This Too is Not For You
This Too is not For You
I had a friend named Kyle and we had a sleepover at his house on a Wednesday night in early September, 2011. We were allowed to have a sleepover on a Wednesday because we were living in Bahrain, a small island in the Persian Gulf that has a U.S. Navy base on it. We were allowed to have a sleepover on a Wednesday because Bahrain is a Muslim country, and their work and school week begins on Saturday and ends on Wednesday. T.G.I.W.
On the sunny floor with an oatmeal-colored carpet and scattered Legos we turned on our Gameboys. Stereo 8-bit soundtracks of Pokemon, slightly out of sync. We hooked the Gameboys up with a connector cable and battled. I don’t remember who won.
We wanted to trade. I had the red version of the game and he had the blue version and each version had a few Pokemon you couldn’t get in the other version – an ingenious ploy to sell more copies of the same game, and a great excuse for a sleepover. But, Kyle wouldn’t trade me his Magmar because he needed it for a level he hadn’t beaten yet. We agreed he’d trade it to me later. It’s not like we’ll never get another chance to do this again, I remember saying.
Around twelve hours before we turned on our Gameboys, two airplanes flew into New York’s Twin Towers. I wouldn’t find out for another day and a half.
We had instant oatmeal for dinner.
On Thursday I was at home playing Madden, a football video game with a friend – not Kyle. My mom called us into the living room to show us CNN. They were running a loop of one of the Twin Towers in New York, burning. My mom made us watch. This is a big deal. This will be in history books. My friend and I shrugged and went back to the video game. New York was a long way away, and I was in the middle of a fourth-quarter comeback.
Kyle wasn’t at school on Saturday morning. The playground was hushed before class, without anyone really knowing why. I was already halfway to forgetting what my mom had showed us on CNN. In English class, when our teacher turned on the TV to a clip of the Twin Towers, burning, we realized why we felt like we had to act scared.
Over the weekend, a voluntary evacuation option had been offered to the families of all personnel working on the base. If you wanted to leave Bahrain, the U.S. Navy would pay to move you and your belongings stateside. Kyle and Kyle’s mom voluntarily evacuated, so I never got Magmar. What I couldn’t understand was why Kyle’s mom wanted to fly 7,000 miles to Charlotte, North Carolina, which was considerably less than 7,000 miles away from Washington D.C. and New York. There was nothing to be afraid of in Bahrain.
On my way to the comics every morning, I’d glance at the front page of The Gulf Daily News. The paper delivered these images to our kitchen table: bombed-out Afghani villages during the American retaliation for September 11th. Palestinian children shot and run over in streets in the Gaza Strip. Once in a while, almost never really, my dad would bring home a Stars and Stripes from his office on the Navy Base. It had none of those images, but it’s not worthwhile to talk about what I almost never saw.
In Bahrain there was anger. There were protests. The protests were held in the name of one conflict – pick one. The anger was often not. They protested next to the malls. They marched on the country’s highways, sweaty yelling people spilling over the sidewalks to march on the oatmeal-colored sand. They protested in front of the US embassy. They rioted in front of the US embassy. They jumped the barbed wire fences and threw rocks and tried to blow up the armored Suburbans in the lot. They threw a brick through the window of the McDonalds across the street.
I hugged a Bahraini security guard at the airport once. I was five or six and it was three in the morning because that’s when flights have to leave Bahrain to get to Amsterdam in the morning so they can get to California before dark the same day even though the day’s light, pulled long by a dozen, twelve, time zones, lasts sixteen hours. So I was tired and the security guard was patting me down because the rivets on my jeans set off the metal detectors, and it was procedure to pat down someone who set off the metal detectors even if they were five or six. When he reached under my arms to check for explosives or guns or knives, I thought he was hugging me, so I hugged him back. My parents laughed, I realized my mistake, embarrassed, and twenty-six hours later even laughed about it from deep within the oatmeal-colored cushions of my grandpa’s couch.
Five or six years later and on the American side of the Atlantic, there would have been no hugs. But it’s not worthwhile to talk about what would have been, much less what would not have been, so here’s what was: long lines and scary TSA agents that probably should have had an extra cup of coffee before they put on their badge. When we switched planes in the States, the Bahrain stamp on our passports meant we always got a few extra questions. Yes, I packed my bags. Well, my mom packed that one. We’re visiting on vacation. Two months. I’ve lived there for seven years now, yeah I like it, but it’s kind of boring.
U.S. military personnel abroad must follow good Force Protection behaviors. “Force Protection” means don’t give the locals any reason to dislike you, like short-cutting through a quiet village of cinderblock apartments and dirt streets during cross country practice because it’s over a hundred degrees and your white workout shirt is three pounds heavy with sweat.
There was a TV spot that ran in the US following the attacks on the Twin Towers. It showed a rural city block of white-washed apartments, at least two American flags to every door. This is how they changed America, the spot proclaimed. The only American flag I owned was on a bass fishing shirt, and I wasn’t allowed to wear it in public. Bad force protection. Not that I ever wanted to – it was too big and kind of ugly. Even after September 11 I never wanted to wear it. People flew flags in the States because it was their way of not being afraid, but I’d never had anything to be afraid of. The most threatened I’d ever felt in Bahrain was when I once took a short cut through a village next to our school during cross country practice, even though I knew better. The threat was a dirty towel shaken angrily in my direction from a doorstep by an old pair of hands and Arabic that I didn’t understand but could only mean Get Out, and maybe This Too is Not for You. I ran as fast as I could out of the village, back through the security checkpoint at the gate of our school – they recognized all the runners so I didn’t need my ID – and didn’t tell my coach about the shortcut or the towel.
Support for the Troops wasn’t a concept I was familiar with until we moved out of Bahrain. At least half of our lives came from the Navy Base in Bahrain, so how could supporting the troops even be optional. Nobody ever bought magnetic decals for their cars to support a cause in Bahrain, either. It’s not that there wasn’t anything to disagree with, it’s that there was never a question.
Once we heard who the culprit behind the attacks was, there was never any further questioning. Why wouldn’t Osama Bin Laden tell a couple of guys to fly airplanes into US buildings? Then there were half-hearted echoes of overheard news broadcasts – conspiracy from on high, from The Man’s desk. But we weren’t on the Internet for more than Napster, and not old enough to care to question.
A mirror behind me
When I moved to the US, I realized I’d never understood my reflection. The bounced-back image never looks like what I feel, and I can only see halfway around my head, no matter how far I turn. I can’t remember this being a problem when I was young, but I guess it must always have been the case.
When there’s a mirror behind me, I can see the back of my head. But around it a confusion of mirrors reflect back at each other, and dumb clones of angles of my face stare out from behind the glass. None of them look like what I feel like, either. When I ask the reflection what 9/11 means to me, what I hear doesn’t quite make sense.