My Whiff of War

On the morning of Jan. 16, 1991, my phone rang. The light of dawn had not yet entered my bedroom window. I answered on the second ring,  knowing what I’d hear.

“The war has started! They’ve struck Baghdad!” The voice of my friend Ghadeer pierced me like a skate landing on thin ice. We lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and we knew that any war close by would impact us directly. 

I popped up from my bed and grabbed the tape. I had not tapped my windows. The hospital housing department had advised all residents to do so, but I had been lazy, or perhaps in denial that Riyadh lay in the line of fire.  Now the war had started, and if a bomb landed nearby, the windows would shatter, sending wedges of glass all over the apartment, and on me. My hands shook as my heart rate climbed. I scolded myself.

I should have gotten out of here two weeks ago. Now it’s too late, the airports are closed. How could I have imagined that staying here would be safe, even exciting, with scud missiles flying over Riyadh? What is the matter with me?  This hospital doesn’t need me, even if we receive masses of injured people in the ER. Now it’s too late. Half the Riyadh population has left the country. Saudis, themselves, have left.  Now I am stuck, at the bottom of an oil well that has caught fire above my head.

As I climbed on a chair to reach the top of the window, I heard– or imagined I heard– the sudden, low rumble of a missile as it exploded into a building some place in Riyadh. I thought about my friend Asma, who lived in the city. I thought about my other friends in our social circle of Western women living in Riyadh. I remembered our happy gatherings, how we dressed up, wore our gold and laughed, and told our stories, and how we studied Islam and Arabic together at Dar Adthikr,  the local Islamic school for non-Arabic speakers. I remembered how we joked about Riyadh being so quiet, so slow, so dull.

The tape slipped from my hands, and I stumbled off the chair to pick it up, nearly flipping the chair and landing on my backside. What defense would be provided by taping my windows?

Why am I doing this? If a bomb lands close enough to shatter the windows, a few strips of tape will not restrain the mess. I’d be better off to hide in the safest part of the apartment— the bathroom.

Located furthest inside, surrounded by walls of other rooms, and having no windows, the bathroom could protect me. I ran into it and closed the door, grabbing the radio along the way. 

I took wudu and started to pray two rakas. Then I remembered we are not supposed to pray in bathrooms, so I sat on the floor, leaned against the bathtub and made dua. I stayed there till after Fajr, hunting for English language radio stations as they faded in and out of reception, imagining that someone would find my body under the collapsed bathroom walls, and wonder whether I’d suffered. My family would cry in anger and grief,  knowing that my fate would have been unnecessary and perfectly avoidable. I had arranged for an exit visa three weeks ago, and could have left the country two times for every day since.

When I opened the bathroom door to the full light of day, I decided I had overreacted.

Missiles exploded in Riyadh every other night. On quiet nights, we knew that missiles were exploding in Israel. All non-critical patients had been discharged from the hospital, and we stood at work with little to do except gossip, exchange rumors, and scare each other with doomsday predictions. My Syrian and Palestinian colleagues had survived other wars already, and did not feel the need to leave Riyadh. I suppose they had become used to such an atmosphere, but I had never seen it. Two weeks into the war, I lost my composure, yelled at my boss in public for a minor matter, went home and packed a suitcase.

The US Army offered seats on military aircraft for Americans who wished to leave after the civilian airport had closed.  “I can’t tell you where you’ll be landing,” said the person who took my phone call. “The destination is secret until just before departure.”

“I don’t care where you dump me, just get me out of here.”

Shortly before departure, I learned that we would be deposited in Madrid. There, we’d get a bed for a night, and then we’d be on our own. That’s all I needed; I took a taxi to the military airport. 

I was surprised to see that the interior of the plane held just one row of seats lining each side, and that I’d have to sit perpendicular to the direction of travel, on a metal seat, against a metal backrest, and nowhere to look but across the width of the plane to my compatriots. There were no windows!  This was a cargo plane. For sure, I would vomit.  I managed to swallow a tablet of Dramamine without water. I curled up trying to get warm, because there was no heat. Only passenger planes are heated. There was no muffler. Only the cabins of passenger planes are insulated against sound. As this plane gained altitude, I became colder and colder. The engines gained speed, and whined louder and louder. I tried counting their reverberations, telling myself that each revolution took me closer to landing safely. All I had to do was sit there. The noise, darkness, cold and turbulence of that flight seemed to last all night, and the Dramamine did not work as well as usual.

