In her book Long Time Passing, Susan Galleymore asks a question: “Are mothers supposed to simply sit and wait while their children are imperiled?”
The answer seems simple, except that, when the subject is war, it never is. It is certainly an ancient question, one undoubtedly asked by Greek mothers as their sons and husbands sailed off to storm the towers of Ilium.
For Galleymore, the question began when her son told her he was being deployed to Iraq. “I was numb with a cascade of terrifying images: my son hesitates before he shoots—how could he not hesitate—and is himself shot; my son’s body riddled with bullets; my son shooting into a crowd of civilians; my son begging for handouts like the Vietnam veterans on San Francisco’s streets.”
Those are images that would paralyze most people, but not Galleymore. Instead of sitting at home, flinching each time Iraq came on her television, she set out on an odyssey to answer the question, not just for herself but for mothers in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and the grim corridors of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
What she found was “ordinary women with families and everyday duties and jobs” bound up by “their suffering—both deeply personal and extraordinarily universal.”
Galleymore, who emigrated to the U.S. from South Africa when she was in her early 20s, began her quest by signing on to a Code Pink trip to Iraq in order to visit her son. That is not like catching a plane back East. Her “visit” takes her through Iraq’s fearsomely dangerous roads, into hospitals, police stations, Internet cafes and Baghdad’s “green zone,” the American enclave nicknamed the “Emerald City.”
Along the way, she gathers impressions, images and interviews. She is a careful reporter with a writer’s eye for detail, and she pays attention to what people say and how they look.
Some of her encounters with GIs and Iraqis have an almost surreal quality. Take the encounter with a soldier at Camp Anaconda, a giant U.S. base deep in the heart of the restive Sunni Triangle. What kind of food do the solders get at base? she asks a G.I.
“We get all kinds, Domino’s Pizza, Round Table, McDonald’s, we got it all,” he answers.
“Do you eat Iraqi food?”
“Nah, we don’t see any of that here.”
“Do you ever get off the base?”
“Nah. We can’t do that. We’d be killed if we stepped off the base without armor and weapons and lots of buddies to back us up.”
In many ways this is a book about conversations. Galleymore talks with Iraqis, U.S. soldiers and, eventually, her son, and then sets out on a Middle East walkabout. She talks to mothers in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, refugees in Syria, and—through author and photographer Robert Darr—Afghans. She also speaks to Afghanis in the United States, as well as soldiers’ mothers.
As a reporter, Galleymore is refreshingly low key, careful not to make herself the story—one who keeps the focus on her subjects. The drama of the book comes from how she unwinds the stories people tell. One example is a tense encounter between Israeli soldiers and Sihan Rashid. Rashid is an American–born Palestinian who now lives in East Jerusalem and works as a counselor at a Palestinian center.
On a freezing winter day in the West Bank, she and scores of Palestinians are stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, one of the hundreds that make life a misery for the inhabitants of the Occupied Territories. For two-and-a-half hours they sit, until Rashid, admitting she is scared, leaves her car and confronts an Israeli soldier.
He shouts at her that there was a suicide bombing the previous day and that is why the cars are being held up. She argues with him: “Yes, but I didn’t do it. You cannot blame me or these hundreds waiting here.” He repeats his statement about the suicide bombing, but she refuses to back down. He finally pleads “orders,” and calls his captain. The officer too pleads “orders,” but she stands her ground, and 15 minutes later the roadblock is lifted.
It takes a certain grade of steel to live under an occupation.
Long Time Passing could be a depressing book. Mothers and the death or maiming of their sons and daughters does not make for easy reading. But this is less a story about death than about life. Even in the midst of tragedy—and is there any worse tragedy than the loss of a child?—the basic humanity of people comes through, the “universality” that the author talks about.
The book is more than a series of conversations, however. There is history and politics, and Galleymore even makes a stab at trying to understand the tension between individualist American culture and the complex communities of family and residence that typify much of the Middle East.
For instance, she found that mothers in the Middle East are puzzled as to why American mothers let their children become soldiers, and they find the answer that an 18-year-old in the U.S. can do what he or she pleases. Incomprehensible. What each group considers common sense is, in fact, “loaded with cultural assumptions.”
Galleymore lives in the Bay Area and sees her book as an organizing tool. She is a counselor for the G.I. Rights Hotline and hosts a radio program, “Raising Sand Radio.” She says she does house book parties “to actually engage people in storytelling as a way toward more effective activism.” She asks people to host a house party, at which she shows up to tell her story, answer questions and sell books. She sees these book parties as a springboard to creating networks of progressive activists.
Galleymore can be contacted at email@example.com, and her book may be purchased at mothersspeakaboutwarandterror.org or motherspeak.org.
Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak About War and Terror
By Susan Galleymore. Pluto Press. $21.95