by Jenn Gilgan
When atrocities of ISIS destroying priceless ruins became news last March, I felt incensed. On the heels of brutal murders, the terrorist group obliterated their culture’s past. Their excuse: destroying idols that were false gods. They justified their actions through their faith—Mohammed is the only prophet to the only God, Allah. They manipulated the beautiful words of their prophet into ugly acts of brutality and greed. The antiquities were pre-Islam, and so, in their view, unholy.
Each video clip of a sledge hammer smashing carved stone to dust felt like a blow to my head, shaking loose memories of a trip my parents and I took to Iraq in Spring 1978, our second year of living in Beirut, Lebanon. Truthfully, I do not remember much from that trip; I was only twelve. My brain repressed what should have been the interesting parts: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, mosques with golden domes. I vaguely recall these sites; photographs and the awful scenes on the news help to pry loose my memories.
One detail of that fated trip I vividly recall is my dad’s severe case of Montezuma’s Revenge. Not because he was so sick, but because of events I could not escape as he commandeered the back of the taxi, our primary mode of transportation. Iraq was not the hubbub of tourism, even pre-Gulf War, so bus tours were nonexistent. Mom sat in the back with Dad, attempting to provide some comfort from the heat, the nausea, the bumpy roads, a nasty combination for my ailing dad.
Even more vividly, in my visceral memory, I recall sitting up front with the Iraqi taxi driver and a Lebanese gentleman, Sami, an important client of my father’s employer, an international bank. He had volunteered to accompany us as a translator since we did not speak Arabic beyond the basic pleasantries. This man had wealth and prestige. He had a handsome face, light brown hair and bright blue eyes. He was tall and athletic, a descendent of the fair Phoenicians. He also had, as I was to discover, an eye and a roaming hand for young girls.
I was not raped, but over our week-long trip, I was violated multiple times in the front of the taxi. He found ways to grope the training-bra sized bumps on my chest or to massage between my upper thighs. He deftly hid these acts by unfolding the over-sized paper map across our legs. Not knowing how else to behave, I sat still, frozen like an ancient statue. Internally, though, a chaotic battle raged: my mind screamed NO, STOP, but my hormones were curious, tempting me to let go and enjoy the scary, strange, thrilling sensations. At night I promised myself I would refuse his next attempt; each day I fell mute, cowering to his position of power—both over me and over my dad’s career. My unconscious must have understood the adult dynamics and politics.
Over three decades later, I have wondered why I couldn’t get past these memories. Why have they haunted me? Why must I remember that my first sexual contact was uninvited and confusing? While I felt ashamed that my twelve-year old body craved learning more of the strange internal warmth that flooded my body, my adult brain could intelligently articulate that he was at fault. That he was the creep. That underneath his handsome visage, he must have had a serious flaw in his psyche to prey on a twelve-year old who had hardly begun to blossom.
After years of journaling, counseling, and eventually confessing to my mom about Sami’s pedophilia, I thought I had moved past the rage and disgust of those memories. Until recently. Watching the antiquities long associated with the vacation of violation smash to the ground in plumes of dust released an unexpected rage in me.
Many of the antiquities that ISIS has destroyed are those that my twelve-year-old self visited. I was hardly impressed by history or ruins when I was a kid. The trip was my parents’ idea. I had wanted to see the pyramids in Egypt, but since that was the time of Camp David, Egypt would not have been a safe destination for
American tourists. Instead, we went to Iraq, not yet a danger zone for Americans. As a typical twelve-year-old, I rolled my eyes at yet another tour of crumbling ruins (in my mind the Sphinx or pyramids or the land of Cleopatra were not crumbling, and so much cooler to explore). My parents had a history of taking my brother and me on educational trips: the Parthenon, Athena’s Temple, a Grecian Olympic stadium. We had visited Byblos or Baalbeck or both in the mountains and fertile valleys of Lebanon. Before living overseas, my parents took us to what counted as American ruins: Mystic Seaport, Washington Irving’s home in Sleepy Hollow, the Newport mansions, and the Hudson River Valley robber baron castles. In 1978, I considered this trip just another educational tour my parents imposed on me.
