The Brink of War
Government Established At the Point of a Gun

Marcia McGreevy Lewis


© Copyright 2023 byMarcia McGreevy Lewis

Photo courtesy of Dan Galvani Sommavilla at Pexels.
Photo courtesy of Dan Galvani Sommavilla at Pexels.

March 18, 2022
The Associated Press
BAGHDAD –“Iran claimed responsibility Sunday for a missile barrage that struck near a sprawling U.S. consulate complex in northern Iraq, saying it was retaliation for an Israeli strike in Syria that killed two members of its Revolutionary Guard earlier this week.

The U.S. presence in Iraq has long been a flashpoint for Tehran, but tensions spiked after a January 2020 U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed a top Iranian general. In retaliation, Iran launched a barrage of missiles at al-Asad airbase, where U.S. troops were stationed. More than 100 service members suffered traumatic brain injuries in the blasts.”

Let’s talk about that January 2020 U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad airport that killed a top Iranian general. Many of us may not remember where we were when it happened. I remember clearly because my partner and I were in the United Arab Republic (UAE). We thought political tensions might make our goal of understanding the area challenging, but we hadn’t anticipated that we would have a direct confrontation with the human consequences of war.

Fetching white scarf-swathed Emirates air hostesses greeted us in their professional tan uniforms on our direct flight from Seattle to exotic locations on the Arabian Sea on January 2, 2020. November through April is the tourist season, so we timed it perfectly, we thought. Little did we expect a challenge to that assumption.

Think of an hourglass tipped to the left. That’s the Arabian Sea. The top half of the sea is the Persian Gulf with Iraq in the North. Iran is the landmass on the right side of the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia is most of the landmass on the left. Some countries share the Persian Gulf with Saudi Arabia. The first to share as we move south is the island of Bahrain, then the peninsula of Qatar and finally the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At this point the hourglass tightens to a narrow neck at the Strait of Hormuz. Once we have moved south through the Strait, the Arabian Sea becomes the Gulf of Oman. The country of Oman is on the left of the Gulf, and Iran is still on the right border. That gives an idea of its size. The Gulf of Oman opens to the Arabian as it streams south.

Dubai, where we deplaned, is one of seven emirates, independent city-states that make up the UAE. We felt the scale of the country as soon as we strolled down the palm tree-lined walkway in the vast Dubai airport. The Marriott Hotel seconded that impression its massive breakfast room where diners can order any variety of eggs. Best is the mouth-watering egg bhurji with its Indian curry, onions, tomatoes and green chili.

The goal for our first day was to go to the top of the Burj Kalifa, the world’s tallest building. So smooth was the ascent that we barely knew we’d arrived. We enjoyed high tea (appropriately) and surveyed the Gulf below where the buildings looked like dusty brown Lego creations.

When we boarded our ship, the Bellissima, we noted that the interior corridor looked like the Mall of America. Clothing and cosmetics shops vied for attention with a chocolate shop that featured a moving stellar constellation -- all in chocolate.

We wrapped ourselves in the warmth of the mid-70s arid, subtropical climate so blissfully that we were unaware that on January 3, the U.S. assassinated Iran's top commander, General Quassem Soleimani. He orchestrated hits that killed over 600 U.S. troops. The Pentagon claimed that he was the mastermind of Iran’s Quds Force that “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

When we caught up with that information, the U.S. troops were being deployed to the Strait of Hormuz, directly in our pathway. That gave us pause, especially since we had friends who were mid-trip in the UAE, and they emailed us that the leader of that group canceled their trip. Our friends scrambled to get tickets home. Should we?

CNN stated that Iran vowed revenge. We knew to take that determination seriously, but calculated that it would take time for Iran to retaliate because the country was now bereft of Soleimani to orchestrate attacks. Iran needed time to regroup. Could we see all we had come to see before they did retaliate? Perhaps unwisely, we concluded that because our ship was an Italian liner, it would provide good cover for the very few Americans aboard. We decided to stay the course, at least for now.

We spent several days in Dubai as the captain assessed whether to pull up anchor. We were grateful he was proceeding cautiously. We were feeling happy to leave that decision in his hands and explored the attractions onshore. We hoped we’d feel that way tomorrow.

Dubai’s skyscrapers feature shopping malls that include ice rinks, aquariums and ski slopes. Shopping fills people’s time because of the air-conditioned buildings, not because the prices are affordable; they’re not. Reflective blue windows shimmered from colossal buildings shaped like cones, picture frames and boat sails. The Burj al Arab Hotel’s foundation took three years to prepare by importing rocks and compressing sand. Soon a 56-story building dominated land that was previously a sand spit.

We didn’t see any signs of danger in Dubai, so we stayed aboard as the ship sailed to Abu Dhabi. A viscous smog from desert winds mixed with sand prevented a clear look at the sky as we arrived. That didn’t stop us, though, from hopping onto the bus when we docked to view even more unusually shaped, tall buildings formed into zig-zags and spirals.

