This Shattering by Wiam El-Tamami
Wiam El-Tamami was six years old, living in Kuwait with her Egyptian parents and eight-year-old sister, when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. In her segmented essay “This Shattering,” she combines brief childhood memories of the inexplicable chaos of invasion and exodus with the efforts of an adult looking back to assemble those fragments into a whole.
Sarah Menkedick points out that the lyric essay composed of fragments “purposefully avoids a steady progression towards meaning, a predictable arc of exposition, climax, revelation, and denouement.” The brief, italicized interjections of El-Tamami’s childhood memories suggest lyric disconnection amid sudden upheaval. The window in their flat is shattered. “I remember how the window looked afterwards: cracks like spiderwebs, hastily taped over. But in my memory, it did not break that first day. It was another afternoon, a quiet expanse of time, broken by this shattering.” Her memories of the shattering form a lyric substratum that isn’t fully reliable or chronological. She remembers staying indoors, watching a new cartoon, their car being pelted with rocks when they fled (“I was in the backseat, crying, terrified”), leaving their cat behind. “My father reached through the car window to take her away. We agreed, he said. But I never agreed to this.”
None of them had agreed to this. Through the accumulation of reported memories from her father, mother, and sister, El-Tamami creates a collective memory of a traumatic experience, transforming lyric fragmentation into narrative. Her essay enacts a drive for meaning and wholeness—an effort to reconstruct the memory of what happened by assembling pieces of the puzzle. Meaning unfolds sequentially, in numbered sections, and methodically, with overlapping, sometimes conflicting accounts from her sister, her mother, her father.
“I set out to interview each of my family members, separately, about these events,” El-Tamami explains in her author’s note. “Four quite different accounts emerged. It was fascinating to see the contradictions, the variations in memory and perception.” From beginning to end, many questions remain. When did it start? “It started in the daytime, my sister says, I remember the light.” “It happened at night, my mother says. We heard explosions. The whole flat was shaking….” “It was 3 a.m., my father says, just before dawn.” How did it end? “There are different stories of who set fire to those wells. No one knows the truth. But the fires kept burning for a long time.” In her urgent and beautifully developed account of a chaotic and frightening event, El-Tamami reconstructs history from shards of truth. —CRAFT
just before dawn
It started in the daytime, my sister says, I remember the light. We were watching TV. Mama and Baba were in their room, asleep. We heard noises that sounded like fireworks.
It happened at night, my mother says. We heard explosions. The whole flat was shaking with the force of the explosions.
It was 3 a.m., my father says, just before dawn.
I remember the word, a new word, the thrill of it: war.
There had been conflict between Iraq and Kuwait over an oil field on the border, my father says. Saddam Hussein had been threatening to use force for months. Global and regional powers were starting to intervene. It’s said that the American ambassador in Iraq gave Saddam the green light to invade Kuwait. That’s what was said at the time.
There was a conflict about an oil field called Al-Rumaila, my mother says. There were negotiations to resolve the issue, but they failed. Saddam Hussein was threatening to invade—but nobody believed that he actually would. Kuwait didn’t even have an army or any way to defend itself. But he was motivated by greed. He thought he could take over the oil wells of Kuwait, its wealth.
When Saddam began to amass troops on the border, my father says, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, traveled to Baghdad. Saddam Hussein announced that he would not invade Kuwait. But he didn’t keep his word.
What I felt most, my sister says, was a sense of adventure. There was something exciting happening. Finally, a break from our routine. It was summer, maybe August. School was supposed to start a few weeks later.
I was six, and I remember that too: a sudden sense of freedom.
That first morning, my father says, I left home and headed to the hospital as usual. I didn’t realize what was happening. I had heard some noises, distant gunshots. I was surprised to see troops, rows of tanks. The soldiers had machine guns and were shooting into the air. There were people all around, just normal people in their cars, heading to work. I thought: Are they crazy, shooting their guns with people around like that? I thought it was a military drill. I didn’t realize they were Iraqi troops.
When I got to the hospital, I walked in through the Accident and Emergency entrance, and all the other doctors were standing there, clustered around. They turned to me and said: Iraq has invaded.