This is a military plane, and you are on an evacuation flight. What did you expect– first class?

In Madrid, my fellow evacuees ignored me and each other. We had entered the mind-set of self-preservation; no one mattered except ourselves, and we all headed in different directions. I remembered enough Spanish to walk to the nearest travel agency and book an immediate flight to Paris, and then on to New York. Once again on board, this time on a cushioned seat of a heated commercial flight, I thought about what had happened. 

Those first two weeks of Desert Storm gave me a whiff of white hot fear, and a profound regret for the rest of my life that might not be lived. All I wanted was to tell my family I loved them, and then to know what would become of me. Whoever said, “The first casualty of war is truth,” knew something. I had no way of knowing what was true or untrue regarding this war. The uncertainty, coupled with the constant rumors that had flashed unrestrained throughout the hospital those first weeks of war intensified my sense of doom, kept my limbs light with adrenalin, my heart beating so strongly I nearly heard it from outside my body. My  eyes stayed wide in constant surveillance, and my skin became hypersensitive to movements happening behind me. I had activated the survival instinct, and I knew it would surpass civility. I’d do anything to preserve and protect myself. Often, I wondered whether people living in Palestine and other war zones felt the same way, or whether they had gotten used to war.  My assorted Arab colleagues seemed to have incorporated it into their lives. They rarely mentioned their personal losses, their familial traumas, their shock and fear, and I was ashamed to ask. 

I stayed two weeks in the refuge of my parents’ home in Wisconsin. Then, I flew to Cairo to visit a friend and wait out the war. One night, after a lovely meal in a cute restaurant, we walked along a busy street and saw people waving and shouting with joy from the windows of their cars, and we knew that the war had ended. A week later, after the Riyadh airport reopened, I returned to resume the routine I had established before the war. Patients streamed back into the hospital, and it all might have been a bad dream. The only markers I saw in the city were a couple of blown out buildings, now petrified and deserted. Amateur photographers framed their photos of missiles exploding over Riyadh. Everyone wanted a photo to post on living room walls.

We started enjoying ourselves again, resuming work and collecting paychecks, going out for dinner, shopping for Oriental rugs, gold, and souvenirs to take back to the States. The war had ended, and we had survived.  A giddy sense of privilege infused the Western expatriates, but we knew. We knew that, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

I never saw blood, never lost a friend, let alone a family member. My eardrums were never shattered by the boom of a missile tearing up my home, flinging bodies and parts of bodies, of my family, friends, and neighbors here and there. I never missed a meal or slept in the street. For all my terror and anxiety, I never saw war. I merely brushed along its sidelines, and moved away when I decided I’d had enough.





About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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20 Responses to My Whiff of War

  1. Chiara says:

    An excellent recounting! I think you captured well the uncertainty, the difficulty of making informed decisions, and how people terrorize themselves and others with speculation. Also, the “relative risk” and prioritization of one’s values (life and family over a specific job that could be done by someone else).

    Though not in the same league, I remember doing research in Costa Rica, and preparing to travel to an area where dengue and cholera were endemic, and thinking the research was not worth the risk. Talking to Costa Rican colleagues helped put the relative risk in perspective.

    During the 1991 war, Canada did answer George Bush’s call, as did most of the world including the Arab world. I remember discussing with a colleague and being afraid that if this did turn in to WWIII as some speculated my husband would be called up by one or the other of his three countries, even though he was getting out of the normal age range for service.

    After 9/11 I felt some of my friends were unrealistically seeing themselves implicated and affected, given that they were living safely in Canada, and had no family or friends directly affected–almost a trying to get in on the action mentality. So different than a real threat to one’s safety, which does bring clarity if not truth!

    “War is Hell”; and, “The first casualty of war is truth” are two of my favorite truths about war.

    Great post!

  2. Marahm says:

    Thank you, Chiara! I was in the US for 9/11, and I noticed, too, that people here felt unnecessarily threatened, almost as if they wanted to feel threatened, just to see what it felt like.

    I’ve been thinking about that time in my life– the first Gulf War– as this slaughter in Gaza has proceeded, and I keep thinking that they don’t have the choice to opt out when they’ve had enough.

    I can’t help but wonder about the mental health of those who survive these wars. Surviving is not the hard part to understand; it’s what comes afterward. When a person has endured such terror and tragedy, surely their mental and emotional health is critically compromised. This is happening wholesale in Gaza, to an entire people, not just a few individuals.

