Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Is This Your First War?


Michael Petrou’s Is This Your First War? - Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World takes the reader through places and through states of mind that most of us, in Ottawa, will never experience in person.  Petrou has a likeable, unobtrusive presence as narrator, allowing his readers to feel that they are meeting his comrades and his interviewees for themselves.  Of all the encounters and adventures that went into this insightful and informative book, one in particular stood out to me. 


Petrou was on his way through Istanbul, en route to Iraq, hoping “to cover its liberation” as a freelance reporter in 2003.  At twilight, near the Blue Mosque, Petrou finds himself befriended by a man who introduces himself as “a banker from the United Arab Emirates,” and who proposes that they go for a drink together.  Less than five minutes after walking into the bar, Petrou has declined the services of a prostitute, paid an extortionate sum for two beers, and beat a retreat.  On the tram ride back, “it wasn’t until [he] saw the familiar spires of the Blue Mosque” that Petrou “realized” his new friend “was part of the shakedown from the start.”  The whole misadventure – which Petrou succinctly sums up as “getting robbed in a brothel” – is positioned at a structurally significant point, almost exactly half-way through Is This Your First War?


At first, I could hardly understand how Petrou could have got into such trouble; he had already backpacked through Central Asia with his friend Andrew, and reported from Afghanistan for the Ottawa Citizen in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.  Subsequently enrolled at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, as a doctoral candidate in modern history, he “never stopped reporting,” but did freelance pieces for Canadian newspapers and Maclean’s magazine on brief trips to Lebanon and Belarus, before becoming a fêted senior correspondent for Maclean’s.  Surely Petrou’s instinct for self-preservation would be too well honed to let him fall victim to such a scam? 


And yet, I realized, Petrou’s unhesitating openness to new experiences, his willingness to place his trust in people on short acquaintance, is precisely what makes him such an effective reporter, and the perfect narrator to guide his readers around the historically turbulent places which he visits.  If Petrou had been more cautious, he might have avoided the shakedown – but he and his friend Andrew would never have clung to the outsides of buses and jeeps to travel through the breathtaking landscapes of northern Pakistan, would never have eaten lagman noodles in the homes of Uighur peasants – would never, in short, have a story to tell. 


Petrou writes admiringly of the photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, who died in the custody of the Iranian prison system in 2003: “She wasn’t interested in politicians or other powerful people and didn’t feature them in her work.  What mattered to Kazemi were those who are often forgotten and overlooked.”  The same could be said of Petrou’s own approach in Is This Your First War?; his attention focuses on civilians obliged to live in war zones, but extends even as far as the plight of animals in brutalized societies.  This book strongly succeeds in giving Petrou’s subjects their own voices to address the reader – from Ali, a guesthouse owner in Pakistan, desperately nostalgic for the era of hippies travelling overland to India, to a young Pakistani in Afghanistan, captured while apparently fighting on the side of the Taliban.  The young prisoner asks Petrou for money for medicine, saying that since the other prisoners “are Afghans . . . they have families nearby who can help them.  My family is far away.  I have no one,” words that close a section of Petrou’s experience and haunt his readers. 


Michael Petrou’s gift for allowing his writing to become the conduit for other, urgent voices is particularly to the fore in his chapters on Iran.  Nasser, “a burly veteran of the Iran-Iraq war,” invites Petrou to join him and two friends at a coffee house in Esfahan, apologizes for the lack of liquor, but points out Esfahan’s lively and diverse social season; gender and religion don’t prevent sociable private parties with mixed dancing.  Nasser deprecates American interventionism, but puts his hopes in change driven by Iranian citizens.  Nasser’s uncle, Farouk, couches his protest in more cerebral terms.  He teaches Petrou a “traditional Persian nomad’s song” about the coming of spring.  In Tehran, Petrou meets a tight-knit group of extraordinarily brave dissidents; most of them have been imprisoned and maltreated, and all expect further arrests in their future.  They help him to break the story of Zahra Kazemi’s mistreatment while in Tehran’s Evin Prison. 


“The former prisoners were taking an enormous risk by speaking to me,” writes Petrou, “yet most insisted that, when I was safely outside Iran, I quote them by name.”  Petrou has honoured their intention, giving their names and words as an eloquent plea for a freer Iranian society.  One dissident offers the moving metaphor of a young plant fighting its way through the weight of the soil to describe the Iranian people’s struggle to “push through” into liberty, security, and democracy.


Petrou is consistently committed to showcasing a variety of political opinions from the countries he explores; in Israel and the West Bank, he speaks to Jewish Israelis holding pro- and anti-settlement positions, and to Muslim Palestinians with varying degrees of acceptance for the existence of the Jewish state.  His recognition of diversity within each country is intimately tied to his recognition of diversity between countries.  The author writes critically about his own title: “the ‘Islamic world’ . . . is a flawed term.  There are millions of Christians and Jews living in the countries [which feature in this book], and millions of Muslims living in countries that aren’t mentioned . . . There is no unified and homogenous collection of Muslim communities, any more than there is a Christian one . . . Islam is the common thread that runs through the places covered in this book, even if does not bind them.”


At the heart of his book are the experiences and accounts of the ordinary people whom he meets – “those who must live with . . . politicians’ . . . decisions.”  To contextualize their stories, Petrou concisely introduces aspects of each place’s history, from Alexander the Great’s military projects right up to the moment – including a critical account of the U.N.’s efforts to mitigate the genocide at Darfur.  One last gift of Petrou’s writing is the insight he offers into the processes of journalism itself.  He recounts his admiration of Dr. Awwad, a gifted Syrian-Indian journalist who is able to navigate the distance between domestic concerns and the dangers of war reporting with far more grace than most, notes the difference that a translator’s level of competence can make, and explains the addictive hold of war reporting. 


On finishing Is This Your First War?, I felt far more intimately acquainted with the people inhabiting turbulent areas in Central Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, and understood a little more about the people who bring us our news.