Just like that. Iraq invaded Kuwait.
It was August, my father says. August 1989.
It was 1991, my mother says. Or was it 1990?
My parents tell me that they moved to Kuwait from Egypt in the spring of 1981. They were newly married. Many Egyptians were leaving the country to try to find work elsewhere. My father was already living abroad—studying in London, then working in Zambia as a flying doctor—when the news came of his father’s death.
He was expected to help support the family after that, he tells me. His youngest sister was still in high school, his youngest brother a freshman in college. He was enjoying his work in Zambia, but the salaries in Kuwait were higher.
My mother tells me how hard it was when they first arrived in Kuwait. My father had overnight shifts at the hospital, leaving the flat early in the morning and not coming home until afternoon the following day. She didn’t have a car at first, which made it impossible to go anywhere. She found herself mostly alone, in a flat, in a place totally unknown to her. She says she doesn’t even know how she spent that time.
She got a job as a news editor at the Kuwait television station, then discovered she was pregnant with my sister. Shortly after my sister was born, in 1982, she started her new work.
She grew to like Kuwait. We had a comfortable life, she tells me. It was a very quiet country, very safe. Everything was clean and orderly; life was much easier than it was in Egypt.
My sister and I went to a good school, an international school with other children from all over the world whose parents, like ours, were expat workers in Kuwait. My mother bought a car and we were driving around all the time, from school activities to birthday parties to swim practice.
When your sister was born, she says, I bought a camera. And when you were born, I bought a video camera. I wanted to record everything.
We lived in a dull residential neighborhood called Riggae, my sister tells me, right by a huge highway called the Fourth Ring Road. It was far away from our school in Salwa, far away from all the shopping in Salmiya.
Our neighborhood consisted of rows and rows of buildings, dry and colorless as salt and bone. There was a small paved yard underneath our building, where we would meet up with other kids from the neighborhood to play football, and where my sister would ride her bike.
Even as a child, I remember feeling parched. I remember seeing photographs of mountains and forests, lakes and waterfalls, and feeling a deep, wordless thirst.
Our lives were so small and sheltered, my sister tells me. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere on our own.
Our flat was square and beige. But we had Touta, a white, longhaired cat that we loved, and over the years we’d also kept fish, and turtles, and birds. The vines of my mother’s pothos plants, with their heart-shaped leaves, twirled and twined all over the living room walls.
And we had our neighbors. We knew all the neighbors in our building: our downstairs neighbors were from Syria and Palestine, and there were other families from Sudan, from Iraq. We would play with the other kids, and sometimes the mothers would get together for coffee and homemade pastries. And our best friends Bassem and Ramy lived just behind us, a stretch of sandy, unused land separating our building from theirs. Bassem was one year older than my sister; Ramy, one year older than me. They were the sons of Tante Ragia and Ammo Wahby, friends of our parents, both doctors like my father. Their little brother, Haisam, was just a toddler when the invasion happened.
My mother tells me that she and Tante Ragia had just signed up for tennis lessons. We had even bought rackets, she says. But we only had one lesson, and then suddenly Iraq invaded Kuwait.
We’d been in Kuwait, my father says, for nine years.
Our neighborhood was the first one to be bombed, my sister says.
We were living across from the National Guard, my father says. The first important military target as the Iraqi troops entered Kuwait.
Then we began to hear that they’ve reached other neighborhoods, my sister says, one after the other.
Ammo Wahby and the kids came running over, my mother says. A shell had exploded on their roof, damaging the air conditioners and the water tank. It was August in Kuwait, over fifty degrees Celsius, and they had no air conditioning. Tante Ragia had been called to the hospital early in the morning—a lot of people were wounded. Ammo Wahby grabbed the kids and ran over, taking shelter under the buildings as they ran, afraid that something would fall on them.
They were living one row closer to the National Guard, my sister says. And one of the water tanks on their roof got hit, so they didn’t have water anymore. We heard about balconies collapsing—was that also in their building?