Our friends who were returning to the U.S. emailed us as they boarded the plane for Seattle. They had tucked away in the mountains of Oman while they hassled for three days to buy tickets for home. Their tale gave us pause, but we decided again to trust the ship’s captain who had previously delayed moving further into the Gulf when he sensed trouble. He was ready to sail, so though we were a little shaky, we stayed aboard toward Bahrain.

CNN announced that Iran threatened to attack Haifa, Israel and Dubai if the U.S. bombs Iranian soil. That news greeted us as we left Bahrain to sail south towards Qatar. Dubai was a stone’s throw away. What now? Were we in a bubble where we thought we were safe from harm because we were on an Italian cruise liner? As we considered abandoning ship, we revisited how frustrated our friends were with re-ticketing. It would take us at least three days, and we already had confirmed tickets. We deliberated once again and decided to trust the captain who must have had more information than we had. Right?

When we awoke on January 9, we found that Iran had fired missile strikes on the U.S. base in Iraq the night before. That shook us to the core. The attack had been a few hours away when the U.S. received news of Iran’s intention to level Al Asad Airbase. The U.S. knew that the Iranians were using satellite pictures of the base, so the U.S. devised a strategy to wait until it was too dark for the Iranians to take more pictures and then rapidly evacuated U.S. planes and troops. The strategy worked. When the attack came, the U.S. lost no planes, troops scrambled to bunkers, and we lost the base, but not a man. Marine General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said, “We had a plan to retaliate if Americans had died.”

This was the brink of war. We started to think seriously about leaving. The next day confirmed that conclusion when we heard on CNN that Iran shot down a Ukrainian plane. Iran had been on alert to retaliate with the U.S. and mistakenly shot down the airliner, presuming that it was a U.S. bomber. The strike killed all 176 people aboard.

Now it was insane to deny that our lives were at stake. Fear snaked into every pore of my body like a deadly black mambo. We jetted into action, making an instantaneous decision to risk getting off the ship, find our way to an airport and obtain tickets—all in an unknown country. If we had to wait at the airport for days until the tickets came through, we would grit our teeth and wait. The fear that created a knot in my stomach was the possibility that we might not get out. We hugged, we cried, and we uttered insipid encouragements to each other as we packed. My head burst with pain at the thought of not being able to leave until morning, but we couldn’t. Neither of us slept.

As day broke, we rose and turned on the news. What we heard was that Iran admitted it had unintentionally shot down the Ukrainian plane, citing human error. Iran was standing down. We sank onto the bed as we attempted to reprocess our decision. How could uncertainty creep in when we had been so resolute? We kept revisiting how much we didn’t know is that we stood on a rapidly moving tectonic plate. I felt like a dog, circling around and around until it finds a place to lie down. I couldn’t lie down. My stomach was shooting arrows at me as I fought the urge to run.

I kept asking my partner if we could believe the news. He kept saying that he hoped so, but I needed reinforcement. I asked him to go with me to the dining hall in hopes of finding an English-speaking person who might bring some clarity to the situation.

We made a nose dive for the senior staff person we saw sitting at a table and begged him for honesty. He sipped his coffee casually and opined in Italian/English that we were perfectly safe. He said that the captain had spoken with the cruise line owners who had spoken to government officials who had spoken to the U.S. Iranian ambassador. The situation was under control.

We asked for details. He had none. We asked if they had considered canceling the cruise, and he said this was the third time on this one tour that they had, indeed, considered. Not now, though. We were safe.

Walking back to our room, we decided to ask any other English speakers we could find if they had doubts. We found a few, and all said they believed we were out of danger. Opinions! That’s what we were working with! I slammed my purse on the bed and screamed in frustration as we entered our room. Opinions weren’t enough to keep my legs from shaking, my mind from spinning and my body from racing out the door.

We turned on the TV again. CNN stated over and over that the situation had died down. Trump announced sanctions on Iran. Iranians protested in the streets, and Trump supported the protestors. He what? How crazy can a situation get? It did seem, however, that the focus was on Iran itself. With hands still shaking, we began to unpack, mostly because we didn’t want to fly in the air along with missiles aimed in our direction. Danger lurked in the air, on land and sea.

Perhaps inadvisedly, we recommitted to staying. The next step was to explore Bahrain. We did so, timidly. It’s impressive that the island kingdom of Bahrain keeps adding sandbars to form such things as its whole capital city, Manama. We tried to find it interesting, especially as tall and extraordinarily shaped buildings dotted the landscape, but we were on edge. My fingers tapped with impatience, I had trouble focusing and I didn’t find it interesting. My fault, not Bahrain’s.

When we left Bahrain and sailed south, we found ourselves inching closer to our warships on the Strait of Hormuz. In Qatar we disembarked to tour the souk in Doha, the capital. Wafts of cinnamon and cloves enfolded us. That unrattled my brain a bit.

