My first steps as an immigrant in America coincided with the 21st century’s first major imperialist military action, broadcast live for a salivating consumer class.
The invasion of Iraq occurred under the most ludicrous of justifications, led by some of worst demagoguery America (and the world) had known. Indeed it was baffling to me just how many people didn’t realize that it was about saving a nickel or two on their gas bill while adding a billion or two to the assets of the capitalists.
The batshit insanity hit home for me when I was asked to wear a yellow ribbon by my new boss soon after the invasion began in early 2003. Having failed in my attempts to land a research assistantship with my graduate advisor, Dr. Richards, the only jobs available to me were minimum-wage ones. I landed one as an office assistant, working for a man who enthusiastically followed and supported the invasion the day it began like it was his solemn duty, a sentiment he assumed I would share.
“Um…why do you want me to wear this ribbon?” I asked, out of genuine incredulity.
“To support the troops that are giving us our freedoms Sri.” my boss replied, a touch indignantly.
“Really? Uh, ok…but how does this yellow ribbon do anything to help?” I ventured.
“Listen, I’m not going to force you to wear it, but I feel compelled to say that you are in this country, and have a duty to support the troops.” he said indignantly, his annoyance rising with every syllable.
There was a pause before he sighed valiantly.
“And for me personally too,” he continued, now in a martyr-like tone, “my brother is in the US Coast Guard just off the coast of Hawaii and with this war, it means that he is in danger of being attacked at any time.”
I didn’t have the courage to critique his assessment of American altruism when hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were getting slaughtered and having their oil stolen from underneath their noses. Nor did I feel like pointing out that Hawaii was quite some distance from Iraq. In the short time I had been in America, it seemed like many American patriots, mostly white and not unlike nationalists elsewhere, were very proud of their military heroes. I could understand pride in some World War II campaigns (at least in that case it was imperialist powers butting heads with each other) or Civil War battles that were truly heroic, but was not sure how they reconciled that pride with more recent victories over countries like Panama, Grenada, Somalia, and Afghanistan, as well as a well-fought draw against Vietnam.
Crushing already impoverished countries under the jackboot of imperial conquest didn’t exactly constitute martial heroism in my book. I felt deeply for the lives lost on all sides, but couldn’t bring myself to celebrate it. I imagine many Americans thought Iraq was going to be the next theatre of war to result in a star spangled thumbs-up. These victories happened supposedly to liberate the people there, yet were always curiously followed with takeovers by the Halliburtons and Shells of the world, riding in under the golden arches of McDonalds. I wondered whether my boss would have cared about the death-for-profit games that were currently underway. The yellow ribbon seemed to be far too sanitizing a symbol for such militaristic expansion.
Nevertheless, and for the same reasons that I decided not to engage in a potentially uncomfortable conversation with my boss, I also decided to wear the yellow ribbon – I needed the job.
But I promptly removed it when I left work that day and went to the library to peruse the university website for any anti-war group that I could get involved with. I was unequivocally against the invasion of Iraq, but my reason for contacting the group was not so pristine. It felt like I would find a measure of rationality there that had until now escaped pretty much every person-to-person engagement I had been subjected to in that town.
And find it, thank heavens, I did.
Within days of meeting with the organizers of Peace Now, I was already getting ready to attend my first big antiwar rally in America. There were quite a few lovely people in the organization, but four of them stood out in terms of the wonderful friendship they offered me – Jane, a feminist nun who worked for the university’s Center for Social Service and had been having a long-running fight with the Catholic church on ordaining women as priests, Mary-Rose and Anna, two pot-smoking girls who befriended me with an ocean of affection, and Peter, a devout Catholic boy whose life purpose was to rid the Catholic church of all its homophobic, sexist moorings. All of us were involved in planning a trip alongside a larger group of old-school hippies to, what was building up to be, a gargantuan anti-war demonstration in DC. The folks I met at Peace Now were a political bunch and, I suspected, a rather fringe group in the town we were in. Barring a few irritating assholes (to be expected in any group of humans), they were rather nice to hang out with.
The very first conversation I was privy to was what made me feel like I had found a safe group of people to be around. It was about racism, and I was relieved to find out that there were indeed many white Americans who were concerned about it in egalitarian and heartfelt ways. In the office of the Center for Social Service where we had gathered to make posters, Jane spoke about the racial stereotyping done by the police in town with black kids getting arrested all the time.