So, if I didn’t care then about the immensity of the history before me, why suddenly did I want to rip out the throats of those thoughtless, careless scalawags on the news? Because I had more than just seen the ruins. My cellular memory had never let go of the sights, the sounds, the sands of Iraq. The ruins were me, and I the ruins. Now, via the sights and sounds of technology, I saw the terrorist attacks against their own history as akin to the personal affront I experienced.
On the surface, the antiquities are ruined beyond repair. No master archeologist will be able to repair the pieces to their previous state. On a deeper, longer-lasting level, I’m reminded of the classroom lesson about bullying: have students take a clean sheet of paper and then crumple it into a ball. No matter how they try, students cannot “fix” the paper back to its original pristine smoothness. Harsh words and actions make the same lasting impression on people as the creases in the paper. I had been bullied in one of the worst ways, and so were the impressive statues of Tikrit and Mosul. No amount of counseling, confessions, or apologies could smooth the scars inflicted on me or the stone statues. My scars were emotional. The statues’ scars historical.
More universally, those statues and my childhood innocence represent a higher state of understanding than either my personal terrorist or the ISIS terrorists can appreciate. Terrorism on any level is not an act of intelligence. That is not to say that the perpetrator in my story or the ISIS men are not intelligent. I know for a fact that my molester was incredibly intelligent. But, his actions were selfish and uncaring and lacked wisdom. The same holds true for the recent actions of ISIS: There is no sense, no caring, no wisdom in destroying priceless artifacts.
|The author and her mother, 1978|
I have a photograph of my mother and me in front of one of the statues that guarded a town. It towered over us, its face kind and gentle. The face and beard of a man, the body of a horse, wings of an eagle, and cloven feet of a goat. In Tikrit maybe. I don’t remember. That is what I have repressed. That is the knowledge I have lost forever because something frightening and unexplainable took precedence in my memory. I hate that man for all that he robbed from me: my innocence, a chance not to fear intimacy, and my chance to remember extraordinary history on an extraordinary trip. I hate the terrorists for what they are robbing from the world: the foundation of great civilizations and creativity and genius and tolerance. So few have had the opportunity to visit those sacred lands because of the constant upheaval in the Middle East, and now, many of the reasons to visit any of the historic sites—Babylon, Bybolos, Jerusalem, Petra, Palmyra, Cairo—have either been smashed beyond recognition or have become too perilous to visit. The world should not allow anyone or anything terrifying to obliterate our collective memory of our beginnings. Whether you connect to the Middle East through genetics, religion—this includes Christianity and Judaism—or not at all, those ruins once governed fertile and prosperous lands. Trade routes from east and west crossed the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Your genealogical tree likely has someone who once walked that fertile valley. This is not a land to fear. It is a land to rejoice and celebrate.
Today, Iraq may seem like a wasteland to many. Desert sands. Bombed out. Citizens turned refugees. At its heart, though, is a vibrant, caring, god-fearing culture, whether that god be God or Allah, or even Yahweh, Buddha, or Vishnu. Yet, hate and prejudice prevail despite each religion’s teaching to love and tolerate our brothers and sisters of every land. We are all human. Shakespeare’s Shylock cries out, “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” We all bleed. We all laugh. We all cry. We all need safety and protection and love. If we do not unite to protect that which needs protecting—our heritage, our children, our future—then we risk a chasm in the web of humanity.
The terrorism occurring across the Middle East parallels my personal turmoil. My story is one of many, and the religious terrorists are only one story of mass hatred. The ISIS terrorists hide under the beauty of Islam’s Koran. The words meant to inspire the beauty of compassion, faith, loyalty, and love have been misused to justify hate crimes and murder. They are a larger, scarier rendition of the handsome man who abused the trust of a young girl.
Jenn Gilgan aspires to inspire. She lives in Tampa, FL where she teaches high school English. Her writing draws on her experiences from when she lived in Beirut, Lebanon as a child and London, England as an adult. When not inundated with teaching and grading, she enjoys exploring the world through her cameras and researching ideas for both lesson plans and novels. “Violations” is her first published piece; she is currently drafting and re-drafting a YA novel influenced equally by her love of Celtic mythology and her life in Lebanon.