When US and British forces crossed into Iraq at dawn on March 20, I was in transit from Damascus to the Philippines. At the Gulf city of Dubai, I bade goodbye to Maha, a refugee from Iraq who had fled Baghdad a month earlier. She said she was lucky she had a husband, a trader, waiting for her in Dubai. "I feel ashamed leaving," she confessed. "But there's no way we can resist. Our people have no arms. But my brother and sister, they're staying, and they and their children will fight."
Also at Dubai, I met Maricon Vazquez, the chief nurse of one of the biggest hospitals in Kuwait, who, like me, was heading for Manila. One of the estimated 60,000 Filipino workers in Kuwait, she worried that a long war could dislocate her and millions of other foreign workers. I also met Garzon, a Syrian businessman; his great fear is that Syria, whose ruling party shares the same Baath Arab socialist ideology as Iraq's, is the next candidate for regime change. "They can always resort to the charge that we sponsor terrorist groups against Israel," he said.
I arrived in Manila to find the country divided between a furious antiwar movement and a government that is one of Washington's staunchest allies. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wasted no time declaring that "we stand beside the coalition forces in the fight to redeem [Iraqi] freedom." Yet the government's posture is not totally scripted by Washington. Government spokespersons fanned out to tell the people that one of the main reasons the Philippines sides with the United States is that its construction firms and its workers will have a share in the "rebuilding" of Iraq.
I had gone to Baghdad as part of an "Asian Peace Mission," and my thoughts keep returning to our encounter with the students of Baghdad University on March 16. At the College of English, Professor Abdul Zaater Jawad had told us, "We are intent on finishing the syllabus, war or no war." Students in a class on Shakespeare were discussing Romeo and Juliet when we interrupted them, seemingly determined to carry on with life as usual. Yet the conversation immediately revealed that they know what lies ahead and have come to terms with it.
What do they think of George Bush? "He is like Tybalt, clumsy and ill intentioned," said a young woman in near-perfect English, alluding to Romeo's tormentor. What do they think about Bush's promise to liberate Iraqis? Answered another student, "We've been invaded by many armies for thousands of years, and those who wanted to conquer us always said they wanted to liberate us."
Youth and spring are a heady brew, and we all felt sadness as we sped away. Some of those eager new fans of Shakespeare will not see another spring. And for no other reason than the empire's need to engage in a stupendous demonstration of its might.