They took over the ministries, everything, my mother says. Smashed traffic lights. Looted shops and supermarkets. The Iraqi soldiers would break into homes, stop people on the street. There was no police—just chaos. There were severe austerity measures in Iraq at the time. They had been at war with Iran for ten years or so. The soldiers were desperate. To them, the sight of all this food in the supermarkets, all this variety—this was completely new to them.
They went into the National Guard and occupied it, my father says. And killed people. This was the only place in Kuwait where there was resistance. Kuwait later called them martyrs. But many of them surrendered. The National Guard was surrounded, besieged all day, until nighttime. Then they surrendered to the Iraqi forces. They killed anyone who resisted. They let some of the low-ranking officers go—stripped off their clothes and let them run out in their underwear.
The next day, I headed to work as usual, my father says. I’m a doctor, I had to go to the hospital. I saw the cars. The whole Ring Road was lined with broken cars, smashed cars. There were even dead bodies inside some of the cars. On both sides of the road.
But they took control of Kuwait, he says, and that was it. There was no problem at all. No, it was safe.
Pure terror, my mother says. The Iraqi soldiers were chasing the National Guard officers through the neighborhoods, my mother says. The officers were entering buildings, hammering on people’s doors, trying to hide. The Iraqi soldiers were everywhere, shooting their guns in the streets.
I remember adrenaline, my sister says, but I don’t remember fear. I don’t think I felt unsafe. I remember looking out of the window and seeing an Iraqi soldier breaking the window of a car, another one crouched down low on the ground. I was just watching, curious. Mama dragged me away immediately, but I had glimpsed something.
The window in Mama and Baba’s room broke on that first day, my sister says. It shattered from the noise.
Something hit our bedroom window that first or second day, my mother says. A bullet, or maybe shrapnel. I was there, in the room. I was sitting on the bed. The glass cracked…but whatever it was didn’t get through.
I remember how the window looked afterwards: cracks like spiderwebs, hastily taped over. But in my memory, it did not break that first day. It was another afternoon, a quiet expanse of time, broken by this shattering. And then the dead weight of relief that nobody had been in the room.
dream come true
Ammo Wahby and Tante Ragia and the boys moved in with us, my sister says. Mama and Baba stayed in their room, and Ammo Wahby and Tante Ragia moved into ours. We, the kids, slept outside all together, camped out on the living room floor. We slept away from the windows: there was a double layer of mattresses propped up over the glass to block the path of stray bullets.
Mattresses laid out on the living room floor. The windows in the far corner of the room blocked with more mattresses. Our little family of four was now a family of nine.
Oh my god, the boy I was in love with came to live with us, my sister says. It was like a dream come true. Some of the mattresses were stripped off the beds, so we turned them into trampolines. We would jump on the bedsprings and land on the floor. And their little brother Haisam was running around, chasing our cat, pulling her tail. I just remember feeling that we were having such a good time.
You thought it was a game, my mother says. Hanging out all together.
Television was strange now. The people were different, their accents and clothes. But there was a channel of all-morning cartoons. We would sprawl, all tangled together, on the sofa. Our favorite cartoon was Belle and Sebastian, about a small boy and a big white dog. They were always running through great expanses, bounding through snowy mountains and green meadows, Belle’s bushy white tail flying behind her as they ran.
Was there an alarm, sirens before an air raid? my mother says. Or did we hear the sound of planes?
We would run across to a basement in another building across the road and hide out, my sister says. It happened two or three times, when there was heavy bombardment. Running across the street and looking up at the exploding sky. And Mama yelling: Don’t look, just run.
It was so hot and stuffy in that basement, my sister says. It was August. We didn’t have a lot of water with us. I guess we had to run before we could grab any. We were all huddled down there in this basement, a lot of people, and I remember this dog panting, panting, he was so thirsty.
A little dog, his long tongue lolling out of his mouth. We had to leave our cat, Touta, at home. We had to leave her at home….
You were very scared, my mother says. Weren’t you? You were very scared.
cut off from the world
At some point things became a bit more routine, my sister says. It was no longer totally forbidden to leave the flat. We could go downstairs, just in the yard of our building, and play football.
