Baghdad: the city that is often sung about, the city that has brought people to tears, and the city that is constantly in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, is also the city where I come from.
For most of my life I had no real recollections of Baghdad. We left the city when I was three. However, I dreamt of Baghdad often. I dreamt of our house, my room, the toys I used to play with, a room with mirrored cupboards, the kitchen sink in front of the window that overlooked the garage and the back entrance.
I didn’t know if my dreams reflected anything in the real world, or whether they were just figments of my imagination. I asked my mother about the veracity of my dreams, and to my surprise, she told me that the house and all of its details existed exactly the way as I dreamt of them.
In the waking world, I’ve always heard great things about my country and the city of Baghdad. The culture, the people, the social life and a bunch of intricacies that people normally don’t hear of unless you were a part of that community in one way or another. For my generation, we never experienced these ‘golden years’ that were so often talked about. And for those lucky enough to live abroad, we heard only of wars, dictatorship and saw a country that was burning along with its population.
When we decided to return to Baghdad for a visit in the late Nineties, I was about fourteen or so. I was very apprehensive about seeing a war-torn country. Being superficial and spoilt, I thought to myself what kind of holiday would I have going to somewhere like Iraq?
In my mind, Baghdad was run down and depressing, a war zone. Despite that, I was still excited at the prospect of seeing my family. I was going to see them in their own surroundings and see the home I lived in and dreamt of for so long.
The Journey Home
During the sanctions, all flights to Iraq were suspended. From neighboring Amman, we would have to drive across the desert to Baghdad. I remember how we filled the trunk of an oversized GMC, just before sunrise, and embarked on this journey. It was beautiful and calm. We drove through peaceful deserts, with no other cars in sight, against a brilliant backdrop of the sun slowly coming up, coloring the sky with burning oranges.
Twelve hours later, we arrived at the Iraqi-Jordanian border. We were brought into a large room with several chairs and large portraits of Saddam Hussein. I looked up at the image and felt a little paranoid. I could see my mother glance at me and remembered what she had told me prior to leaving. “Don’t mention anything about the government. Just stay quiet. Everyone is listening all the time.” I wondered if they could hear my thoughts or if they could tell what I was thinking through my eyes.
As we got our passports and papers stamped, we finally headed towards Baghdad. Looking around, I was surprised at how normal everything looked. Pretty little houses, tall lush palm trees, mosques, people going about their daily business. As we drove towards a residential area, and towards a house, my mother said excitedly, “this is it.” Before we had even parked the car by the driveway, more than a dozen members of my family walked out with smiles and tears, coming to hug and kiss us hello.
For three weeks, I spent each and every day with my family, answering questions about myself and my life, playing Gameboy with my cousins, which they slowly got addicted to as well. Every other day, there was a family dinner we were invited to. Actually, it was more like a banquet where it seemed that an entire lamb, or more, were served along with a series of other dishes. The whole family would come along. All forty of them. I can still remember my jaw aching from all the smiling, my lips sore from all the kissing and my belly full. That’s when I first realized how important family gatherings were important to people in Iraq, and what I was truly missing by living away from them.
Every night, we would stay up till the early hours of the morning, laughing and listening to each other’s stories. At about 2AM, the electricity would cut off and the heat would become unbearable. My cousin would drive us to a juice bar by the river to drink fresh pomegranate juice. We would then make a stop at the local ice cream shop where there were queues of people doing exactly what we were doing – escaping the heat and cooling down. This became customary.
Back at home, we would continue our hangout through the night, until we raided the kitchen again. Out would come the home made fresh ‘kubbas’, Iraqi bread, salads, all part of a lavish meal, at four in the morning. Those were my favorite moments.
When it was time to leave Baghdad and head back to London, everything I thought I knew about Baghdad had changed. The city I was so nervous about coming to, was the place I wanted to live in, forever. In my eyes, it didn’t symbolize an oppressive and impoverished war zone, it symbolized family and love.
On our last day, we left the same way we arrived. As the car pulled out of the driveway, and I looked through the back window, the dozen or so same family members were standing as they were on the first day we came. The only difference was that this time, there were tears of sadness and goodbyes.
Two questions rose in my mind that day. Iraqis thought I was the lucky one to be living in London but I felt the opposite. I felt they were lucky to all have each other. Why did I have to be deprived from such a large and loving family? I also felt inconsiderate going back to London whilst my family prepared for their next war. Why did they have to go through it and not me?
Since then, nothing has remained the same. Everything has crumbled and shattered into a thousand pieces. All that I have are videos, photos and my dreams.