“The cops chased down this young black kid, who is no bigger than me.” she exclaimed in righteous anger, pointing at her tiny, petite frame.
“When in reality,” she continued in the same tone, “they were looking for someone who was supposed to be 6’3″ and weighed 240 pounds. Just goes to show…any black kid is a suspect in this town!”
Mary-Rose and Anna shook their heads in anger.
Anna, a large girl with a small voice, softly uttered, “It’s sad that after all this time, there is still so much of this shit going around. My dad always makes ‘corn bread and watermelon’ jokes whenever I date a black guy.”
Mary-Rose, a tiny girl with a diametrically contrary voice, bellowed, “It’s terrible! To top it, my classmates are always complaining about Black History Month. ‘Well, why shouldn’t there be White History Month?’ they’re always asking me!”
“Well, gee…every month is White History Month in this country.” Jane said sardonically.
I had just found my new best friends in this place.
I suppose it was natural that I should find solace among outcasts. I realized I was one without even trying. Jane had been in battle with the very institution from which she derived her spiritual core, Anna and Mary-Rose were angry at a callous and racist socio-political system. And our other friend was just in perpetual angst about the evils of the world.
Peter sauntered into the room, head down, visibly depressed. Anna got up to hug him, almost bear-like, with her large frame.
“You ok, Peter?” she chirped with concern.
“No, not really.” he moaned, shaking his mop of straw-colored hair. “I’ve been following the war from day one, and it looks like now many children have been killed by US missiles. It’s gut-wrenching.”
“Can I give you another hug?” Anna asked.
Anna hugged him again, and Peter buried his face in her shoulder.
“I feel so helpless. Gods children are being killed in front of our eyes, and the entire nation is celebrating it, like as if it’s something heroic that is happening.”
Anna and the rest nodded. Peter joined us on the floor, and squatted next to me.
He continued in the same tone, “And to make it worse…our president acts as if he got some message from God to conduct this war…how can he reconcile his faith with this abomination?”
There was not a trace of false empathy in his voice or demeanor, which I had often seen in people expressing sadness about the Iraqi invasion. His sadness stemmed from his moorings in the Catholic faith, which made it more visceral for him.
Following the poster-making session, I trudged reluctantly back to my housemates, wondering why I didn’t take up Anna’s and Mary-Rose’s invitation to smoke a joint in their apartment. That feeling was accentuated when the only entertainment waiting for me in my so-called home was an exercise in mental endurance as I listened to a two-hour description from my bunkmate, Slovenly Misogynist, about the visit to a local strip joint he was able to finally make with his friends.
Apparently the dancer’s breasts came within inches of his slobbering face, and he could see the skin tone around her nipples. Vivid descriptions of her every anatomical detail, which resulted in a sharp migraine for me, left me amazed at his ability to de-eroticize every part of a woman’s body while simultaneously put a spanner in the works of my own rapidly evolving sexuality.
A joint with Anna and Mary-Rose sounded heavenly right about then.
The anti-war group I joined ended up being my only source of solace and sanity for the one semester I spent in Erie, Pennsylvania. Anna and Mary-Rose generously shared their friendship and weed with me once I took them up on their initial offer. The two of them were the best of friends and they invited me into their fold with open arms, which I gratefully accepted. Jane was like an aunt, caring and kind; the familial presence I missed so much. And Peter was the one male presence at that time, in a world of sexist housemates and narrow-minded authority figures, who didn’t make me feel like castrating myself.
But it was within a bubble. The moment I stepped out of the bubble, the reality of the environment I was in gnawed at me.
Like this one time when Mary-Rose and I attempted to solicit the endorsement of Students For Life for an anti-war petition we had drafted. We rationalized that this was a petition valuing the lives of all children, especially those in war, and that since they valued the sanctity of unborn lives, they might consider endorsing it.
“Well, we at Students For Life are completely in favor of the war.” said the beatific red-haired girl.
“Um…why is that?” Mary-Rose asked, barely able to hide her incredulity at what the chair of a group that had Life in its title was saying.
“We support our troops of course, who are bringing real freedom to Iraqi children!” she replied assuredly while tucking into a Caesar salad.
Mary-Rose was speechless, as was I.
“Plus,” the girl continued while masticating purposefully on some iceberg lettuce, “Saddam Hussein has, like, all these nuclear weapons and stuff. So, you know, we have to bring him down to make the world a safer place.”
