A Boyhood a War and other Tales
Syed Badrul Ahsan
The day after the war between Israel and the Arabs began in June 1967, my friends and I felt our adolescent energies stir at the thought that Israelis were soon going to have their comeuppance. Israel, I told my classmates during tiffin at school, was finished. They agreed enthusiastically. We all agreed that the Zionist state was on its way to perdition. Of course, we had no clear idea of what Zionism actually was. For most of us, it was the same as Judaism, though how wrong we were was to be demonstrated effectively as we grew over the years. In June 1967, we were pupils of class seven at St. Francis Grammar School in Quetta, Pakistan. We were callow, driven by thoughts of removing injustice wherever it was spotted across the wide expanses of the Earth.
It was a time when we believed that India needed to be driven out of Kashmir. Having become accustomed to reading the newspaper since class three, I always gave my classmates the impression that I knew a whole lot more about the world than they did. Sometime in 1963, I took an album of newspaper photographs I had made for myself to school, to inform my friends who George W. Ball was. At that point, the American under-secretary of state happened to be visiting Pakistan and meeting the likes of Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That my friends had precious little idea of the world outside the home was worrying for me, at that precocious stage of life. It was this precocity which made me tell them, on the morning of 6th June 1967, that the Arab powers,- Egypt, Jordan and Syria, would soon be entering Tel Aviv in triumph. But, of course, that was not to be. Within days we learned that it was the Arabs who had bitten the dust. Suddenly, Gamal Abdel Nasser did not look like a hero any more. When a few months later his vice president and commander of the armed forces, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, killed himself or was pushed to his death, we felt terribly depressed. At home, in my own make-believe world, I wrote 'speeches' against the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and warned its leaders that they must leave the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Those 'speeches' I then showed proudly to my classmates, who looked at me in jaw-dropping awe. It was awe I had first noticed when one day in March 1965, holding a tiny Pakistani flag in the bitter cold, I told Field Marshal Ayub Khan that I would grow up to be president of Pakistan. You see, he had earlier placed his huge hand through my full head of hair and asked me what I wished to be when I grew up. And that was what I had told him. For the next one week, as I recall, I was in my school a president of Pakistan in waiting.
In those days, we were always discovering something about the world, and its politics. 1967 was not a happy year, and remains ingrained in our memory. It was a time when Che Guevara was put to death in the jungles of Bolivia by the Caracas regime and its friends in the CIA. In November of the year, Australia's prime minister Harold Hold went swimming in the sea and was lost to eternity. And, if you recall, in December 1967, Christian Barnard carried out the first transplant of the human heart in South Africa. That news of the transplant left us all electrified and I remember I pored through the pages of Dawn every day trying to know a little more of the ways in which the heart of one individual worked in the body of another. Names like Louis Washkansky turned into household terms, even if they did not survive long. In that long-ago year, Barnard's achievement was good news which quite papered over some of the tragic tales we had lived through the months. The deaths of three American astronauts as they prepared for launch at Cape Kennedy left me depressed for weeks. But then, good cheer came back somewhat when Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu decided to take Nigeria's eastern province out of the federation and call it the independent state of Biafra. The struggle over Biafra kept my nerves on edge, for I desperately wanted Ojukwu to win. When he lost, in 1970, the heart in me cracked.
There was something of idealism working in us in those times, even though we were too young to know what idealism really was. But when the Arabs lost their struggle against Israel in June 1967 in a mere six days, the idealism came to be frayed in a considerable way. Suddenly, it was Moshe Dayan who was a hero, entering Jerusalem in triumph. Men like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon were being talked about. And there was too the United Nations Security Council, with its Resolution 242 calling on Israel to withdraw from all the territories it had come to occupy through its pre-emptive attack on the Arabs. Of course the Israelis were doing no such thing, not then, not for many decades to come.
A painful degree of poignance was injected into an already lugubrious tale when Nasser offered to resign after the humiliation of defeat in war. Almost at once tens of thousands of Egyptians poured out on the streets of Cairo demanding that he stay on. He stayed on, till his death from a cardiac arrest in September 1970. Anwar Sadat, weeping copiously, told a stunned Egyptian nation that their guiding figure was gone for good.
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