There’s a popular saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.” In the case of Shant Kenderian, the saying certainly applies. In his nonfiction book (once the most popular selling book on BookSurge before being picked up by publisher Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster), Kenderian recounts his own tale of being drafted to fight a war against his own country.
Born in Iraq as an Armenian Christian (already an outsider in a country populated with Muslims), when his parents divorced, Kenderian went to live with his mother and siblings in Chicago. Like many children of divorce, he felt torn between his parents, and after two years of living in the United States, he decided to go to Iraq for a brief visit in 1980. His goal was to see his father and reconcile their acrimonious relationship (because of his parents’ divorce) before returning (after his two week visit) to the US to complete his schooling. Days before he was due to return to the US, Saddam Hussein closed all the Iraqi borders, ordering all men of draft age (between 17-55) into service to fight for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. Under the threat of execution for refusing to serve, Kenderian did his time in the Iraqi Navy and returned to Baghdad, where he continued his studies in engineering while awaiting the issuance of his green card from the US Embassy that would allow him to return home.
Two days before he was scheduled to depart Iraq, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, thus pulling Kenderian into yet another war (Desert Storm) before he could leave. Thus begins the saga that is recounted in 1001 Nights in Iraq. As an Iraqi-born US resident, Shant Kenderian was put in the unenviable position of being forced to fight against the country he loved and considered his own-the United States.
Kenderian recounts with depressing detail his time as an engineer aboard a ship in the Iraqi Navy just off the coast of Kuwait. Forced to service the ship with only a wrench and screwdriver, Kenderian tells of the depravity faced by most soldiers on the Iraqi side of the conflict. Of his crew, only 2 Iraqis of 15 had guns of any sort; Kenderian himself had none. Food was scarce, as were any other sort of supplies. Every day was a nightmare in which the Iraqi soldiers expected death at any moment by the Americans.
Clearly, Kenderian had to do something to change his fate, and so he devised a plan-to surrender to the Americans at the earliest opportunity. Kenderian thus hoped to plead his case as a US resident forced to participate in a war not of his own choosing on a side he would not have selected. Kenderian eventually did get captured by the Americans, but not before his ship struck a mine, killing several of his Iraqi crewmates. However, even his capture by US forces meant extreme hardship. As a prisoner of war (POW), again and again, he was interrogated, forced to live in difficult conditions, and plead his desperate case, to return to his family in the United States.
Despite this unbelievable story, Kenderian never lost his sense of humor, his humanity for others (Iraqi or otherwise), or his faith in God that he would eventually be returned to the country he considered home. Only a man of real courage and compassion could have survived this ordeal to tell this story of resilience and hope. Through his book, Kenderian has opened the door into a world few Americans understand or have experienced. His story been featured on public radio’s This American Life, and truly it is a unique one.