The following was originally published in Angels Flight • literary west on April 11, 2018.
Prior to the 2003 war in Iraq, Baghdad had been a place I associated with history and magic. One of my favorite stories as a child was One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, because Scheherazade, the heroine, saved her own life and the lives of a thousand other women by telling stories.
Maybe it’s no surprise then that her statue has survived decades of violence and still stands tall in Baghdad today.
My childhood version of Scheherazade made me believe that if there was ever a battle between a gun and a story, the story would always win.
So, being deployed to Baghdad as a U.S. Army soldier was a rude awakening.
How did I get here?
I was born at the hands of a midwife in a rural village in Punjab, India. At the age of 11, my family immigrated to America. At 18, I joined the U.S. Army to help me pay for college, and that same year, the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
A few weeks after 9/11, a “mountain man” verbally attacked my mother. I call him a mountain man because that’s how my mother described him to me over the phone. He was tall, built, had unkempt hair and a bushy beard, “like he came from the mountains,” my mother said.
When the mountain man strolled into my parents’ grocery store, my mother asked, “Can I help you, sir?”
He looked at her and started screaming. He called her a terrorist. He said he would blow her brains out. He told her to go back to her own country.
My mother still doesn’t know what came over her. Uncharacteristically, and without hesitation, she shouted right back at him, “You’re the one making threats, so you’re the terrorist. You go home or I’ll call the police.”
Shocked by my mother’s wrath, the mountain man ran out.
When my mom called me to share the story, she laughed, and I laughed along with her. We laughed at his ignorance. The mountain man couldn’t imagine an America where my brown mother’s brown daughter was enlisted in the U.S. Army.
This was the same crisis of imagination that devoured the rest of the country. The fearmongering by the media and politicians stole our collective sense of humor and courage.
There were many like the mountain man—and they got us good. Instead of telling him off like my mother did, we all gave into their threats of WMDs and the urgency to make America safe again. Little by little, we gave up our freedoms, gave up what made us American, because we were so busy pointing out who didn’t belong in this country.
I was in Baghdad for 366 nights as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I remember the Black Hawk flights across the Tigris river. The bombed-out buildings and burnt-out cars. The sound of mortars and gunfire nursing the heart of civilization to sleep.
I remember the Indian and Pakistani workers who labored as indentured servants on the American bases in Iraq. They were brought there under false pretense, their passports taken away, as they worked to pay off their bonded debts. They told me their stories in Hindi and Punjabi and Urdu. There in Scheherazade’s Baghdad, for the first time, I was grateful to know the languages of my ancestors.
I remember an Iraqi artist being held in an American prison. He painted elaborate paintings on the walls of his cell. He took the colors off of the M&M’s, Skittles, Tabasco sauce and anything else he could find in his Army issued meals. He painted the streets of his village, and the faces of his children. When asked why, he said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again. This way, I’ll never forget.”
I remember the memorial for a soldier. The general made a speech about heroism, valor and fighting this war without rest. I prayed. Not because I believed in god, but because bigger than the fear of dying was the fear of my death being used as propaganda to promote a war I did not believe in.
Since then I’ve been grappling with the question – what power do stories have in face of such violence? All around me, the gun seems to be winning. Bodies of American soldiers, bodies of Iraqi civilians, NOTHING seems to be enough for the belly of the gun.
What would Scheherazade do?
She’ll tell you a different kind of story perhaps.
Did you know that one of the first American soldiers who died in combat in Iraq was undocumented? Cpl. Jose Gutierrez was born in Guatemala, grew up on the streets as an orphan and learned about America from a minister at a homeless shelter. At the age of 14, he made his way to California by hopping freight trains. He spent the next four years in foster homes, until he was old enough to join the Marines. His dream was to go to college one day and make a better life. He was killed in a firefight on March 21, 2003. He was 22.
Did you know that Sami Mikhael Amin Al Shammas was among the first Iraqi civilians to die in Iraq? He was 69. A proud man who sent his kids to America to study. One of his sons became an architect in Arizona. Sami’s plan was to move to America to be with his kids, but the process got delayed with the invasion of Iraq. On April 7, 2003, he was killed by a cluster bomb fragment.
When the news reached Arizona, Sami’s son couldn’t travel to Baghdad to bury his father.
This is the same Arizona where, two years earlier, the first revenge killing for 9/11 took place. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American man, was shot five times while he was planting flowers around his gas station.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of our times is that our lives are all intertwined. There is no “us” without the “them.” With each body that falls out there, the diameter of destruction expands and consumes someone closer to home.
So is it possible to envision a world where, in a battle between a gun and a story, the story would win?
Is that a question worth asking? Worth imagining? Worth embodying in our work and lives?
That’s when I hear Scheherazade’s voice whispering to me: The gun’s power is that it silences bodies, but it can never silence a voice.
We must be that voice. We must speak our stories with courage and humor, like Scheherazade, for a thousand and one nights without rest, in the face of violence and even death, until our stories win.