I remember when Top Gun: Maverick came out. My friends kept insisting that Maverick is “even better” than the one they loved so much, the one that came out when I was 18. Have you seen it? What did you think of it? What about the first one – what did you love best about it? I discovered that if I remained quiet, and simply mirrored back their facial expressions to them, they would tell me, excitedly, all their answers to their own questions. I never had to say anything at all. I just listened and smiled. And bit my tongue. Even if I did choose to speak, my story wouldn’t be appropriate. It would begin long before 1986, when the first Top Gun came out. This story would take up all dinner conversation and suck all the air out of the room. Most importantly, I would be left vulnerable, yet again, because this is a story about ubiquitous violence, the violence that is everywhere, unquestioned, and inescapable.
When my family and I moved back to Canada after our two years in Algeria, Mr. Ball, my sixth-grade homeroom teacher, decided to have me sit next to Monica Rossettis. Since I was new, I would have questions and she would be able to answer them. But I must have asked one too many questions or, maybe she just didn’t like my face. Mike, who sat nearby, did everything Monica asked of him. Apparently, Monica needed Mike to “punch me out.” Yes, of course Mike needed to do this. Of course, he would. They discussed it in front of me. There was no need to hide it. Everyone understood that this must happen, including, and especially, me.
But I really didn’t want to be punched out. No one had ever hit me before and I imagined that a boy’s punch would somehow be even worse than if Monica had punched me herself. On Friday, I took as long as possible to put on my coat and boots. My teacher got rather impatient with my snail-like pace but I was just trying to delay the inevitable. Even in my fear, I was so grateful to see my friend Sonia Chohan, to talk to her, to hope that if I was with her, Mike would change his mind, or Monica would change hers. But they didn’t.
As Sonia watched, Mike came at me, rather awkwardly, but with the clear intention to punch me in the face. I fell over backwards; my glasses flew off my face. I lay there on the ground and it occurred to me that the ground was safe. If I didn’t get back up again, he wouldn’t hit me again. It was a brilliant strategy. Mike left, having accomplished his mission. Sonia ran for help.
Mike was suspended from school for three days. Monica gloated. Mike never told on her so Monica was not punished. Sonia asked if I had a bump on my nose because Mike punched me. I explained that I’ve always had a bump on my nose, she just never noticed because of my glasses.
Was it my glasses that made Monica hate me? Or, was it that I was new, from another country, not from Canada? Was it that I wasn’t white? I still had to sit next to her in class. I still had to ask her my questions even though her very presence made me feel threatened. I am as baffled by the violence of Monica and Mike as I am by my silence. Why didn’t I tell anyone?
The following year when I entered Colonel Irvine Junior High School for seventh grade, Doris and Carol, the punk girls with their wild hair and make-up, my new tormentors, were always out to get me, to squeeze whatever money or change I had out of me. The bus was a good time for the extortion to begin. The bus driver could only drive the bus, she couldn’t protect me. Even now that I understand how liberating the phenomenon of punk has been for girls and women, I can’t help but fear all punk girls because the liberation of Doris and Carol was at my expense.
They never actually beat me up but the threat was always there if I didn’t give them my money, if I didn’t give them my seat, if I didn’t do as they said. The other students on the bus were complicit with these white girls. Shannon and Janet, the two East Asian girls, protected each other but not me. They watched in silence. It wasn’t just the two punk girls. Everyone had learned to pick on me, to order me around, to speak to me with contempt. I understood why other bullied kids were afraid to help me, afraid to unite in solidarity. I understood because I was afraid too. Once, I watched a boy get pushed into a locker and walked away, too scared to help him. Mike, in Collingwood Elementary the previous year, had taught me that I must save my own skin. So, I did; we all did.
In high school, I took Drama as an optional course and found my people, my community, in the Theatre kids. These people, who embodied a variety of identities and positionalities, were outsiders just like me. We made space to just be ourselves, play dress-up, and act out our fantasies. I found that I could hide behind a character and become someone else, someone interesting, someone that wasn’t me. These years were so happy that it was a shock to find out that my dad had been laid off from work and we would have to move again.
Boom and bust was and still is the way of the oil industry and places like Calgary “benefit” in some ways but are also truly harmed by these inevitable cycles.
It was the 1985 bust. My father, fifty-three, was laid off. No one would hire him in North America at that age and he wouldn’t go on welfare. So, he went where he got a job: Libya. That last move for work from Canada to Libya kept him in Libya for 15 years. My nine-year-old sister and mother followed him there to the city of Benghazi, but I was the problem. Where would I complete the twelfth grade? They decided to send me to boarding school in Malta, a tiny island in the Mediterranean and only an hour’s flight away from Libya. Malta was a tourist hotspot for Europeans, especially the British since it used to be a British colony. Conveniently, everyone there is now bilingual, speaking both Maltese and English. And so I went, leaving behind my beloved theatre kids at my high school in Calgary. I went because I never questioned any of my parents’ decisions even as a teenager.