“Well…uh…what about your goals to protect children’s lives?” Mary-Rose attempted again, in vain.
“Our troops are after the terrorists!” she replied, a little more indignantly now. “We’re saving Iraqis, not trying to kill them!”
Needless to say, Students For Life didn’t endorse our petition and, on hindsight, it was probably pretty foolish to have even approached them. I later rationalized it as wanting to make them uncomfortable.
In another attempt at garnering support, Jane forwarded my name for a students’ panel on the war. Of the five panelists, I was the only anti-war speaker.
After making my impassioned presentation on militarism, imperial conquest, and the façade of freedom for Iraqis when oil was the real determining factor, the next speaker took his place at the podium. He cleared his throat, adjusted his spectacles, and straightened his immaculately pressed ROTC uniform with poise.
“While my esteemed colleague’s presentation was of the highest caliber in delivery,” he said commandingly, “what he fails to realize is that the Almighty Lord has given us, the United States of America, the technology to deliver missiles and mortars that will only kill terrorists and not harm civilians in any way.”
He received a standing ovation even before he started his presentation while I smiled through the insanity of it all.
Ultimately, it was in DC, with a massive anti-war march that I found the hope in numbers I so desperately craved.
The antiwar movement might not have stopped the invasion of Iraq, or do anything really to stem the onward march of imperialist thuggery – but it gave me the reassurance I so desperately needed that humanity was still thriving in America. What an experience it was.
Anna, Mary-Rose, and I were high as kites in the backseat of Jane’s car during the road trip to DC. Peter would look back occasionally from the front passenger seat, and knowingly smile as we giggled at each other. Jane drove the entire six hours to DC and, thankfully, chattered away excitedly about the potential influence this antiwar rally could have on government foreign policy.
The high wore off as we neared DC, and we got ready to join the demonstration. For the first time since landing in America, I saw the rich diversity of the land in its people and politics.
I saw flags of every hue and color. Red, green, blue, rainbow colored, ones with large peace signs on them, patterns that represented different nationalities, including the Stars & Stripes, held sometimes upside down. I noticed with joy a number of Palestinian flags being held by men and women wearing Palestine-solidarity t-shirts. I saw banners with slogans ranging from specific interest groups like Veterans Against The War to stated ideologies like Down With Imperialism and Capitalist Exploitation. I even saw a couple of succinct ones that showcased personal opinions like Bush Is A Thug and Cheney = Satan. The banners were held proudly as the teeming masses marched and demonstrated in the streets of downtown DC.
Every once in a while the scent of weed wafted through the air, prompting knowing grunts and smiles from those smelling it. There were groups of older hippies who dressed in flower-power getup, while younger anarchist and socialist radicals often had shades of prominent black and red on their clothing. I noticed many young, presumably Arab, folk wearing their politics of liberation on their sleeves and keffiyehs, something I would never have seen in the small town I just came from. Drum teams kept the tempo and rhythm of the march going with high energy percussion, while creative chants emanated from different corners of the march.
In the midst of all this beauty, I developed the overwhelming urge to pee. I had drunk too much coffee that morning and not had much to eat. I told the rest of the gang that I was going to slip into one of the nearby coffee shops to answer the call to nature.
“No problem….we’ll wait for you in the corner right opposite.” Jane said pointing to a prominent looking street corner.
I nodded and worked my way through the jam-packed crowds towards the jam-packed coffee shop. Forty minutes later, I caught up with my friends at the corner.
“We thought you had decided to take a nap in there!” Mary-Rose jokingly exclaimed, while slapping me on the shoulder.
“You should have seen the queue in the coffee shop for the loo.” I tried explaining.
“Crazy Indian boy with your British lingo! You mean the line in the coffee shop for the restroom!” she joked, poking my abdomen affectionately.
I laughed. For whatever reason, I didn’t take offense to it. I guess that’s because she was my friend. It wasn’t demeaning like many of my earlier interactions with Americans had been, with the random stereotyping and racism. It was a moment where I felt a bond, however temporary, that undid those previous interactions. I think the fact that I was in a liberated space with antiwar demonstrators and an atmosphere that negated bigotry added to it. It was nice. For the first time since I landed in America, I felt like I was in a place I could maybe call home. Maybe.
[Next up: Friendship of convenience]