*REVIEWED BY SONA ZEITLIAN*
As the title suggests, Nubar Aroyan’s work is an insider’s record of the various aspects of Egyptian Army life. As a rule, college-educated professionals were exempt from compulsory military service, yet in 1968, thousands were forcibly drafted with the assurance that they would serve for only a year. Nubar Aroyan, who had just graduated from the Faculty of Architecture, Cairo University, tried hard to obtain an exemption, but eventually gave up as the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser needed recruits for his war of attrition following the 1967 Israeli surprise attack and occupation of Sinai.
The time coincided with the exodus of Egypt’s Armenian community due to Nasser’s policy of nationalizing private businesses, as well as his pursuit of Arab nationalism, a pan-Arab ideology, featuring Egypt as “the mother of all Arabs.”
Troubled about his traditional Cairo neighborhood’s disappearance and deeply concerned about the prospects of his parents and sister, Aroyan had to endure the uncertainty of separation. The situation was compounded by his discovery that “soldiers were constantly reminded that they were the property of the government and they needed to leave their self-esteem at the gate when arriving at the training base.” In time, he also realized that “countless draftees… ran their private businesses outside the military by bribing key persons to cover up their absences.”
Beside rampant corruption, the army had structural defects. From the point of manpower, poor peasants regarded service as a means of free lodging and free meals. High school graduates considered it to be a “trade school,” a means to make a living for the opportunistic and shrewd among them. But the college graduates felt constrained inside a “veritable prison.” Moreover, there was marked suspicion toward strangers or with those having foreign sounding names of being potential Israeli spies. This ill-sorted assembly was doomed to failure, as it happened in 1967. Aroyan repeatedly expresses his disappointment at the “appalling selfishness in times of danger and at the privileges enjoyed by “untouchables.”
Whereas in previous wars defects plaguing the army and mistakes made by higher-ups were never acknowledged, Aroyan claims that during his service in Nasser’s 800,000 strong army, “a lot of emphasis was placed on mistakes… and the smart tactics used by the Israelis. … With educated recruits entering the military, self-criticism and praise for Israelis ran high.” As a matter of fact, a top-secret chronicle of the latest war depicting the Israelis “as supreme military strategists” was written by the wartime Egyptian chief of staff and made available “at the security office to whoever wanted to borrow it.”
During the 1969 war of attrition, a low key simmering war,” Aroyan was sent to the front lines in the Suez Canal zone as a professional, to engage in the construction of a missile base, to counter Israeli surface-to-surface missiles. This part of the military diary is rich in meticulous observations about work under duress.
It was in the same year that Aroyan contracted typhoid and was transferred to a military hospital. The poor sanitary conditions, the lack of accountability of the medical staff, the prevailing corruption where bribes were the key to primary care and sorely needed sick-leaves, deepened his disappointment and as a consequence, he resolved never to trust “anyone in the army for my health and safety.”
In 1972, as Nubar Aroyan’s compulsory military service was to be extended for a 5th consecutive year, he felt that the best years of his youth were being wasted and began to harbor thoughts of desertion, knowing full well the dire consequences. Gradually a daring flight plan took shape to make use of a trusted friend’s identity card and army exemption certificate to facilitate his exit from the army and the country. Finally, the anxiously awaited response arrived. The friend, who had emigrated to Australia was willing to cooperate and the bold plan was put into operation.
Aroyan’s memoirs then turn into a gripping suspense narrative, as he flies to Damascus, then leaves Syria as a fugitive to seek refuge in Aindjar, Lebanon. All the while, he is consumed by the fear that his fate is placed in the hands of others. He wants to be incognito, to become invisible, for as he bitterly reflects, “The army experience had erased in me any notion of human kindness; my heart was calloused by a steady stream of disappointments, dealing with hordes of wild creatures in the form of humans.”
During his darkest days in the army as well as his ordeal of facing the unknown in the most perilous circumstances, Nubar Aroyan holds fast to his habit of reading from his book of Psalms. His sense of responsibility toward his family strengthens his resolve to survive. Finally, his strong faith sustains him, inspires him with patience and fortitude. In spite of the “long trail of disappointments,” he keeps on striving for “a closer, warmer relationship with God.” That ultimate trust guides his way to the Brotherhood Church, to helpful brothers and sisters and finally to the World Council of Churches in the midst of the ravages of the Lebanese civil war. In January 1973, he becomes an official refugee registered with the World Council of Churches that enables him to emigrate.
Thus, after facing multiple hazards with true grit, Nubar Aroyan joins his brother Armen in Pasadena, California. There he starts a new life of spiritual and family bliss as well as professional stability.
As a former teacher of Nubar from his days at Kalousdian Parochial School in Cairo, Egypt, it has given me great pleasure to read his “Diary of a Soldier in the Egyptian Military,” a unique experience worth recording, and I am very proud of his achievements.