  3. Chiara says:

    Unfortunately apparently two main trauma psychiatrist, one in Gaza and one in Ashkelon have said they are not sure the children will survive this mentally. Each has estimated that about 1/3 of their respective populations is seriously symptomatic. The Gazan one, Dr Sarraj, of the Gaza Community Mental Health Centre has been in the news saying his 14 year old stepdaughter is traumatised because her same age friend was killed. He has encouraged her to write about it to begin healing. She read her writing into the phone for a reporter.

    I just posted this at Aafke’s site:

    Two mental health facilities in Gaza are unable to function to help traumatized children and adults because their facilities have been severely damaged (Gaza Community Mental Health Program–
    or since there is inadequate security to conduct their work (Jesoor Organization).

    As you are probably aware, if the acute trauma isn’t treated. posttraumatic stress disorder is more likely to occur.

    On a happier note according to the BBC the children are using the ceasefires to go outside and play, the healthiest thing they can do. 🙂 There is a great video of them on a playground:

  4. ~W~ says:

    War is ugly.
    I too “merely brushed along its sidelines” in 1990 during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. I pray to God to ease the suffering of people in war zones and I feel very grateful for not having to endure such great hardship.

  5. Marahm says:

    Some years ago, before I was married, I was warned to stay away from Palestinian men.

    “Why?” I asked.

    “Because they have no country, and they were raised with war and death and hardship. Their psychological development has been blunted,” I was told.

    I never forgot that comment, not because I accepted it outright, but because it highlights an aspect of war that has been neglected, just as the rest of life’s rights have been neglected in Gaza.

    In America, we have learned to look for psychological effects of war, and to treat them. Post-traumatic stress disorder can be as debilitating as the original situation that caused it.

    If peace ever permeates Gaza, mental health will have to be addressed along with all other deprivations Palestinians have suffered.

  6. iMuslim says:

    It’s amazing how much of life is lived inside our own minds, independent of outside ‘realities’. You went through some of the immense trauma of war without witnessing it directly, subhanallah. It just goes to show how absolutely abhorrent modern day warfare can be, when people are affected for miles and miles around an actual battle zone, because of range of missles, and other anonymous, indiscriminate weaponry.

  7. WM says:

    That Palestinian children have the highest bed-wetting rates in the world is telling.

    Your experience with war- wow! I bet you never felt so alive, eh? 😀

    It’s interesting to see the different ways in which people respond to war.

    I remember once hearing the sonic boom that followed an Israeli warplane flying (at mach something) over Beirut. My first thought was, how cool! Not that I was impressed that the IDF could violate the airspace of a sovereign state with impunity…I guess I’m just an epicure of the emotions. The terror, panic etc…it’s so weird. Last week in London police drew a huge crowd into a tunnel and sealed off the entrances with riot police…I remember hearing a scream go up, people were terrified and started running backwards. I’d never felt so…wow! 😀

    I remember hearing that the first battle of the American Civil War was made a day out by some, who watched the proceedings while indulging in picnics not far from the action. Just goes to show how perceptions of war have changed, I suppose.

  8. Solace says:

    I thank Allah every day that I have never experienced war. Living in a country where there is a war and not having the opportunity to go to a place of safey must be terrifying.

  9. Thank you for your very honest, resounding post!! Ever since 9/11 – or maybe even slightly before – it seems the world been caught up in constant fear of war. First it was on the Eastern side of the border, safe away from North America. But the come 9/11 it was literally ‘in our own backyards.’ And we all heard the gloomy prediction of a WWIII.

    But, for all the chaos in America and terror (real or imagined) of the Muslim community therein, it never affected me as much in Canada. Even when Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar and others we knew being held for ‘interrogation’ in America it seemed distant – we just flew directly to London or Paris or made our stop in Toronto. But ever since I moved to Syria it seems I’ve always been wondering about my response in the face of war.

    First, although I came considerably after, were the stories of the Iraqi refuges. Then in 2006, my first summer here, during the Lebanese-Israel war I was certain Syria would intervene. It didn’t and we felt nothing but the influx of refugees to tell us of the horrors of war. And then again, in September, a car bomb exploded in Syria killing 17.

    And now this, and I wait on the edge of my seat to hear a Syrian call to arms. “We’re invading. We’re storming the borders. We refuse to sit back and watch them die.”

