On 23 August 1990 President Saddam appeared on state television with Western hostages to whom he had refused exit visas. In the video, he patted a small British boy named Stuart Lockwood on the back. Saddam then asks, through his interpreter, Sadoun al-Zubaydi, whether Stuart is getting his milk. Saddam went on to say, “We hope your presence as guests here will not be for too long. Your presence here, and in other places, is meant to prevent the scourge of war.”
I used to wonder what my father would have said and done had Saddam Hussein walked into his makeshift prison cell and spoken with him. Would he have been diplomatic in order to keep himself alive or gone down kicking and screaming? I still often think about what our lives would be like had Dad not escaped twenty-some days after being taken hostage in Kuwait’s international airport in the early morning hours of August 2nd, 1990. Or had he been fatally shot the time he was mugged after his escape, during his turn patrolling our home’s compound. Or had he never made it out of Jordan or Iraq on his way to India, to my mother and me.
Somebody has to tell my father’s story. Many have tried – the countless interviews and his countless retellings – and failed. You really don’t get it all unless you were there. And it’s not your story or that of Dave Eggers. It’s not my story, for that matter, even if I figure into it. My teenage brain was a sponge; I remember everything from the month or so Dad was gone, and every last thing he narrated once he returned to us. But it’s not for this blog, not today. Just know that if there was anyone all of this should not have happened to, it is my father. No one should be taken hostage and made to undergo the humiliation, uncertainty and terror of capture at gunpoint, escape, robbery at gunpoint, leaving your home behind, and a greater journey to physical freedom, but not this sweet man. He who can make gardens grow from deserts, music out of thin air, and light of any situation. Then again, maybe he was the right person for the circumstances, for times out of our control. My mother and I would have died or, more accurately, gotten ourselves killed. Dad escaped. It’s Mom and I who hold a grudge to this day. Dad left it behind. And still would, if we’d only let him.
We cannot let him forget. When he forgets, who are we to remember? And when we forget, we forgive, trust, drop our guard, and make the same mistakes over again. The memories are the scab that protect and remind.
Today, twenty years ago, made sure I would never see Kuwait again. First, they took my father and luck showed him out. Then they took all of our belongings, as my mother reported from her April 1991 visit back. The neighbors who sold all of our appliances and electronics thinking my father would never return, looters who made off with other belongings from as heavy as a piano to as light as a teddybear, a government that made sure any last remaining shred of dignity would not be maintained. What could the thieves possibly want with all of mom’s saris? What did they do with photo reels from our family vacations? How long did it take them to rip up the wall-to-wall carpeting? How dumb was spraypainting Long Live Saddam Hussein in Arabic on a bedroom door in the recesses of a foreign worker’s dwelling? Wouldn’t it make more sense to make that statement on an outer wall, you numbwits? Why did those of you who were supposed to help shirk your responsibility, and you who didn’t have to give a damn come to our aid?
They took everything, including my desire to return. One would think the events of 1990-91 taught the Kuwaiti people a thing or two. But just as 9/11, Katrina and The Flood and now the Oil Spill have imparted to Americans nothing about humility, real values, and our place and worth in this world, a violent invasion and bloody war were not enough to dampen the sheer hubris of a bunch of oil-rich illiterates posing as leaders. They abdicated their duty to their nation in its greatest hour of need and haven’t changed a bit since. If all that wealth cannot save your citizens beyond no income tax and free healthcare, honor foreigners who gave the best years of their lives to your country, and make you more human, screw you.
It’s bad enough that, each time we return from a trip abroad, my brother and I have to explain to American immigration why our passports say we were born in Kuwait City, as if that makes us some goddamned terrorists. What would they do if I were to simply respond, “My parents lived and worked there at the time and had my mom known how much trouble this was going to be, she’d have popped me out elsewhere but them’s the breaks, so can I go now?” That’s enough Kuwait for one lifetime, thanks.
The memories are the scab that protect and remind.
My 1980s were spent begging my parents to leave Kuwait for America. We have our green cards, let’s just go. No, American schools are of low quality, you need to finish out your education here and us our careers. Be loyal, see it through to the end, start and finish in nice round numbers. Humans are funny, aren’t we? We think we control life and deem it fair by labeling portions of it with terms such as “beginning,” “end,” “dedication,” and “reward.” I was no fool – I thought of 1990 and everything we lost when packing all of D’s and my papers, photographs and heirlooms into the car on August 28th, 2005. Humans are really hilarious, aren’t we? We think we have all our physical and emotional bases covered. Instead I fell in love with a city that flooded when it was slated to be hit by a hurricane, that I returned to, and then left when other responsibilities called. Life happens, things change, the past has passed, and the future is uncertain, so what remains to protect and be reminded of?
That: Our money and things ought to help us but not define us, not the other way around. We cannot choose our family, but we can choose our friends. There are some people, places and things worth saving, and others to avoid at all costs. Reality means we cannot keep or keep from all of the time. Love and hate are normal, but we can’t let these emotions consume us, or who will be left to dish out love and hate? Time is our greatest ally and our worst enemy – it takes us away but it takes us away. All of us, every single day, understandably and undeniably wage a monstrous battle in that space between who and where we want to be and who and where we indeed are, and that we switch sides so often in this battle to alternately live and stay alive. This, in the end, is the paradox of being human.
That this is being human, and these lessons are not lived easily even if we know them to be true.
My mother and I fight the world constantly, while my father accepts it as best he can. This has been our Gulf War for the last twenty years.