It was a typical winter morning in Amman, Jordan, where I was living in an urban-poor area that just a few years prior had been comprised almost entirely of Palestinian refugees but had been flooded in recent years with Syrians who had managed to escape the horrors of the raging Syrian war. The temperature inside the cinder block housing in which I lived was not much warmer than it was outside, which was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. As I woke up and pulled the blankets away from my head I stared upwards to the ceiling and watched my exhaled breath dance through the cold crisp air in the same rhythmic manner it did every winter morning in the Middle East. And, as had also become ritual by that point in time, each dawn as my body began to come alive, my maiden thoughts would be about death. As morbid as that may sound, it had become the reality in which I was living. I would spend my earliest moments wondering about the fate of my friends and former colleagues who had remained in Syria. I was fairly certain that some of them had most likely taken active roles in the conflict, but other than that, I could do nothing more than imagine their fates.
This particular morning, however, my thoughts went further. As I lay there in relative safety from the brutal war that was raging a few hundred miles to my north in Syria, I thought to myself, "If I had been raised here, there is no way in hell I wouldn't have joined the resistance in one way or another." And at that moment I realized how deeply the previous decade of living and working across the Middle East had influenced me. I had arrived at a new, and altogether different, place of understanding about life in this tumultuous region.
I no longer wondered why masses of Arabs from each and every sort of different background would be willing to go out to the streets to protest against brutal dictatorial regimes with the full awareness that doing so would mean imprisonment and torture, or even death. I understood.
I no longer wondered why elderly men and women in their 80's and 90's would be willing to hand over their life-savings to an opportunistic smuggler to purchase a "seat" on a dilapidated boat they are entirely aware has little-to-no chance of surviving the sea voyage to attempt and make it across the Mediterranean to Europe. I understood.
I no longer wondered how young Arab guys with their entire lives ahead of them could be so easily manipulated and turned into jihadists and suicide bombers. I understood.
I no longer speculated whether or not I would have become a fighter; at that moment in time I was entirely self-aware as to who and what that environment would have transformed me into. I fully grasped both viscerally and cognitively the extent to which the relentless poverty, brutally dictatorial regimes, widespread government corruption and extreme social injustice and inequality found throughout much of the Arab world produces all kinds of fighters, extremists and activists, some good and some bad, but none of whom I can unequivocally say I would never have become.
On that cold wintry morning I grasped how for the masses in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Gaza Strip, and elsewhere there was very little, if anything at all, life-giving to be found within their lives. In other words, there is absolutely nothing at all holding them back from willingly laying down their lives for the sake of a cause, any cause within which they see a glimmer of hope hiding. Or for many, the mere illusion of a glimmer of hope will suffice.
That is why being arrested, taken to prison and tortured, and even killed, was no deterrent at all to the masses we saw pouring out into the streets of Cairo calling for Hosni Mubarak to step down from power after having ruled Egypt with an iron fist for nearly 40 years. For them, a life without the possibility of living in a free, fair, and democratic society was not a life worth living at all, and they believed in that possibility enough to teem out into Tahrir Square demanding an end to decades of dictatorial rule and a start to democratic reform, and to free and fair elections. Many Egyptians, rich and poor, old and young, Muslim, Christian and Secularist alike, paid the ultimate price for doing so. And in the near future, we undoubtedly will see many more passionate, undeterred Egyptians doing so again.
That is why elderly Syrian men and women with rapidly declining health are willing to attempt and make the incredibly difficult, dangerous and treacherous journey out of the abyss and into Europe with knowledge that many people die along the way. For them, life under the despotic rule of Bashar al-Assad with the constant fear and threat of being bombed by Russian planes or killed by Iranian militias is not a life worth living at all, and so the hope of realizing peace, if for nothing more than the final few years -- or simply months, weeks, or even mere days -- of one's life, surpasses all else.
That is why strapping a bomb to one's self at age 16 and going into a market to commit suicide while killing innocent civilians is believed to be a worthy and desirable alternative for teenage guys in the Gaza Strip. For them, a life without any hope for a future outside of the filth and squalor of the Palestinian refugee camps is not a life worth living at all, and so the tantalizing effects the Hamas recruiters' manipulative tongues have on them are not easily resisted.
That is why on that cold winter morning in an urban slum in the Middle East, the dark, evil combination of unrelenting poverty, horrific war, severe intolerance and extreme despotism had become a reality I was understanding viscerally enough to see myself in any one of their shoes.