I attended my first war just before my sixth birthday.
To a first-grade aspiring astronaut, war was a serious disruption.
The daily schedule was thrown into chaos – less walks along the beach with mum, less marble games in the parking lot, less school, more dad at home and having to carry a box with a gas mask everywhere. On top of all this, plans for my birthday party were in serious jeopardy.
At any moment, the sound of the alarm could start, which meant everyone had to enter the shelter or “sealed room” and wear their gas mask. Some apartment buildings had their communal shelters made out of reinforced concrete and steel, but we had the “sealed room”, where great family war times was about to take place.
Other than the masks, the preparation for the war included a lot of plastic sheets and sticky tape.
All windows and airways were meticulously covered, taped, and the “sealed room” had extra layers and the smallest number of external walls, hence offering optimum missile protection. I was confused about how the plastic sheets are supposed to stop the missiles but received reassurance they are there to stop the invisible, odourless mustard gas inside the missile from entering the apartment and killing us and not the missile itself.
To make it more palatable, my parents explained that the masks are similar to those worn by astronauts. They looked nothing like what I saw in my book about outer space, but I went with it anyway as I had little choice. My sister was too small for a mask and had to be placed in a transparent plastic box. Babies deserved to go to space too. I was intrigued by my “grown-ups” mask. It was army green with round glass goggles and a big long elephant-like tube coming out of the nose, which was connected to the compressor. We went through several exercises to fit them properly and I endured the uncomfortable rubber straps catching my hair as I thought that this is what may be required from brave astronauts.
All around it was like people are preparing for a long holiday inside. My parents stocked on the essentials. We had bottled water and food cans for months. The board games, cards and books were all in the sealed room, and the television constantly on.
When the alarm sounds, it meant that a missile might strike the region, If the code “Viper Snake” was said over the television or radio it meant that a missile striked and people need to enter the shelter immediately. We had to stay in our sealed room until the radio said it is safe to come out.
I don’t remember how many times we sat in that room, but I remember it fondly as quality family time. We made paintings and played board games quietly while enjoying each other’s company.
It also meant my parents couldn’t have arguments because they had the masks over their faces. Except worrisome prospects of my looming birthday party being cancelled, the war turned out to be a win-win situation for me.
Occasionally my dad defied the instructions and went up to the roof with some other neighbours to watch our missiles intercept the Iraqi missiles over the night sky. I don’t know if it was because he was curious or because he didn’t believe it.
The villain was a moustached man in army uniforms by the name of Sadam Hussain. I didn’t think a man with such a ridiculous moustache can cause much damage, but it was years before anyone told me about the second world war. Somewhat amused by his silly appearance, I tried to reach out to Sadam and reason with him.
The only man I knew of who could potentially help was Dudu Topaz.
Dudu was a comedian and a television personality; he had a weekly popular talent show and during the war he hosted another show for children where he’d talk about the war in a language I could understand. Kids called him from all over the country with questions and requests which he responded to with reassuring smile and sincere eyebrows. I asked my mum if I could call Dudu. She never liked him so she questioned my motivation but eventually agreed, and after what seemed like eternity on hold, I finally got through to Dudu. I was slightly nervous as I knew there’s not much time, so I skipped the formalities and asked Dudu if he can ask Sadam not to fire missiles on my birthday.
My bubble burst when Dudu snaked around the question and finally said that if everyone preys together and asks really hard, maybe, but only maybe, Sadam won’t send missiles on my Birthday.
I thanked him and hung up. My mum was right. He was a douche. More than two decades later he died in prison after being convicted of threatening and bullying figures in the show business who didn’t want to support his show.
My birthday party was cancelled but my mum took me and my sister down south to stay in a hotel for some time because it was considered safer and she also wanted to be away from my dad. We took the masks but there were no alarms so I could enjoy the face painting service offered by the hotel staff and the dry air of the desert.
The whole ordeal lasted for several long months, eternity in my head. In the end many things changed around me. We moved to a different city which meant I had to leave my school and friends and make new ones. The building we moved to was new and had a proper shelter downstairs, but my mum reluctantly assured me that by the time I turn eighteen, we won’t need it because there will be peace and I won’t have to go to the army. She told me on the phone not long ago that at the age of four I stood up on the stool in the bathroom, faced the mirror and declared I don’t want to grow up.
She asked why and I said that I don’t want to be a soldier and die in the army.
I don’t remember saying this, but I think It was from hearing too much dramatic news on television.
My parents got divorced when I started second grade and my mum started working, which meant I had to help with my sister and enjoy less day trips to the sea, which was now further away but on a clear day I could see the tip of it from my new bedroom window. It provided inspiration and fed my hopes and longing, from the age of eight until twenty-three, when I moved to Australia.
It’s been twelve years since Australia became my home. In this great old continent, it is apparent that there are no winners in war. Here, war is against the forces of nature; people fight massive fires, floods and drought which are stronger than any moustached megalomaniac. The war I’m attending here is also internal for many people, the weapons are the fire power of the heart versus crippling “economic progress”. The implication of colonialist invasion and eradication of native cultures. The shame and desire to reach reconciliation with the past.
Amongst this, it appears that a new battle ground emerged, not one with missiles and mustard gas, but one which brings up bitter memories. The plague is a result of internal wars taking place all over the world, battles against our human desires, and the consequences of our greed and environmental destruction. As we are faced with inevitable change, I try to imagine that all the coronavirus have little silly moustaches and if I stay in my poorly insulated Melbourne apartment for a while, wear a face mask and play board games I’ll be protected, and everything will turn out to be just fine.
When this war is over, what must be changed?