For multiple generations, millions of Iraqis have lived far away from cities and communities that, despite the distance, still shape such an intrinsic part of their identity, sculpting their tongue, inspiring their appetites, and filling their world with music and poetry. In fact, for many, these places, their homes, exist only as stories that light the fire in their father’s eyes, or fill their mother’s heart with strength. They have never been visited, only heard of, and yet, they exist with such presence and persistence, that they break oceanic distances in the most beautiful of ways. It is a diasporic dance that at times is so exhausting, the very essence of identity is lost in a sea of competing worldviews and existences, and on good days, passionately pours endless strength into a leaking vessel breaking apart from the weight of memories and grief. This is a story of someone taking this reality head on.
“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”
– Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands
Often I find myself living in between. In between cultures, in between languages, in between art, music and humour.
I was born in Denmark to Iraqi parents who relocated to Scotland when I was a kid. This makes me a citizen of the Diaspora, a place where I spent my youth feeling lost with no sense of homeland. As the years passed, it became evident that these two sides of my identity, Iraqi and Scottish, are worlds that I would always interpret differently, consistently switching homes and identities throughout my day-to-day life.
Whether born outside or migrated from the homeland at a young age, we all share a commonality that bonds us together; living in between two cultures. We hold onto nostalgic memories of our homelands, whilst trying to embrace our immediate surroundings. In turn, we create hybrid identities that form part of a new cultural interface which exists beyond the borders that try to define us.
The search for identity is a long journey and the role of memory and narrative is especially vital in understanding families within the Diaspora and how they are able to comprehend and construct an identity. There is a sort of relationship between language and thought, as well as language and experience, and language and memory.
Even the symbolic structures fundamental to a culture are equally echoed and rooted in the language used. The rhetorical questions, sayings and metaphors that intersperse our life stories can represent our morals and values. Communicating in a different language is what I find enables me to look at the world from a different perspective; my Iraqi culture interprets the world differently to my Scottish one.
Even though I assume that my personal narrative belongs to me, it is still designed with traditional themes intertwined, and is also part of the cultural narrative that I subscribe to at that moment of time.
It can be simple things like old photographs or letters from the past that create the emergence of hybrid identities within the Diaspora. Personally, I am accustomed to using the narratives these things hold to affirm and recreate my own Iraqi identity.
The memories of my parents become integrated into my own and I am able to develop a trans-memory. Throughout the process of hybridisation I am able to use the transgenerational trauma, transferred to me from these narratives, to recapture and revive through art or any other form; so as to ease this nostalgic pain.
An example of this is a letter that has conveyed one of the most significant narratives I hold responsible for shaping my identity. My grandparents discovered the letter in my father’s bedroom the night of his abrupt migration from Iraq; an apology note for his disappearance. It is merely a piece of paper, yet it has become part of our collective family memory. The letter, as shown, was ripped apart by my grandfather at first reading. Thankfully after he had regained control over his emotions he taped it back together and embraced it as a memory.
The memory, to me, is bittersweet; I feel the anger, sadness and regret when I hold the letter. The stains and tape add to its vulnerability; the vulnerability my father must have felt when writing it. Yet, it also stands for the bravery and strength he needed to have in order to fight against the injustice his country was facing. To this day, it shapes my political ideology and is a backbone to all decisions I make, whether it be personal or political. My dad tells me this letter represents the basis of his philosophies and values, he takes pride in his decision even if it cost him seeing his family and homeland again. He also takes pride in his younger self that was strong enough to write such a letter and make that decision. He says to me, “Baba, I went through those hardships but still kept to my values and beliefs. I don’t regret anything seeing the letter now; I am alive because of it.”
Now, I have reached a place in my journey where I am ready to transform this transgenerational trauma into something more proactive. The beauty in being a hybrid is that we can create our own third space; a place where east meets west. Born out of this need is Two Rivers, a safe space for me and others alike to explore our personal identity whilst simultaneously building a collective identity within the Diaspora.
It is a tool that we can utilize to write a new narrative for Iraq. A platform where I no longer feel, “lost in translation.” It is a platform that looks to the future of Iraq, empowering a lost culture and becoming a voice to those that want to showcase a different Iraq. We can honour our multiplicity of homes and identities through the platform.
Since our launch in 2016 as a collective, we have reached out to many people through our social media platforms. We have been very keen to get involved with other Iraqi organisations throughout the UK, taking part in their events as a means to network and build a closer relationship with our community.
Our most recent event was the Rumman Festival, a chance for us to explore the Iraqi Diaspora whilst showcasing the Iraqi culture to Glasgow through films, music, workshops and food. The Rumman Festival focused on Iraqi arts and lifestyle. We showcased films like On the Banks Of The Tigris, a musical odyssey that uncovers the hidden history of Iraqi music.
Through teaming up with organisations working in Iraq we were able to organise a festival that exhibited a new narrative, void of old interpretations of conflict and war. A festival that focused on the many people doing great work that have yet to tell their stories. With hopes that the festival will become an annual event, Two Rivers wants to also support the Iraqi community in Glasgow by organising social outdoor activities for Iraqis, encouraging them to form closer connections outside their families.
We want Glasgow to know who Iraqis are, create an effective Diaspora, our focus being on culture and youth. Our hope for Two Rivers is to become a space that we can share together to make the hybrid experience plentiful and prosperous, empowering those that feel a sense of uncertainty.
Moving forward, Two Rivers has already started researching new films, art, writing for their festival later in the year, and will continue to reach out to fellow Iraqis who are exploring identity through various mediums. To learn more about Two Rivers, follow them on Instagram.