One day, I wasn’t there, and the rest of the kids were playing football downstairs, when an Iraqi soldier came and asked them for water. They went upstairs and brought some down. He was asking for help. When I found out, I couldn’t believe I had missed it.
I really wanted to be part of it all, to go out into the streets, to see what was happening. But Mama said: No way.
Tante Ragia would go to the hospital regularly, my mother says. She was an anesthesiologist, and there were a lot of people wounded. Your father only went every four days, for an overnight shift. Ammo Wahby, who was a gynecologist like him, also went every four days or so. There were no surgeries or anything else happening, only the most urgent things.
I was going to the hospital as normal, my father says. Doing surgeries and everything else. There were very few doctors left.
I didn’t go to work at all, my mother says. They had taken over the television station, including the news where I worked. At the very beginning, there were two Kuwaiti reporters, a man and a woman, broadcasting news from a secret location, from a mobile broadcast van. And then they disappeared.
In all of those weeks, my mother says, I only left the apartment once or twice. I lost a lot of weight. I wasn’t sleeping at all.
I have an image of empty supermarket shelves, my sister says. But I don’t know if I was told about that, or if I really saw it.
Did you come with us once to pick up food? my father says. Or was it your sister?
They had taken over the banks, my mother says. But there were a few places where people like us, foreigners who were working in Kuwait, could go to pick up some basic food for free. We had a card, like a rations card. There was a limited amount for each family. There were queues for bread.
We were on the way back once, my father says, and there was a checkpoint on the road. One of the soldiers saw your sister and asked, “Are you Egyptian? Do you like Egypt better, or Kuwait?” He went through the trunk of the car. I think he was Egyptian too. There were some Egyptians living in Iraq who were brought in by the Iraqi forces. He looked like a poor kid, standing there, and I gave him a carton of juice. Here, I said, have this.
Iraq and Kuwait were now declared to be one country, my father says. They declared Kuwait to be one of the governorates of Iraq, the eighteenth governorate or something.
We even received instructions at the hospital, he says, that some of the doctors would be transferred to Iraq. One of them was a Sudanese colleague of mine. He received these orders, and was told that he had to obey. He escaped through the border that same day.
All telecommunications were cut off, my mother says. Kuwait was cut off from the rest of the world. Our families in Egypt had no idea if we were dead or alive.
of people leaving
I remember hearing news of people leaving, my sister says. First through Saudi Arabia, then the borders closed. Only the Iraqi border was left.
Some people fled through Saudi Arabia, my mother says. Kuwaitis knew the desert roads, and they had four-wheel drives. Then Saudi Arabia closed its border.
Most of the Kuwaitis took their four-wheel drives, my father says, and fled through the Saudi Arabian border. Those that could escape quickly, did. The others, the Egyptians and other foreigners who tried to escape, would pay a Bedouin guide to show them how to get through the desert, via Saudi Arabia.
During this initial period, my father says, about half or three-quarters of the Kuwaiti population fled through Saudi Arabia, and were scattered throughout Europe, Egypt, everywhere. Those who stayed were called the Samideen, “The Steadfast.”
People rushed to escape, my mother says. But we didn’t want to move until it was less dangerous. There were rumors that they took the cars and left people in the desert, or took the men and left their families behind. That people were stranded for weeks in the desert heat with nothing to eat. That the Iraqis mistreated people. We were terrified of moving, my mother says, until we heard stories of people arriving.
A lot of people were fleeing, my father says. Egyptians, foreigners. Iraq opened its border to anyone who wanted to leave…but there were so many people. People would arrive at the Port of Aqaba in Jordan and have to wait for ten days. There weren’t enough ferries to transport all those people. Around 300,000 to 400,000 people. So we decided not to go until we got information from the border.
We also stayed to stock up on food, my mother says, so we would have enough for the journey and not go hungry. Each family was allocated a limited amount of food, of bread. We had to stay and save some.
I went with your father to buy two ice chests to take with us, my mother says. Otherwise the food would spoil right away in the extreme heat. I think that was only the second time I left the apartment in those six weeks. I was so afraid. No, for you. I was so afraid to go out somewhere and leave you.
