Senior Rana Tahirand her siblings grew up Kuwait playing with large, bronze cylinders that her mother filled with fake
flowers. Years later, her father revealed that the cylinders were missile shells recovered on the beach near their home.
“At that point I was like, ‘Oh my God. These things might have killed people!’ We were playing with tools of war,” Tahir said.
This past summer, Tahir spent most of her time delving into her family’s story of surviving Iraq’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait. The goal was to obtain enough background information to move forward with her proposed Honors project.
“They had horror stories that I’d always heard of, but didn’t know the specifics … The only reason I could get my parents to speak about it at all was because I told them my grade depended on it,” Tahir said.
As her final product, Tahir plans to compose a manuscript of poetry, as well as to create oil paintings that illustrate her family’s history. So far, she has interviewed 14 individuals: friends, family and patrons of her mother’s salon in Kuwait. She has been trying to express her parents’ stories through fiction and nonfiction for several years now, only to give up the endeavor time and again and again.
“The emotional content is still so raw, and I struggled with making my writing authentic to what happened. I feel like poetry is a very authentic language,” she said.
Tahir’s mother was pregnant with her in August of 1990 when the Iraqi army invaded their home country. Three months later, her parents fled by car to Turkey along with her grandparents, aunts and uncles. According to Tahir’s father, the car was brand-new but they had to damage the exterior to prevent it from being stolen during the chaos. They later immigrated from Turkey to Pakistan, where Tahir was born.
While pregnant with Tahir, Tahir’s mother (22 years old at the time) developed internal bleeding. The cause was stress, as well as complications from hiding the family’s gold heirlooms in a sanitary napkin. Her mother refused to have an abortion — a decision that could have killed them both.
Today, Tahir lives to compile these stories for future generations to understand. Because the events occurred relatively recently, Kuwaiti public schools have only been teaching them since 2010.
“A lot of people focus on the six-week war, but it was a six-month occupation … A lot of people don’t see the effect of American politics on the Middle East,” Tahir said. “People don’t understand American diplomacy.”
Much of Tahir’s frustration stems from reading about this part of history in a textbook on American diplomacy in which the subject was briefly summarized and glossed over. She has also met many U.S. soldiers on United Airlines flights between Knox and her home in Kuwait.
“The fact that some of them didn’t understand [the occupation] kind of infuriated me,” she said.
Tahir’s interviewees in Kuwait, on the other hand, are very aware of the occupation and its lasting impact. Around 600 prisoners of war, are yet to be found dead or alive, and those who lived through it have grim memories.
Often, Tahir began her interviews by asking her subjects where they were on the first day of the invasion.
“I got a lot of questions of ‘Why are you talking about this?’” Tahir recalled. “One man had the revelation, ‘Kuwait is such a small country, so why didn’t they just kill us all?’”
Once she got a subject talking, the conversations lasted for hours. A conversation with her father began at 11 p.m. and went past 5 a.m. the next morning. Throughout the summer, he recalled more and more memories for her. On one occasion, he waved hello to a woman and afterward explained to Tahir that she was their neighbor prior to the occupation. After her family fled to Turkey, the woman stole almost everything from their house.
“Everyone has a story of someone wronging them. It’s always a question of how you reconcile that,” Tahir said. “Basically, the only thing my parents owned after we escaped was a car.”
Still awaiting official approval of her project, Tahir has already organized her Honors committee, which includes Associate Professors of English Nick Regiacorte and Monica Berlin along with Associate Professor of Art Lynette Lombard. She hopes to receive an office in Seymour Library because her apartment is currently packed with books on the subject.
Regardless of whether or not the project is approved, Tahir plans on moving forward because American awareness of these stories is her goal. She wants people to know what happened and to be moved by it.
One individual who sticks out to Tahir is a war journalist. When he was 10 years old two decades ago, he watched Iraqi soldiers walk some Kuwaiti boys home and call their mother out of the house. When she appeared in the doorway the soldiers shot and killed her children in front of her.
“Even though it’s part of his job, every time he hears the sound of gunshots it’s like he’s 10 years old again,” Tahir said. “From stories like that I ended up getting so many nightmares.”
Editors Note: Rana Tahir is a columnist for The Knox Student.