    But if I ever do hear them, if the borders are flung wide open and I have that chance, I’d think I’d be the first one there. But I honestly cannot say what my reaction would be. Who could?

    About the children and PTSD, Omar from Oxfam recently wrote to Al Jazeera in a Diary entry titled “Not a Life for Children”

    “My children live in an area of violence and hear on a daily basis people arguing, complaining and shouting about the situation. To be honest, they need some professional support for their stress and anxiety but, of course, this is not available to us.

    This situation is affecting a lot of children. The other day, when I went to my kid’s school, the teacher said that 70 per cent of the children were failing their exams.”


  10. um almujahid says:

    “I can’t help but wonder about the mental health of those who survive these wars. ” yes subhan’Allah!

    PS: I always enjoy reading your posts mash’Allah 🙂

  11. Marahm says:

    War is a part of human history, but for how many centuries? Will we ever find ways to negotiate our differences?

    We certainly do not know how we’d react to war until we are in it. Even during my two week brush with Desert Storm, I observed people’s behavior change in various, unexpected ways. I, myself, became much more afraid than I’d expected, yet other people actually went to the rooftops to watch the missiles.

    Life is indeed lived “inside our own minds”, until we suffer. Then, we enter a reality we never knew existed.

  12. chiara says:

    Riverbend, the pseudonym of a 24 yr old Iraqi female blogger, wrote and excellent diary-blog “Baghdad Burning” of her life in Baghdad during the Iraq war 2003-2007. She is a talented writer and her epigraph “… I’ll meet you ’round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend…” is a sample of her style. The blog ended with her family’s flight to Syria.
    It makes an excellent read, as she bears witness to the effects of war, “regime change”, and the follies of the US administration of Iraq. It also gives insight into the relatively secular and feminist aspects of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, without condoning him.

    Her first post:

    The Beginning…
    So this is the beginning for me, I guess. I never thought I’d start my own weblog… All I could think, every time I wanted to start one was “but who will read it?” I guess I’ve got nothing to lose… but I’m warning you- expect a lot of complaining and ranting. I looked for a ‘rantlog’ but this is the best Google came up with.
    A little bit about myself: I’m female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That’s all you need to know. It’s all that matters these days anyway.

    Among many other aspects of war, she describes the new found capabilities of Baghdadis to identify exactly what type of mortar, what make, fired from where, at what distance and by whom. Much like Marahm’s people on the rooftops.

  13. I can’t imagine how you felt, but you did a really good job of describing it. The massacre taking place now in Palestine weighs heavily on so many people’s minds. I just don’t understand how Israel can claim that they are justified when they are always the first to cite their “poor me” syndrome regarding the atrocities of the Holocaust.

  14. Marahm says:

    I wonder how history would have evolved had the Holocaust not occurred. Seems that Israel is an example of post-tramatic stress on a grand scale.

    Iraq is another mess, one we’ve “gotten used to.” My daughter married into an Iraqi family; her husband sometimes tells us stories.

    “Baghded Burning” is an excellent blog. Thanks, Chiara, for reminding me of it. I haven’t read as much as I’d like of it. So many well written blogs have come to my attention! I wish I could read, read, read, and forget about work!

  15. susanne430 says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I almost felt like I was there in KSA when the war started and on the plane when you left.

    Americans today have never experienced war on our own soil. I can’t imagine how we will react when it finally comes here. Hmmm.

  16. Wow excellent descriptions of the actual fear that siezes us. SubhanAllah. The comments have made me think extra hard and now I cannot go on and on here so it’s Bloggable….
    War is reality. Those never experiencing it have no true sence of reality.

  17. Marahm says:

    “… when it finally comes here.” ? Susanne, do you think America will see the kind of war we now see in the Middle East?

  18. Marahm says:

    AMW, I never experienced war, either. I merely skirted along its sidelines, yet the fear and physical stress took a toll. You’re right, we can go on and on about it on our blogs. We’ll at least express ourselves, but if enough people like us express themselves, maybe, just maybe…

  19. susanne430 says:

    Marahm, I don’t know if it will be like the Middle East, but perhaps we will see something vastly different from what most of us are used to. We’ve never had major conflicts on our soil in recent history, but how can we be untouched forever at the rate we are meddling all over the world? One day the world might say “ENOUGH!” and actually act against us. Why not? You reap what you sow.

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