We went to an indoor market. Everything was shuttered. They were pretending to be closed, because of looters, but we signaled to them and they let us in.
I remember the day we were packing to leave, my sister says. We packed up the whole apartment into bags and garbage bags. We didn’t have a lot of time. When we were packing the car, we realized it wouldn’t all fit—we had to just randomly leave a few of the bags behind.
I remember fighting so hard with Mama over something I wanted to bring with me, my sister says—but I don’t remember now what it was.
We left six weeks later, my father says. We stayed for exactly forty days after the invasion began. It was the tenth of September.
We set off in a convoy of cars, my mother says. Other Egyptian families, like us. But we lost everyone else, apart from Ammo Wahby and Tante Ragia, as soon as we crossed the border into Iraq.
Your father insisted on taking both cars, my mother says. I didn’t give a damn about the cars, about anything. I just wanted you to be safe.
The brother-in-law of my colleague Dr. Gazzar was driving the second car, my father says, the one with you and your sister and your mother. I had another doctor in the car with me. He’d arrived in Kuwait just a month before it all began.
The man driving had an eye infection, my sister says, and it kept getting worse.
That man driving our car was a maniac, my mother says. We came so close to disaster, several times.
One night we slept in a kind of motel, my sister says. It was a horrible place, full of bedbugs. We couldn’t sleep all night long.
A cold, brown floor, like a prison. Neon lights, alien and awful. Little pink sausages from a tin.
I think it was the night after, my sister says, that they decided we would sleep in the desert. They thought it would be safer than spending the night in a place like that again. They decided that we would camp outside an Iraqi police station. I thought that was weird: we were at war with Iraq! But I also thought: Wow, we’re camping, finally! Something our parents were too boring to do otherwise.
The first night, after entering Iraq, we slept outside a police station, my mother says. The next night we stayed at something that was called a hotel, but it was awful, infested with bugs. The men had to take shifts to guard our luggage outside all night long.
There were a lot of stray dogs, my sister says. Mama was so scared. I couldn’t understand why she was so scared.
We were driving through the night, my sister says, and a rock broke through one of the car windows. The window stayed broken for a long time.
The car racing through the night. A feeling of being pursued. The car was being pelted with rocks. I was in the backseat, crying, terrified. My mother was in the front, my sister bundled in her lap, reaching an arm behind to try to hold me, me lunging forward to try to reach her.
We arrived in Jordan in the morning, my mother says. They made us wait all day at a big camp on the border, until nighttime, and only then were we allowed to pass. We had to drive through the mountains all night long. I couldn’t believe they would make us drive at night along these narrow mountain roads. There were no barriers. I would look down and see big trucks and cars that had tumbled down, far below.
At one point, the man driving our car got out to look at something, and he forgot to pull the brake. We were in the car, me with both of you. The car started rolling down the slope. I was screaming. I was sitting in the back, one of you in my lap, trying to reach forward, but I couldn’t reach the brake.
He heard my screaming, and ran back just in time.
We drove through Iraq to Jordan, my father says, and then to the Port of Aqaba. Then we took the ferry to Egypt.
We waited at the Port of Aqaba until the ferries came, my mother says. We had to wait some more in Sinai. Then we drove to Cairo. A journey of over two thousand kilometers.
It’s a miracle that we made it, she says.
We had to leave Touta behind, my mother says. We took her with us in the car at first. But it was hot, unbearable. She was howling.
Her tongue was dangling outside her mouth, panting, wailing, inconsolable. I held out water for her in my cupped palms, but she did not drink.
We decided to double back, my mother says, and leave her with a friend of ours. We were afraid she might die along the way. We weren’t even sure if we would make it.
My father reached through the car window to take her away. We agreed, he said.
But I never agreed to this.
We arrived in Egypt.
It was almost a decade since my parents had last lived there. They arrived, once more, in a place where they had to start all over again. They had saved up over their years of working in Kuwait and had managed to buy a flat in Cairo, but we had never lived in it. My mother was plunged into arrangements for this new life, in a neighborhood that was unknown, in a city that was familiar and not. She had never lived in Cairo as a full adult, as a mother, as someone in charge of two children and a household. She had to figure out how to manage this sudden loss and derailment, this unexpected new life: where to go, how to get there, what we needed, where to buy things, how to quickly turn a flat into a home. They struggled to find a school for us; the school year in Egypt had already begun.
