The Sound of War

Each time I visit Lebanon I keep thinking to myself, “Will the war erupt and will they close down the airport while I’m there?” A friend of mine and I have had this secret wish for so long it’s become a common joke between us. Yes, wish. Not for a war, but for us to physically be there if a war does actually begin.

I’ve never been to a war zone. I have no idea what the sound of an F16 right above my head would be like, the closest I ever got to a fighter jet was when I was 9 with my class when we went to visit an army museum to see the jets that fought against Israel in 1973, but that was back when pride in “our soldiers” was something still being taught in Egyptian schools. Another time I was sitting in the living room when a very strong sound of a plane started approaching. At first I thought it was just a civilian plane, but the closer and louder the sound became the stronger the engine sounded. Interestingly, it would just not go away, it kept getting louder and louder until I officially panicked and froze. All I could think about was that Cairo was under an air strike. War broke out and I can’t move my feet to the TV to check the news since the building is about to crumble anyway. I later remembered that it was October 6, and the army was performing in commemoration of the 1973 crossing. When I finally did get the strength to look at the window I saw a part of the performance. The aircraft was in no way as near as it sounded. I had honestly thought I was taking my last breaths.

But listening to that sound and knowing for sure it’s an air strike is definitely worse, because there’s no room for doubt this time that it would surely take lives. I did listen to a detailed description from a Gazan friend a few years ago of what an F16 sounded like and it surely unsettled me. I saw the psychological effect of the sound and the accompanied fear on the reaction of another Palestinian friend to fireworks in Cairo right across the street. As I jumped in excitement and watched the “show” she closed her eyes and tried to block her ears. She simply could not take what was to her the sound of war.

I’ve never been a high intensity seeking kind of person. I’m usually very careful with myself and I weigh consequences. So much so that I once declined a horse riding trip after I had gotten on the horse simply because I discovered that I was wearing the wrong pants. I couldn’t stabilize myself properly, so I chickened out.

But when I’m actually in the situation, the “woman in charge” takes over. I recall traveling from one town to another during pilgrimage on foot, simply because I knew my feet would get me there faster than all the buses that seemed to be parked for hours along the highway. And I’m a person who doesn’t have a very good sense of direction.

If war erupts in Lebanon I don’t think I can sit by in the comfort of my living room in Cairo and watch it all like a spectacle on television, let alone listen to useless critical commentary from those who’ve never been smiled at by an orphaned child from the south, or who’ve never breathed the air at the southern tip of a mountain that overlooks historical Palestine. I’m known amongst my friends to be a freak when it comes to the whole Lebanon subject, but even the food in the south tastes like freedom. No one is subordinate there. Everyone controls their own will. Everyone is a master of their own land. That sense of ownership Robert Fisk once wrote was so missing from most Arab countries is so vivid in south Lebanon.

But as much as I claim to know how different the place is, I think I’m yet to acquire the ways of the people there in order to fully understand how they’ve learned to face death so fearlessly. I shudder at the very thought of losing the warm friends there who always make me laugh. Each time one of them talks to me I cherish every word and look them straight in the eye to take the moment all in. I always fear I may never be able to see them again. How blatantly “un-Shiite” of me to be such a coward about loss! And I’m a person who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to lecture about Karbala.

But I don’t think it’s that. I’m just a person who’s never been in a war, who’s never lost anyone for war, and that is my weakness, because as scary as the sound of war may be, it perfects a person’s ability to endure. It simply makes them stronger.

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  1. #1 by Marwa Elnaggar on February 21, 2010 - 7:05 am

    I never understood why Fisk included south Lebanon in his list of “dirty” and “littered” Arab places. I don’t know where he went, but everywhere I went (after the 2006 war) was beautiful and unlittered – despite the war-inflicted poverty, despite the rubble. In these days when everyone seems to have come to terms with the reality of an impending war, all I can do is pray for the safety of everyone there and in Palestine.


  2. #2 by Martyn on February 21, 2010 - 11:27 pm

    I have some memories of south Lebanon too. This was back in 2003, so before the war with Israel. I was in Lebanon for 10 days with a friend and we went south to see Sur and Sida. We were on break from classes in Cairo where we were working on Arabic. We were on a bus down toward Sida and there were not many spaces. A mother and her daughter (early 20s) got on the bus, and my friend and I started to re-arrange so they could sit together, but the mom motioned not to and her daughter sat right next to us. (That never happened to us in Egypt!) She did some English and us some Arabic.. and I remember all her excitement to ask about US. She was open to talk about all kinds of things about life. It was so refreshing. I guess I might have expected that in Beirut, but this was in south and it caught me by surprise. Her and some others I thought about a lot in 2006.. and it makes me so angry that I, as citizen of US, am partly culpable for so much damage to her world. And perhaps in the future as well.


  3. #3 by Ann on July 4, 2010 - 9:49 am

    I don’t think it is un-Shiite of you to fear loss, it is just your humanity. Reading this article I can feel your love for Humanity and their freedom, and it is so heart-felt that it gives me a great feeling of hope. Such strong young women…you will all change the world.

    I spend a lot of time in Luxor and it feels like my second home (Ireland being my first). I think about how we all collectively deal with war and wonder if, as women, that there might be a better way of achieving peace. I believe that war is the product of a lack of love, a lack of love for ourselves and for others. As women we are powerful, passionate and creators of love and beauty. I’m not talking about romantic, or superficial feelings of love which can mask other feelings, I am talking about the love which you already have for humanity, the love which sacrifices the needs of self for the needs of others. This you have in abundance and it is so inspiring to me to read your words because this love is strong and touches me deeply.

    Keep up your brilliant writing and your passion for change. You are an inspiration.

    I shall keep reading your writing. It is a great reminder of what the young women of Egypt are creating.

    Many thanks.


    • #4 by Arwa Mahmoud on July 5, 2010 - 8:44 am

      Thank you Ann. I hadn’t written on my blog for almost 6 months, but your comment has refueled me to go back and write more.

      All best always :)


  4. #5 by Ann on July 5, 2010 - 8:54 am

    It is my pleasure…and joy!
    I am looking forward to it Arwa.
    Warm regards. :-))


  5. #6 by maryloo soueid on September 5, 2010 - 11:09 am

    When i was a kid in new york in the late 60s, i used to freak out big time when ever thunderstorms were coming in because it reminded me of the sounds of bombing during the 1967 war when we were living in palestine. when the storms came i ran under the nearest car and hid in fear, i was just 5 and just back from palestine so the war was still going on in my head and any sounds that sounded like those war sounds sent me running. kids used to put potato chips in a bowl and shake it like you do to get a cat to come and eat. and i did eventually come out from under the car and the kids sort of teased me and said “it’s just thunder!”

    when i was in lebanon in 1999 (my first time there) the 2nd time was when i met you in 2006 at the conference. in 99 some rockets where fired at some zionist drone. and at the time i naturally assumed “israel” was up to its usually war stuff. then we found out in was hezbollah trying to get rid of the drones.
    be well. and i am soooo glad to find this page so i can read your excellent writing.


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