Another Monday. Sitting in a fluorescent light-lit room. Man I wish I had had time to run past the Second Cup on my way to class… not that their coffees are any good. I could swear that I’m already immune to caffeine at the tender age of 20. Shit. I wonder if Starbucks is actually stronger. Perhaps I could break my boycott just this one time? Actually I heard they reuse their grounds, which means their coffee’s even weaker. Tim Horton’s would have been my top choice for sure. If only they had won a bid to have their shops on campus. Surely the University of Toronto could have benefitted from having a Timmy’s on campus…
My thoughts are interrupted and I’m jolted back to my International Relations class when I hear the professor say “preee-ven-tion ver-sus preee-emp-tion” as he writes the words in uneven letters on the sliding green chalk board. As (mainly) avid 19 and 20 year olds, our ears all perk up at the proposed topic of the day. The term “preemptive war” had overflowed the pages of newspapers, screamed out of our television sets, and spewed out of various metro riders’ mouths for the past several weeks.
The term was of course being used in the context of the American-led invasion into Iraq which was in its final stages of design. The war which, during that snowy morning in Toronto, we thought was still theoretical, still just a threat which so many of us hoped was just that. The next two hours consisted of heated debate between those of us who were strongly and passionately against the concept of war itself and argued that it was never justifiable; and those who thought that this pending invasion was justified and used the words “Saddam Hussein”, “Taliban”, and “Al Qaeda” as if they were synonyms.
Then there were of course those who wanted to argue for the sake of arguing. Their catchphrase was “OK just to play the devil’s advocate”. I suppose this exercise isn’t always pointless, especially in an academic setting where it forces you to justify your opinions. The problem was that I didn’t feel the need to justify why I didn’t think masses of people should be killed. I didn’t think it was necessary to cite international conventions that would be broken. While we were in an academic setting, yes, this wasn’t just an academic discussion. None of us sitting there that day had the slightest clue about what war meant. The first paragraph of Wikipedia’s definition of “war” is: [It] is an organized and often prolonged conflict that is carried out by states and/or non-state actors…The absence of war is usually called peace. There are several other relevant descriptions mentioned in place of where I inserted the ellipses but I have chosen to exclude them because the simplified text reflects the level of discussion we were having in that classroom. We used graduate level terminology but the discussion was still elementary. It had to be because truly, to the best of my knowledge, none of us knew a thing about war.
I lived in this great apartment on the corner of Bay and Gerrard streets in Toronto. We had this solarium overlooking College Park and I would often sit at the window watching people. Families, lovers, readers, and dog walkers…they were all fair game for the stories I would make up about their lives and share with my roommate who would proceed to tell me how this habit I had formed was both funny and creepy but that somehow she believed all the stories I would tell her. “Oh no,” I would say of the couple sitting on the bench by the pond, “that woman doesn’t know how to tell her husband that she’s pregnant because she knows he was thinking about leaving her and although she wants him to stay, she doesn’t want it to be for the sake of the baby alone. Just terrible.” I suppose it was creepy.
This February day, however, I’m sitting by the window and I hear drums and chants getting louder and louder. A parade, I think? A sea of people comes into view, marching strongly down Yonge Street. I open the window and stare in amazement at this sight. It was an incredible mix of people, old and young; banners and flags; people screaming angry chants against war at the top of their lungs. With goose bumps covering my arms, all I could think was “what the hell am I doing up here??” I too wanted to show my anger and protest what I knew to be wrong. I’d never been in a march or a demonstration before and I didn’t know anyone there but I knew I needed to be there. I quickly threw on the warmest clothes I could find and raced downstairs. It turns out I didn’t need to worry about missing the group. I would later find out that the march was 80,000 people strong.
I join the group and feel swept into the momentum immediately feeling like I was part of something important. It didn’t matter if George W. Bush couldn’t hear us from his house painted in white. We were registering our dissent and doing the only thing we could at that moment to stop the war from starting. Someone asks me if I want to hold their sign because they’re leaving and I awkwardly agree. I don’t remember much more of the march although I have a vague recollection of someone singing Lennon’s “Imagine”. I must have thought that was very cliché.
On March 19th 2003, a good friend walked in to my apartment, sat down on my bed, pushed the palms of his hands against his forehead and told me that the “Shock and Awe” campaign had begun. I literally felt sick to my stomach as we watched the horrific video footage being shown on television. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
I’ve reached a point in the story where I need to take a break from the light-hearted and funny. What happened over the course of the next few days and weeks was terrifying to watch; I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to live it. My privilege and comfort were becoming incredibly clear to me and I wanted to do something to stand in solidarity with these people whose lives were being threatened and destroyed like inconsequential ants on a busy street. I don’t know that it was a conscious decision at the time, but somewhere between that petty coffee debate and the Americans’ and their allies’ bombing of Baghdad, I had realized that I didn’t want to be a passive observer anymore. I quickly found myself walking into a meeting at Ryerson University.
It was a group of anti-war activists speaking activisty lingo like “demo” (translation: demonstration) and “bottom line” (translation: to take the lead on a task). The word “random” was used a lot as well, even in its plural form “randoms” (can be used, among other definitions, to describe shady behavior, or, shady person(s)). I felt shy and the thought of asking a question that might sound ignorant was terrifying because I could definitely seem “random”. I could hear my heart pounding loudly as I formulated my question carefully in my head. I repeated it over and over, but never mustered the courage to ask it.
I didn’t go to their next meeting. I did, soon after however, join an Arab student group, which as I learnt in my first meeting, “wasn’t the kind of group that threw sheesha parties”. Instead we would focus on political awareness campaigns around Arab issues, with a focus on the Iraq war and the Palestinian cause.
Over the next several years, I would become immersed in political activism in Toronto, particularly on issues related to Palestine, and I was around people who were working tirelessly on immigration rights, fighting local poverty, organizing labor, and working in support of Indigenous land rights in Canada. Organizing was a huge part of who I was, and it was the most educational and exhausting period of my life so far. When I moved to DC, I remember feeling guilty that my friends were doing all the work in Toronto and I wasn’t there to help. I realized soon enough though that one didn’t need to be a part of the same group, or even work on the same cause, to play her part in actively standing on the side of justice and raising the voices of people whose voices are silenced. Today I am fortunate to work for an organization that shares those values and in my spare time, I work towards raising awareness of the Palestinian cause through a film festival which I help organize with a group of talented and dedicated young women and men.
At the end of the day, here is what is important and it is what the Iraq war taught me: that I have a responsibility to speak up when I see injustices being committed and that I can no longer afford to be a passive observer in this world. Thanks to Iraq for waking me up.