My sister and I hated our new school in Cairo, this place that we were suddenly thrust into. We missed our old school, our own school. The teachers would make glaring mistakes on the board. My sister tells me we had to take a bus to school, and we drove past a canal to get there. The drivers were reckless, and there were a lot of accidents, buses falling into this canal. That was part of the drama and horror, she says, of going to school every day.
My own memories are of freezing cold mornings, of being unable to wrench myself from a cold bed to go out into a day that was colder still. I remember the school canteen where we had to eat lunch; I remember having to choose something from this stale food sitting under glass, and not wanting, not wanting any of it. Of sitting at a table, alone, on my first day of school, and crying into a plate of limp salad.
My sister says she tried to enjoy it. There was a lemon tree in the school yard, and she would climb through a classroom window to get to the fruit. Though the school was quite run-down, they kept three horses, and that was the one thing she loved the most.
The Americans were threatening, my father says, giving Iraq an ultimatum. Something called the Allied Coalition had been formed: some Arab countries—including Egypt and Saudi Arabia—Pakistan, Britain, France, America, and others. All of them sent troops to Saudi Arabia.
On the twenty-fifth of February, they all entered Kuwait from the Saudi Arabian border, and Egypt attacked from the direction of the Ali al Salem Airbase. As soon as they entered, the Iraqi troops began to flee along the Salmi Road, the one that leads to the Iraqi border. It became known as the road of death. The American troops bombed any vehicles driving along it.
Whenever the Iraqis found a vehicle, they would take it at gunpoint. They stopped our friend, Ammo Adel, right next to our building. They had been so polite and respectful to him before. Now they said: Dr. Adel, you’re our friend, but give us the keys to the car downstairs or we’ll take it by force. They pointed their guns in his face.
It was said the route they used to escape to Iraq was littered with thousands of destroyed cars and dead bodies. There was nonstop bombardment.
The liberation of Kuwait was declared on the twenty-sixth of February.
The country was devastated, my mother says. Slowly, it began to rebuild. But people were very different after the war. It was a quiet and peaceful place, a tolerant place, before; everyone just minded their own business. But the people of Kuwait were changed by the war. They felt they had been betrayed; they didn’t trust anyone. It never went back to the way it was.
The American forces went into Iraq, my father says, and there was a war on the remaining Iraqi forces there. And then the American troops withdrew, and after some time the war erupted again. The first Gulf War, and then the second. America occupied Iraq and stayed there until…until today. They still have troops there today.
America totally destroyed that country, my father says. Iraq used to have a very powerful army, one of the biggest in the world. Excellent infrastructure, a strong economy—a lot of income from oil. And after the liberation, you would see American troops everywhere in Kuwait. When I came back, there were army tanks on Salmiya Street. Do you remember Salmiya Street? With all the shops, and the bookstore that you liked? You would find American soldiers in tanks in the middle of the street. The Kuwaitis would go up and greet them.
And the oil wells in Kuwait were on fire. There are different stories of who set fire to those wells. No one knows the truth. But the fires kept burning for a long time. They couldn’t put them out. Even after we went back to Kuwait, Wiam, the fires were still burning.
WIAM EL-TAMAMI is an Egyptian writer, translator, editor, and wanderer. She has spent many years in different cultures and communities across the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America. She writes nonfiction, fiction, and microstories that blur the boundaries of both. Her writing and translation work has been published in Granta, Freeman’s, Social Movement Studies, Jadaliyya, Alif, Banipal, and Ploughshares Solos (forthcoming), as well as several anthologies. She won the 2011 Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, was shortlisted for the 2023 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, and was a finalist for the 2023 DISQUIET Prize. She has just finished her first book of narrative nonfiction. She is currently based in Berlin, while exploring life in alternative rural communities around Europe.
Featured image by David Clode, courtesy of Unsplash.