We joined an excursion on an old, narrow, wooden pearl-diving dhow. The boat yearned for retirement, but we had a scrumptious Arabian lunch that featured beef kabobs, hummus, tabbouleh (bulgur salad), khubz (flatbread), fatoosh (salad with fried khubz) and chicken with seasoned jasmine rice. The coffee beans aren’t roasted there, so the coffee tastes like tea. Good food helped soothe my nerves—again, a little.

As we did every day, we raced back to our room to hear the news. Today we almost applauded ourselves for not fleeing when we heard Trump say that Iran was quiet, but could we trust the messenger? He was like an unreliable narrator in a novel.

We decided to stay aboard as the ship set sail for a return to Dubai for several days because we could get a flight from the Dubai airport. That was probably the time to leave. After Bellissima returned to Dubai, it would traverse the Strait of Hormuz to Oman. U.S. troops were in position at the Strait.

By the time we worried the ship back to Dubai, we arrived at the (non)decision to delay our departure because the newscasts mentioned that Iran was peaceful. Perhaps Iran was now pondering its next move. Maybe we could slip the rest of our agenda into the time slot while they pondered. With trepidation, we took that risk because things seemed calmer.

CNN revealed that the plane incident would take two months to investigate. Now we agonized. What would happen in the meantime? Our apprehension mounted as we contemplated the likelihood of ever flying out of there.

The ship ventured out on its course to Doha. We took a desert jeep ride there. I wasn’t in the mindset for an exciting adventure, so it’s not the desert’s fault that I wasn’t awed by the sweeping desert sands nodding to the occasional palm tree. No palm trees. No sweeping. Just sand.

That night we were profoundly relieved to find that CNN didn’t mention Iran. That gave us the confidence to stay aboard as we headed to Oman. However…Sultan Qaboos bin Said Oman of Oman died that day. He was a beloved leader who modernized his sultanate while balancing diplomatic links between Iran and the U.S. We’d lost an ally. What were the ramifications of his death? We decided, yet again, to wait out the situation. Perhaps his death would be a footnote.

The issue then became that the country would be in mourning for three days. What kind of tour would be available? On second thought, the real issue is that we were about to cross the Strait of Hormuz.

We walked a tightrope while crossing the Strait of Hormuz to Oman--peering out to sea too often, pacing the ship and worrying our way through meals. However, no siting of our warships. No siting of other country’s warships. No incidents. We spotted Iran a few short miles away, and after a nail-biting transit, we emerged from the Strait of Hormuz. There we left the Persian Gulf behind and reached the Gulf of Oman. We were then at the base of the Arabian Peninsula. Our shoulders lowered, our moods elevated and we started breathing more easily.

The red and green flags were at half-mast in Muscat. We hoped that the bustling economy that is Oman could find a way to open for tourists, and it did. Oman, originally part of Africa, was never colonized. Though it borders Saudi Arabia and Yemen where instability and terrorism reign, Oman has been a pillar of calm. Littering and a dirty car will earn citizens fines, so we enjoyed a litter-free day there before sailing to Khasab.

We awoke in Khasab to find that the ship had drifted us next to sun-drenched limestone cliffs whose striations swooped down the mountainside to meet the azure Gulf of Oman. Khasab ships its limestone to Dubai. You already know the reason: it finds a second life there as the foundation for Dubai’s multitudinous new islands.

I read that Iran’s revenge might still be in the offing. The said, “Iran’s ‘symbolic’ missile retaliation may have been designed to save face while Tehran plots a more dangerous operation for some time down the road.” I wouldn’t call it symbolic, and when the ship returned to Dubai for our departure after Khasab, we couldn’t disembark quickly enough. Fifteen long flight hours were a small price to pay for landing safely in Seattle.

The pearl divers, date farmers and itinerant Bedouin camel drivers who colonized the UAE lived in mud huts in the seventh century. Inhabitants declared their freedom from the British in 1771 and discovered oil in 1958, sending the mud huts to oblivion. Now the Emirates Palace Hotel rents rooms for $15,000 per night, and Muslims can worship in Abu Dhabi’s extravagant Shiekh Zayed Mosque that has 82 domes. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi features the highest roller coaster loop in the world. Dubai boasts the tallest block of buildings in the world, and the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai is the only 7-star hotel in the world.

Abu Dhabi will soon house the world’s largest concentration of premier cultural institutions which will include the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Progress is unrelenting and impressive, but I hope that the Arabian Sea souks will never lose their tanginess of ginger, chili and saffron.

As I reflected on our trip, I concluded that we balanced the brink of enjoyment with the brink of war. For most of the trip, my whole body wanted to run away. That’s hardly enjoyment, but the culture captivated me. The irony, though, is that an even more insidious killer stalked us as we sailed unwittingly along. COVID-19 shuttered the ship and quarantined the crew shortly after it returned to Dubai. Somehow we dodged yet another bullet, this time an invisible one.

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