A colleague finds out I’m Iraqi.
“Oh, you’re Iraqi? I just want you to know that I didn’t support the war.”
Okay… umm thanks for letting me know…?
“Are you Sunni or Shiite?”
“Were you born there?”
“Oh, so you’re not actually Iraqi.”
Another colleague joins in.
They proceed to discuss how Iraq should be divided.
One suggests starting the country from scratch.
I remember this one evening when I was six, during the first invasion, watching the news with my family from our suburban home in the San Fernando Valley. During those days my mom was always crying. One of the first times I ever saw her cry was in those first days of the invasion, crouched under the dinner table, too ashamed to face us, wailing like I’d never seen since. With most of her family still in Iraq, everything was very real for her. She felt too guilty in her safety to take her eyes off the news. All day, all night, every word, every breath was the war. It was in her eyes and her motions and in our meals and in the air. Always dialing the phone, long distance rates, trying to reach her sisters or brothers or someone to find out if her family was okay. The phone would ring and sometimes an answer but always an abrupt cut. Aloo? Aloo? Hayati? Then tears.
And, in a way, in a distant but very present and visceral way, as a young child then, I felt the trauma of war. The war I had avoided by accident, on a whim, my parents having only meant to stay here for two years. And yet it wasn’t mine to feel. I wasn’t there, I had never even been there, and there is deep and unrelenting confusion in that.
And I remember this one evening when I was six, watching the news with my family, always either watching or listening from another room but it was always on, I remember my mother suddenly changing the channel. Maybe she had changed it before or turned it off at times, but I only remember this one moment. She changed the channel and it was some other news program, but this time the hour-long segment was about a wealthy woman in Malibu and her trauma of having lost her home in a random fire. Just her. The camera would close in on salvaged photographs, edges burned, and her tears. For an hour. I remember thinking or maybe even asking my mom why we saw her face and her home and her tears, but we never saw any Iraqi faces. I remember feeling angry then, at six years old, that this woman got an entire hour for everyone to feel something for her, but there were no Iraqi faces. And I remember growing more and more bitter and resentful at school, knowing that these kids would easily shed a tear for that one Malibu woman, but never feel a thing for any Iraqi.
And I remember feeling confused, not sure if I, too, was Iraqi, but knowing certainly that I wasn’t only American.
Airport Scene, Los Angeles, June 2014.
Running late that morning, I arrive only four hours before my flight. So far everything is smooth. No searches. When I show my passport, I get the look. I don’t have an accent and I have the kind of look that makes people think I’m from wherever they’re from, so it’s usually the last name that’s a give-a-way. He looks at me, he looks at the passport, he looks at me, he looks at the passport. Motioning his head slightly, he calls over another attendant. She looks at me, looks at the passport, looks at me, looks at the passport. I’m holding up the line. People are irritated. Seven attendants are surrounding my passport, looking at me, looking at the passport. “I haven’t aged that badly, have I?” trying to get a smile. Stiff crowd. They let me through.
Airport Scene, Istanbul, July 2014.
My new friend offers to take me to the airport. He asks what time. I say, Well, my flight is at one in the afternoon, so can you take me at eight in the morning? He laughs at me for maybe a minute. He says, No, I’ll take you at twelve. We fight about it. He takes me at twelve. Everyone at the airport looks more or less like me. My name is not an issue. The attendant smiles. I’ve never boarded a plane so effortlessly.
Once, when I was twelve, a friend’s father shared a few kind words with me:
“I will never accept you in this house because you are Iraqi. I hate all Iraqis.”
We were freshman in college in 2003 when she wrote that Op Ed piece for the college paper about how Iraqis deserved what was coming to them. We never spoke again.
When my parents first arrived to the States in 1976 they saw commercials on TV for Red Lobster. The ads made it look as though this was a classy place to be, so this is where they went on their first date in the U.S. They were newly married then. My mom was twenty-four and my dad twenty-nine. Baba was on a scholarship to do his MBA in Los Angeles. They lived in Hawthorn, near the airport.
They were robbed shortly after they arrived, still in a hotel looking for an apartment or place to live. This is where my mother lost her engagement ring. I remember thinking when I was a kid that maybe Iraqis don’t wear engagement rings or wedding rings because I never saw one on my mother. She was robbed at gunpoint. And there is this anxiety mixed in there, in my memory of something that didn’t happen to me but to her, that maybe she tried to say something or do something to make it stop, but she couldn’t.
There is an acute pain in my heart, like a cold breeze so cold it burns, and it is reserved for the painful experiences of my parents. Like the times the white PTA moms at my elementary school excluded my mother because of her accent. Or the times my father couldn’t talk about his father’s death but only of the surrounding memories.
And more painful were the memories I wasn’t around for, the ones in my own imagination based on their memories and photographs. My mother, forced to wear black for far too many years in mourning for her father’s death when she was just a teenager. My father returning home from a study abroad in Istanbul to find he missed his father’s funeral.
Starting a new life in the States, knowing they couldn’t return to Iraq, unsure of what it will all mean in the end. My mother’s handmade creations, her dresses and coats, knits, hats, photographs, all my natural inheritances, all the life she left behind because it was only supposed to be two years. Not getting to see their younger siblings grow into adults. Not knowing if everything was going to be okay, and knowing that it never seemed to get better.
The loneliness and isolation and estrangement in a foreign land, which, for as long as they have been here, I worry so desperately may never have felt like home, and going back to a childhood home is not an option because home no longer exists, and I feel this pain in my heart, in a very specific spot, the most naked part of my heart, and it may only be a pain I carry, alone, completely separate from them and whatever it is they may or may not feel because how will I ever know?
Just after the towers went down, my father was working in St. Paul, Minnesota. About six feet tall, hair dark enough to be considered black, tanned, olive skin, apparently a thick Middle Eastern accent of which I still can’t actually hear, and with a name only one letter off from one of the 52 suspects. He jokingly asked his friends to call him Mike Silverstein in public. Or Goldstein. Any precious metal will do. In those days, he was flying often and the procedure was always the same.
“Boarding pass, sir?”
“The kiosk sent me to you.”
“Not a problem, I.D. please.”
“Here you go.”
Attendant looks alarmed.
Quick glance at his watch.
“Don’t worry, it’s fine. You’ll need to get your manager, though.”
High School. 2001. Classroom chatter.
Why? What did you think I was?
You know, normal. White.