When I was in the fourth grade, I was sent home with a note that told my mother she had to pack me a bag with a bottle of water, a towel large enough to cover my face, a juice box of choice, crackers and dates. The bag, and its strange contents, was to be my emergency supply in case of a chemical warfare attack during school.
It was 2003, and the U.S. was about to enter Iraq in what was to become the second Gulf War or “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” as it was known at the time. The neighboring nation Kuwait became the home for 100,000 US troops and the base of their operations.
Kuwaitis were advised to prepare a stocked shelter room. The room had to have blacked out windows, a supply of non perishables and gas masks. As children, we were not fully aware of everything surrounding us; we spoke about Keemawi — Kuwaiti slang for chemical attack — in the same hushed tone reserved for a bogeyman. Except this time, we knew our bogeyman was real, made our mothers pace in front of the news and could seep into our skin. We weren’t quite sure what it really looked like and what it did, but the scared looks on our parents faces the first time the emergency sirens went off told us that Keemawi was not a joke.
When the U.S. first began bombing Iraq, our TVs were on for days. Every three hours, Aljazeera aired new footage of air raids, and my father was always glued to it watching the horror unfold. My mother called her Iraqi uncle to check if he was alive and in a safe area. Eventually, that footage became a normal segment, and we carried on with our lives while people died just a two-hour drive away. A year later, the school sent back our bags with their expired contents and with that, the threat was over.
To this day, I’ve been blessed to never experience a bombing or an attack. I’ve simply observed as the Middle East spiraled into chaos and struggle from a close distance. In fact, those few weeks of panic and frenzy stayed buried deep down, never to be talked about again. That is, until I saw the footage of the chemical massacre in Syria and I wondered what 2003 could’ve been like if Keemawi had reared his ugly head into my house when I was a child.
I sit in a classroom in Mason Hall, listening to a guy grace me with his unprompted opinions on the policies of the Middle East. He asks me about my opinions on Syria, whether we regret the Arab Spring, whether we are capable of democracy. In the three semesters I’ve spent at the University, I’ve gotten that same reaction and mode of interrogation from a myriad of people. The questions range based on their knowledge of current events. Some simply say “so how about that Arab Spring?” Others are always eager to discuss the massacres and daily casualties of the revolution like it’s the new episode of “American Horror Story.”
It’s easy to recap what events transpired in the Middle East when it’s happening an ocean away. Everything gets skillfully edited into a nice little montage on the news. The anchor tells you the logistics and location, while a ticking tape underneath tells you how many died or got injured. I doubt you’ll get a call about a dead uncle or an injured cousin. The people on the newsreel make less impact as they join the masses waiting for burial.
When I decided to study abroad, my parents warned me about everything from rape to recreational drug use, but American Exceptionalism was certainly not on the list. Most Americans, are brought up to believe that the U.S. is an exceptional country, and as such it also possess the power and leadership to lead the world into its conceived notions of enlightenment and progress. Despite being a young nation with miles of improvement ahead, American Exceptionalism hypnotizes most citizens into believing that they also know better, by virtue of belonging to a superior nation.
Most Middle Easterners, North Africans and Arabs alike welcome discussions about our countries. Unfortunately, more often than not, the countless times I get roped into these topics, the discussions eventually devolve into a one sided lecture from my American counterpart about everything wrong with the Middle East. There is rarely a real dialogue, simply a reiteration of the political science classes they’ve taken and the articles they’ve read.
I always end up feeling sour after these exchanges. My bitterness does not stem from being incapable of admitting the struggles in the Middle East, but because you, my dear American, have had the privilege of living in a country that’s secure. The world has told you that all your Arab classmates are either oppressed or blissfully unaware of what true democracy tastes like and you should feel nothing but pity toward us.
What you fail to understand is that we value democracy and all its beauty more than you. How is that possible? Because you were born with these rights while Egyptians, Syrians, Tunisians and Libyans are willing to give their lives for it.
The sheer resilience of the people living in the Middle East and North Africa is unparalleled. In Lebanon, some bomb shelters also double as nightclubs. Egyptians have made protest chants not only an art but also a musical genre. Saudis have taken the censorship imposed by their government and turned into a source for stand-up comedy material.
Even in our safe dorm rooms here, we still have worries you will probably never experience. We worry about families who might get bombed. The list of countries to add to our prayers grows by the day and our headlines sound like obituaries. The Middle East is bleeding but your liberalist pondering does very little than belittling it into simple policies and humanitarian stories.
My father always questions me about why I put so much of my money in savings, and I’ve never found a way to tell him that I sometimes worry that Kuwait might one day be swept off the map. I can’t tell him that I’m getting a degree here because I want to be mobile in the world instead of landing in a refugee camp.
In 1991, when the Iraqi invasion was officially over, Kuwaitis could not see the sun. The sky was black and ashen as 600 torched oil wells burned furiously. My mother was eight months pregnant and terrified. To announce the liberation, all the radios played a song called “Watani Alnahar” (“Today’s Country”). To this day, both my parents cry tears of joy whenever that song comes on the radio.
The Middle East is not stable — it’s experiencing growing pains, but for all of its faults, for most of us, it’s still home, broken as it may be. Despite my fears, I know something great is going to come out of this struggle.
Ask us about our struggles, stories and triumphs. You’d be surprised what we’ll tell you.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.