“Come, come, whoever your are…”

“Come, come, whoever your are…”

Posted on July 30 by Michael Petrou
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Pinterest

One of the challenges of writing a book that is at least partly tied to current events is how fast those events change.

My book Is This Your First War? Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World begins around the time of the al-Qaeda attacks on America, and rolls through a decade of conflict and upheaval in the greater Middle East and Central Asia. As I was attempting to finish writing it, the revolutions collectively known as the Arab Spring swept through the region, and Afghanistan was in a state of acute uncertainty as Western troops prepared to withdrawal and the Taliban’s insurgency boiled.

Inevitably, though, an author has to stop writing and submit his manuscript. There’s a waiting period before the book is published, and a flurry of excitement and activity when it is. This tapers off.

In my case, about a year later, I learned Is This Your First War? had been shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Award. This was happy news and an honour, especially given my admiration for some of the award’s previous winners. It also presented a bit of a dilemma, as I knew award winners would be expected to give a reading or discuss their book. It forced me to evaluate how relevant what I had written remained. I had been enormously hopeful about the Arab Spring, which was faltering and in places collapsing by the fall of 2013. No one really knew what would happen next in Afghanistan.

When my name was announced as winner of the non-fiction category at the awards gala and I climbed onto the stage to speak, I chose to reach much further back into history than the Arab Spring or the Taliban’s renewed insurgency. I recalled a night in Kabul with an Afghan diplomat and former guerilla who had fought the Soviets and then the Taliban and now decorated his home with painted verses from Rumi, a 13th–century Persian poet. He chose to recite a poem that begins with an appeal to pluralism and humanity’s universality: “Come, come, whoever your are…”

In time, hopefully soon, the Taliban and other religious chauvinists will disappear from Afghans’ collective memory. They will be historical footnotes in the country’s long history. No one will paint their rules and edicts on the walls of their homes in beautifully rendered script. Rumi, however, will persist. Centuries from now, I am certain, Afghans will still be introducing visiting foreigners to his poetry.

Michael Petrou

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014
Michael Petrou photo

Michael Petrou

Michael Petrou, an award-winning senior writer at Maclean's, has covered wars and conflicts across Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. He is the author of Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, and holds a doctorate in modern history from the University of Oxford. Petrou lives in Ottawa.