Spc. Arafat Khaskheli had a secret when he was a child in Saudi Arabia. He hid stacks of school notebooks from everyone, especially from his father, because in a conservative Muslim society it is forbidden to draw any living creature. But for Khaskheli, drawing was the most natural thing.
“Anytime I drew, I felt better and somehow I was living out a dream that I couldn’t do in real life,” said Khaskheli, 148th Quartermaster Company, 240th QM Battalion, 49th QM Group.
His favorite character to draw was Optimus Prime from the animated television show, “The Transformers.” But one day his mother discovered the notebooks and destroyed what amounted to four years of drawings. That didn’t stop him, and it was only the beginning.
His admiration for American cartoons went beyond the image he could replicate on paper. He was becoming curious about American values as portrayed by Bugs Bunny, “The Thundercats” and “The Transformers.”
“I was a fan of American cartoons,” Khaskheli said. “There was always one person standing out from the others and doing what he wanted to do. It was just the idea of being different.”
But being different, or choosing one’s own fate, was considered “deviant” in Saudi Arabia and by his Pakistani parents, he said.
“In my culture, parents are the head, they know what is best and the children don’t question that. They decide who will be your bride and what you will do,” Khaskheli said.
He wasn’t comfortable with that and he couldn’t talk about his concerns because it was shameful for a son to oppose his father.
“I felt chained down by being told what your fate was,” he said.
Then when he was 13, Khaskheli said he gathered the courage to tell his father he would choose his own bride.
“We had a huge fight and he raised his hand to hit me, and said ‘you will marry the one I decide,’” he said. But Khaskeli threatened to stop going to school so his father agreed to let him choose who to marry.
When Khaskheli completed the ninth grade in Saudi Arabia, his father wanted him to get a Western education for a better future, so he sent him to a boarding school in Atchison, Kan. He then attended a junior college with the hopes of playing soccer professionally but his father was against it. He was forced to follow his father’s dream of becoming a doctor or an engineer.
“I was partying a lot, my grades were bad and I started to skip classes,” he said. His father didn’t know this. And just as he had mustered the courage to stand up to his father when he was 13, once again Khaskheli insisted on following his own desires. He completed a bachelor’s degree in computer animation from the Art Institute of Phoenix, and then joined the Army to pay back $62,000 in student loans.
Although Khaskheli grew up in Saudi Arabia wanting to be different, it wasn’t until he joined the Army that he learned what it truly means to be different.
“When you are in college, you can choose the type of crowd you want to be with, but in the Army you have to work with people who are different and I wasn’t prepared for that,” he said.
He said he had to learn to cope with people who had different ideologies, religions, and even, a different sense of humor. Yet, Khaskheli said, what’s great about the Army is that a group of diverse Soldiers can deploy to Iraq and become buddies.
For instance, Khaskheli said he became good friends with a Christian when he deployed to Iraq with the 13th Corps Support Command from 2003 to 2004. That friendship opened up to other relationships as they learned to rely on each other in the face of mortar attacks and hazardous convoy operations.
“The Army is an organizational fighting force, but it’s also a small world that is like heaven because people of different religions and ethnicities can be one,” he said. “I don’t think that when I leave I will ever find this type of environment anywhere.”
One day he hopes to put his degree and passion in animation to use, but no matter where he ends up, Khaskheli said he will never forget his Army buddies, as different as they may be.
Note: “Pathways” highlights the paths Soldiers take as they steer through American culture in the U.S. Army.