My roommates in the boarding house at Verdala International School were Nahla, a Syrian Christian, and Dalal, a Libyan Muslim. I loved them, especially Nahla who had lived through the Lebanese civil war which began in 1975. She told stories of the bombings she lived through as a child, running scared to sit behind the fridge with her older brother, Bassam, who later struggled with PTSD. I didn’t know how close I was coming to a bombing myself.
On April 15th, 1986, while I was at boarding school in Malta, the Americans bombed various air fields and barracks in Benghazi and Tripoli in Libya. My parents were in Benghazi. Nahla and Dalal both had parents in Tripoli. Most of the students at the boarding school had parents somewhere in Libya. It was chaos. I normally spoke with my parents on the phone on Sunday afternoons, but they bombed midweek. I couldn’t wait. I had to know if they were alright. There was no information. The common room in the boarding school was the one place where all genders could be together. There were lovely large windows and a television. I could not be torn away from the TV, specifically Rai Uno, Italy’s public broadcaster, which was the only station showing footage of the aftermath of the bombs. I can still hear Nahla’s deafening scream when she saw the neighborhood where her parents lived, bombed. Were we all orphans now?
I started viewing Mr. Simpson, our headmaster and my math teacher, with great suspicion. Everything he said, all his words of consolation rang false. He seemed so worried but was he really worried about us or the fact that he wouldn’t be paid our boarding and tuition? And what would he do with all of us orphaned teenagers? Who would pay to get us out of there? How would we eat? Why had the Americans bombed residential neighborhoods to kill our parents and orphan us? I was equally devastated and enraged, back and forth, crying uncontrollably, unable to focus, wondering how to go on.
My dad phoned, after one very long night and two long days. They had a couple of broken windows but no one in my family was hurt. Everyone was reassured. The period of uncertainty might not seem very long, but it changed everything. It transformed me into who I am today, how I see the world and myself in it. I would never be the same again. And this is what really matters: I never forgot the power of US military might, its reach, and its ability to bomb with impunity.
VI: Nineteen Eighty-Six
Since my father had been hired from Calgary, the company that hired him in Libya paid for our family to return home to Calgary once every year. We went in the summer. I was so happy to see my theatre community again, and we planned a reunion. A bunch of us would get together to watch a movie, like we used to, in theatres and at home: Purple Rain, Blade Runner, Monty Python. But I soon realized how much I had changed in one year, how little I had in common with them now.
They had all seen Top Gun when it came out in May 1986 but wanted to see it again with me since I hadn’t seen it. I didn’t even know what it was about when I walked into the cinema. I was shaken. This was a film that glorified the men who bombed my family. My friends were cheering, enjoying themselves. I kept staring at my friends asking myself, who are these people? I couldn’t speak. What could I say to them? I still believed I was lucky to have friends at all. Afterwards, I heard them talking. “That Qaddafi, he won’t know what’s coming! We’ll get him!” Another responded, “Nuke ‘em, I say! Turn the whole damn place into a parking lot! Who needs it?!” I remember telling them that my parents lived there. There was some embarrassment, but not that much. I was angry, so angry. Tom Cruise and the smugness of his face became the focus of my rage. But I could never look at my friends the same way again. I now saw the enemy within. I’m not surprised that the US military paid for Top Gun, used it to recruit young adults like my friends. The Canadian military benefited just as much, I’m sure. My friend Teri’s husband joined the Canadian Air Force.
I know why they made Top Gun: Maverick. I know the military needs to recruit again. When I posted an article on my social media discussing the relationship between this film and the military, three of my followers “liked” it. One of them was in Malta with me in April 1986. I told him I will never forget what happened that month. We left the rest unsaid. Social media is no place to bare your soul.
But of course, it isn’t just about April 1986. That month was only a formative time for me and my place in the world. Beyond that, there are connections between all the different kinds of ubiquitous violence, from domestic violence to school shootings to fossil fuel drilling to military bombings and, sadly, this list is much longer. All of these threads of violence are woven together. They are not separate. They make up the very fabric of our society even if we choose to ignore them.
So, no, I did not see Top Gun: Maverick. Thanks, but no thanks.
Featured image caption: “Verdala International School, Malta, 1986; Photo Credit: Cigdem Dundar”
Shazia Rahman’s recent creative and critical writing has appeared in The Normal School, South Asian Review, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature and elsewhere. She is the author of Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions (University of Nebraska Press, 2019) and teaches at the University of Dayton.