Palestinian children crying, reaching out for the person holding the camera. A man, shielding a young boy from soldier’s bullets, not knowing that the boy, his nephew, was already dead. A picture of an Isreali soldier’s t-shirt, depicting a pregnant woman with a bullseye on her stomach.
An Afghani wedding convoy, blown up, a bride and groom who never got to share even one night together. A village destroyed, fields and paths peppered with a sprinkling of mines- some of them disguised as children’s toys. A people raised upon war, who have never known peace. Numbers. Always numbers. This many killed, this many women, this many children, this many old men. The numbers mount, the numbers don’t lie…and finally, maybe, the world is starting to read those numbers, and understand the lives that lie behind them all.
War is an abstract thing to people, until someone that they know, someone that they love, is a casualty. It destroys, it shatters lives into thousands of tiny fragments, each one reflecting a minuscule piece of what was once whole. In these times of so much pain and suffering, so much oppression and hatred, one has to wonder how can anybody live? How can they eat and drink, how can they laugh and love and make babies? How do they not just go on, how do they thrive? I know a little bit of this, because I know a little bit about war.
For almost a year the small village I lived in was in the crossfire of an itty bitty war that hardly had a mention in the news outside of the country. There was a group of Shi’ites who wanted the Yemeni government to grant them autonomy, and release some of their people from prisons, and to give them lots of money and schools and utilities and such, and, as a sort of side demand, to give them the village in which we lived. These demands and many others…none of them new. All had been fought over before, and some of them had been granted, but not to the extent that the rebels wanted. For example, the President had released many of the people that had been imprisoned in the last war and since then, most of them went right back up and started plotting against him. ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saaleh, the democratically elected ruler of Yemen, had tried to deal with these people time and again, but, as he once told a New York Times reporter, “Ruling Yemen is like ruling a den of snakes.” He was the one who was able to unite Yemen, no easy feat with all the different tribes and loyalties and ideologies…and he has ruled it for decades. He was not going to back down from this fight, either. And so, the bombing began.
My son was there in the last war, a few years ago. He told us how after a particularly heavy bout of fighting in the village, the soldiers laid out the dead for the people to see, to show them that they had won. This fighting was different. There were skirmishes in the hills, and once in awhile some hand-to-hand fighting right near the village, but in general the government stuck to its fort on top of one hill and bombed the rebel positions across the valley. Still, people died, and the funeral prayers took place on a regular basis. This was war, after all. The rebels blocked the roads, so one could not leave the village, even for an emergency, and food prices shot up. At times one could not buy propane to cook. One man who managed to get a load of propane tanks into the village charged four times the going rate for them- he said he risked his life twice- once while running through the mountains with his load of tanks, being shot at and risking ambush, and twice when he brought them in and opened the tail gate of his truck to sell them, and the people swarmed him, trying to get them. One could hear the bombs, and feel their impact when they hit almost anywhere in the valley. One day in the masjid, and friend and I were listening to the loud rumbling across the wadi, or the seasonal water course, that she had to walk over to get to her home on the hill, just under the government fort. I said that I wondered if that was shelling, or thunder? She replied, “I hope it’s shelling, because if it rains I won’t be able to get home.” And she meant it.
It seems like one would just be able to get by during a war, but it is not true. Depending on the person- on their strength of character, on the strength of their belief, on their gratitude for every breath that they take, on their desire to not just survive, but to thrive- they can grow and bloom under almost any situation. The war that we lived in the middle of was not large by world standards, but given that taste of it, I understand how people can thrive under difficult situations that one would never think they could even survive beforehand. When the phone lines were cut, my husband was across the ocean in America. I had the children to take care of, and I was not feeling well myself- what was to become terrible case of typhoid was beginning to take hold of my system. But every day I made sure that I did all I could to savor each moment- and to ensure that my children did as well. We went to the masjid every day for classes, and after the afternoon prayer I went back and studied in the library, immersing myself in knowledge that strengthened my heart and my faith. I read to the children- Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh- whatever we could get our hands on. We created with our hands whatever we were able, weaving color and fabric or paint or crayons into things that we saw as beautiful. We sat together and talked into the evenings by candlelight, all of us together in one of the tiny rooms of our tiny house. We had little parties on a regular basis, to keep everyone’s spirits up and to reassure ourselves that everything really was okay. I wanted so much for the children to feel secure, and to know that they were important and loved, and to enjoy their childhood. As my oldest son was living in his own room, and beginning to think about being married, I was reminded of how short childhood is, and just how precious…and I dedicated myself to making sure the children could remember happiness and security when they became adults.
So by caring for them, and trying my best to make them happy, I myself was happy, my heart was healed. I found myself writing more, and I started to get to know myself all over again, as an individual…and I began a journey that was to help me to realize that I really am a strong person, and that I can take on what comes my way, all with the help of Allaah. I came to terms with the loss of my sister and my father, in a way that up until then I had not been able to do. I found that in the midst of uncertainty and fear, I could find joy in the wind blowing through the trees on the way to class, in conversations with old village women who called me daughter, in the individualism and beauty of each of my children, in the small kindnesses shown to me by a friend, in the words revealed to the Messenger to mankind fourteen hundred years ago by the Lord of the Worlds. I found that yes, I could survive…and I found that yes, indeed, my soul could thrive.
And to this day I keep this lesson close to my heart, and live by it. I know in my heart, and with complete faith, that joy, strength and fulfillment can be had, and that with an open heart I can breathe each day in, savor it, and grow to be more than ever I was before. Now I can see the hope that must allow those people in countries not so distant from mine in miles or in their situations, to wake up each day, to not become bitter, to not hate- but to keep on dreaming their dreams, and living their lives, and to strive for the peace that they know in their hearts must, some day, come.