious enemy, and all the more damaging when its implications reach you, through your dead brother, your orphaned friend or mother, or your embittered, sad teacher.
I think it's interesting that throughout my whole process of writing this piece, it has been unmistakably from an Arab's perspective. And yet, when I came back to look at my conclusion, I realised that the previous paragraph could just as easily have been written by an American. What does that tell you about war?