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A couple of days before Christmas 1993, I was sitting in my parent's living room watching a football game when I got a call from my uncle in Baghdad. After a very quick hello, he jumped right into asking if my father was home. I told him no, so he quickly gave me a flight number for a plane that was coming into Dallas the next day. After twice telling me that it was very important to be at the airport tomorrow, he told me to give his love to my mom and hung up. The next day we went to the airport and met my cousin and his wife, who had just spent the last several weeks sneaking out of a war-decimated Iraq. When Saddam Hussein ruled Baghdad, his government kept very close tabs on the people. In order to make an overseas phone call, one had to go to what used to be a post office and wait in line. Why? Because the government had agents who listened to all outgoing phone calls. Whenever my family would call, all hell could be going on around them, but they said nothing: "Oh, everything is just fine! Nothing to report here. How are you?" So intimidated by this reality, my father would never say a thing about Iraq or family during phone calls that took place entirely in the United States.
When I created my blog I attached a site meter, which basically tells me how many people visit the site. One of the features of the site meter is that it will tell you from which city, state, and country a visit originated. It does not tell you the IP address of the computer, just the location and company of the server the visit was routed from.
For example, whenever my mom checks out the site, it registers: Verizon.com: Dallas, Texas.
Since we moved, whenever my wife or I log in, the site meter registers: Cox.net: Fayetteville, Arkansas.
This past fall, at the start of the Muslim fast of Ramadan, I sent a very small e-mail to my father's side of the family all over the world. In three sentences I told them that the move had gone well, gave them our new address, and signed the message with "Happy Ramadan."
The next day I noticed a change in the site meter. Whenever I logged into the blog, it no longer came up as being routed through Fayetteville, Arkansas. Instead, our Internet traffic was being routed through: Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.
So I ran a little experiment. I took my laptop up to the chapel office where I work and logged in using the router there. It registered Fayetteville, Arkansas. I went back home and logged in using our neighbor's router. Again, it registered Fayetteville, Arkansas. But sure enough, when I logged back in using our router, it let us know that we were being routed through Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. I tried the same experiment with my wife's laptop. Same result.
I called our provider. The first guy I talked to laughed uncomfortably and said, "I don't know why it is routing through an Air Force base, but I have a pretty good idea." He sent me up the chain of command, but they could not tell me why everyone in my apartment complex was being routed through their local server, but I was being routed through an Air Force base.
A week later my wife and I got tickets to the Kentucky-Arkansas football game. The singing of the National Anthem was punctuated with a flyover by an Air Force B-2 Stealth Bomber. As the black sliver approached from the north, the crowd began to whip itself into a frenzy. But over the cheers I heard the public address announcer state that this very bomber was part of the initial invasion of Baghdad during Operation "Iraqi Freedom."
The flyover was impressive. I have never seen a stealth bomber in person. Those suckers are big, loud, and very intimidating. And as the plane passed right above us, with its roaring engines completely drowning out the roaring crowd, I couldn't help but think of the irony:
This very Air Force plane dropped bombs over Baghdad to "liberate" the Iraqis from an oppressive government that monitored their own citizens' communications. And now that very same Air Force seems to be monitoring mine.
Rev. Omar Hamid Al-Rikabi is a campus minister at the University of Arkansas Wesley Foundation. He is the son of a Muslim father from Iraq and a Christian mother from Texas. He shares his stories on his blog at www.firstbornstories.com