My siblings call me a “photo thief.” I prefer to think of myself as the “family archivist.”
See, I have this thing for old photos. I hunt them down like a hawk hunts prey. Like when my mother came back from her last trip to Baghdad, I jumped on the carry-on bag she brought back with her. It was full of photos. I went through each and every one of them. It wasn’t always like this for me. I mean, I did always like photographs, but I was never obsessed with collecting them.
My family fled Iraq when I was 17 years old. The 1991 Gulf War had just ended and the ensuing economic sanctions were underway. We left with only what we could carry, including valuables that we could sell if our situation got bad. We had to smuggle my mom’s few pieces of jewelry and a couple of dad’s watches, stuffing them in shampoo bottles and inside the cuffs of dress shirts. At that time, Iraqis were forbidden from taking their personal valuables of the country, but we needed to live.
The only borders that were open to us at that time were the Jordanian borders. Those quickly turned into borders from hell. People would wait for hours upon hours to pass through. There would be collective strip searches, identity checks, and a lot of humiliation. So pictures weren’t something that we carried with us that first time we left.
As years passed by, we realized that our hope of returning home was fading. It was a new reality that we had to get used to. My mother was the only one who kept going back and forth to visit her family and check on the house we left behind. And every time she returned, to wherever we lived, she would bring back with her some of our belongings, mostly sentimental things like journals, notes that were written by long-gone loved ones, and, of course, photos.
I remember how during one of her many trips to Baghdad, this one in the Nineties, she came back carrying my four siblings’ photo albums, but she didn’t have mine. She told me she couldn’t find it. It was lost. Just like that, it had disappeared into thin air. I felt like a part of my existence was gone, like my childhood was erased. That’s when the hunting began. I was determined to re-find my child-self, to keep her memory alive. In reality, I was looking for something deeper, I was looking for proof that I belonged to Iraq. That I had roots in a land that seemed so far away.
As the country was withering away little by little, its cities mutilated in one bloody war after another, I got more and more attached to collecting old family photos. I have photos of family members I’ve never met in my life, of places that no longer exist and of memories that seem like an old black-and-white movie.
I look at the faces in a photo and imagine the moment it was taken. What were people in the photos thinking? Did they laugh before it was taken? Did someone tell a joke? Where they concerned about their looks? And most importantly, did they know that their photo was going to be the string that would keep someone like me attached to their roots?