My father, Sol, drove a cab, so I have an affinity for drivers.
Mohammed is not really a taxi driver. Rather, a college-educated accounting professional who had to flee his beloved Syria two years back.
My friend Leigh and I caught a late night showing of “Interstellar” at the Dubai Mall. We liked the movie, though the sound mix was off, obscuring dialogue at key moments. Worse, at the start of the movie, during some tender moments between the father and daughter protagonists (what would Rust Cohle have made of all this??), people in the theatre were yakking loudly. A couple to the right of us, two women behind us, and a very noisy pair of young Emiratis two seats to our left. This is allowed in New York, where theatergoers compete to give the funniest or snarkiest movie criticism. Here, it’s just noise. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I yelled, loudly, WILL YOU PLEASE STOP TALKING?? No more talking for the rest of the movie.
I ask Mohammed if he likes Dubai.
“I don’t want to be a refugee,” he complains. He left Syria after graduating university with an accounting degree. His English is good, but he speaks softly. “My friends are in Canada, Europe, all over. I just want to be home.”
“I am so sorry for the suffering in your country,” I offer, in sympathy. “Two hundred thousand Syrians dead in a few short years…”
“Three hundred thousand,” he insists, correcting me. “The media does not report the correct numbers. And many families don’t report their dead. The U.S. should have supported the rebels from the beginning. Assad would have been gone, and a lot of people would have been saved. Now the rebels have to fight the Islamic State and the government.”
As he talks, I struggle to present a non-intervention position. I think of the costs, in blood and treasure of the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements. Of the gradual resentment, then resistance to the occupations. Of unexpected outcomes. Budget deficits.
We approach Sharjah and I wish him well, and wish his country peace. The civil war continues and Islamic State insurgents now control a large swath of Syria and Iraq.
What happens when the United States is invited to intervene and doesn’t?
Twenty years ago in Rwanda, the Hutu tribe massacred over one million Tutsis in an orgy of genocidal violence. The United Nations did not intervene, despite desperate pleas from Rwandans and diplomats.
I’m working in my UAE hotel room on Saturday afternoon. I should be out, but I need to write and I still don’t have lodging in Afghanistan. A handsome young African man is at the door asking to clean the room. I ask him where he is from.
“I’m from Rwanda,” he says, in a thick, lyrical but understandable accent. He exudes warmth, calm, and ntelligence. “What’s your name?” I ask.
“Theogene,” he says, with a smile, showing me his name tag.
“Is that a Rwandan name?”
“No, it’s Greek,” he says proudly.
We talk a while and I encourage him to seek me out the next day. He asks if I need anything, then he loads me up on instant coffee, tea and creamer.
Sunday comes, I’m back in the room, and a knock comes on the door. It’s Theo and we continue our conversation. I turn on my recorder and start to talk about the book project.
He smiles. “I know all about that. I went to your Facebook page. I know all about you. I read about your run-in with the Dubai police. I know you are going to Afghanistan. Woo, that’s a dangerous place.”
The slaughter of the Tutsis happened when he was six, after a plane carrying the Hutu president was shot down by rebels. His father was killed early on in the 100 days of killing. His mother, six brothers and two sisters survived.
“They did it with machetes. Not guns, mostly machetes.”
Do you think the United States, the UN, the EU should have intervened to stop the killing?
“Sure, they should have. I have one example, a big school. Many Tutsis fled to that school, protected by the French. Five thousand people went there. For the first day, they were protected. Outside, the Hutus were shouting, “We want to kill them.” The French stayed two days. then they left. They went to get their luggage and left the country.The Hutus got inside and killed all those people. No one survived. The UN, the US, would have saved those Tutsis. There was only one guy, Romeo Dallaire (Canadian UN peacekeeper), who told the UN there is a genocide going on in Rwanda. But nobody cared. OK, some people would have died, but to reach one million deaths…we were abandoned.”
Are you angry?
“Yes, France and my country don’t understand each other because of that. Around 1998, Bill Clinton came to apologize, Kofi Annan came to apologize. France did nothing. The Tutsis did whatever they wanted. Nobody was there to stop them.”
“My point of view is they should intervene if they have the ability, the equipment to stop a genocide. Some African countries are not able to stop this kind of violence by themselves.”
Colonial powers came to ‘save’ Africans in past centuries, and then enslaved them. Are you sure you want Belgian and French troops occupying your country again?
“Don’t come to enslave us, come to help us.”
How do Rwandans live together after all that killing?
“There has been a reconciliation. The killers were put in jail for a long time. Even to say Hutus or Tutsis is an abomination. We are all one. We are all Rwandans. There is no problem now.”
Theogene laughs. “OK, many people were angry. They say, you have to avenge your brothers. Some have forgiven, but some can’t. We tell them, if you can’t forgive, keep it in your mind, and don’t give it to anybody. But it’s OK, Hutus and Tutsis are living together.”