Returning to Iraq by Hayla Alawi
No one has ever questioned my Arabness: not me, not my friends, not even strangers who can somehow always tell with just one look that there’s something distinctly ethnic about me. Growing up, even my relatives on the white side of my family never tried to downplay or ignore my Iraqi background. So, I was unprepared when the first person to openly ponder my Arabness was my own father—the very person who gave me my cultural identity—as if it were a topic open to interpretation.
When I went home one night to have dinner with Baba, he, my stepmother, and my three little brothers were all there, as well as Baba’s childhood friend, Majed, and his family. I didn’t know Majed well, and due to the language barrier, we didn’t talk much. Instead, I mostly made conversation with my father. We discussed my classes, his work, and, of course, the topic to which it seems Baba must always return, politics – namely, complaining about Donald Trump. After dinner, while I--somewhat unconventionally, being a woman--drank tea with Baba and Majed in the living room as the other women gossiped in the kitchen over the dishes, Majed posed a question to Baba in Arabic. My father looked at me for a moment and I looked right back, sipping my tea from an hourglass-shaped teacup lined with gold-leaf. We always bring out the best teacups for guests. “What’d he say?” I finally asked, when Baba continued to stare at me without saying a word.
He set his teacup down in its matching saucer and folded his hands in his lap. “Majed here has just asked me how Iraqi I think you are,” Baba said.
“Fifty percent,” I said automatically. My father had been born and raised in Baghdad and my mother was from Dexter, Michigan. The answer was simple enough. I assumed Majed just didn’t know anything about my mother since he’d never met her.
Baba laughed. “La’, habibi, of course that’s not what he meant. He means culturally, how Iraqi are you.”
I’d never thought about my Arabness as something that could be quantified outside of my biological makeup. I’ve always known I’m half Iraqi and half white, though when people ask me about my background, I only explain that I’m Arab, knowing that’s the answer people are looking for. Here, in the States, any semblance of “other” seems to discount a person’s whiteness, and my olive skin and dark features make sure I’m never mistaken for white. Yet I also almost never need to go into more detail than simply saying I’m “Arab.” During this conversation in Baba’s household, though, under the scrutiny of real Iraqis (whatever that means), I was quickly realizing that I was more than the name I inherited from my father.
“Then according to you, how Iraqi am I?” I asked. I was genuinely curious.
“I’m thinking maybe fifteen percent,” Baba replied.
This statistic surprised me. For one, it felt pretty arbitrary. I mean, how does one calculate how cultural they are? Was it just the nature of Majed and Baba, both being engineers, and thus being so used to using math in their everyday lives that they could boil me down to a number? For another, in all honesty, fifteen percent was lower than I’d expected to receive, and the shock I felt was similar to the reaction I might have when receiving an unreasonably poor grade. I’ve always considered myself to be at least fifty percent Iraqi, if not more, based on the pride I hold for my cultural background. What I lack from not literally being from Iraq I make up for in how I was raised and what I’ve taught myself about my heritage.
“Why is the number so low?” I demanded. “Because I don’t speak Arabic?”
“Oh, I didn’t even think of that,” Baba said, picking his tea back up. “So maybe closer to ten percent, then.”
“You didn’t factor in the language when you came up with fifteen percent? Then what did you factor in? You know, I can cook a delicious bamia,” I lied. I’d never cooked bamia, the most quintessential Iraqi dish, in my life, but I was desperate to prove myself, and besides, I at least had my stepmother’s handwritten recipe ready to go at my apartment.
“I was thinking, you know, how you dress, and how little you know my extended family, and your cultural norms – they’re much different from mine even though I’m now quite Americanized – and how you’ve never been to Iraq, or anywhere in the Middle East,” Baba said. “Oh, and of course, you don’t speak Arabic. But you’re proud of being Iraqi, so that means something. So, let’s say twelve percent.” He turned and conveyed these thoughts to Majed, this time in Arabic. Majed didn’t appear to agree or disagree, but he accepted Baba’s answer, and then they resumed their conversation.
I sat back and considered the evidence Baba had presented. It was all true, though interestingly enough, my DNA hadn’t factored at all into Baba’s answer. Even pride counted more than blood, though not nearly as much as I’d expected. I’d never before considered that I couldn’t make up for these key bits of culture that would’ve come from living in my ancestral homeland just by being proud of my Iraqi heritage and critiquing the food at every Middle Eastern restaurant I’d ever eaten at outside of Dearborn. It certainly put into perspective the displeasure my father’s side of the family had expressed when I’d chosen to study Korean in college, even though I was at an institution known for its excellent Arabic program. Is it my fault, though, that I’ve never been given a hashimi to wear to a wedding, or that I refuse to remain in the kitchen during family gatherings just because I’m a woman? I suppose some of my choices are mine alone. Maybe even the fact that I was sitting in the living room with the men is what led Majed to ask my father about my Arabness.
But at least it’s not my fault I’ve never been to the Middle East. I’ve never been given the opportunity.
If I had, though, I don’t know that I’d take it.
I asked Baba once whether he’d ever go back to Iraq if he could. It was only a few months before our conversation about my Arabness, on another occasion where I was home from college to eat dinner with my family, though we’d had no guests over that night. The tea we were drinking when I asked him this question was out of plain glasses; there were no ornate rims or matching saucers. My little brothers had been too busy playing video games downstairs to bother us, so we’d had a chance to talk in peace. I think I surprised Baba by asking a question about his past, since we’d never spoken about it before. He surprised me back by responding that he had, in fact, returned to Iraq once since he was forced to leave as a political refugee almost forty years ago. His return was just months after the American invasion in 2003, when my parents had already been divorced for a year and I was barely five years old. No wonder I have no memory of Baba’s trip. As kids, my sister and I spent only a fraction of our time with him, so he could’ve easily left the country for days or even weeks at a time without us noticing. Setting my tea aside, I’d asked him for the details.
“When the United States was planning to invade Iraq, when it became evident that it’s for real, I called the Pentagon and asked to volunteer,” Baba had said. “They said they’d get back to me, but I don’t think they took me seriously. I probably would have been a very useful asset. Not only because I know Iraq well, but because I’m also educated and a Shi’ite who would easily be useful in communicating. I mean, I…I’m kind of glad that I didn’t go, eventually, because they botched it, but I was disappointed then.”
I remember feeling shaken. When I was a child, what I knew about Iraq was only from the snippets I overheard on the news channels my parents watched, since my father never spoke of his life there. When all you hear of a place is what’s being played on American television, especially if that place isn’t a part of the Western world, all the news will show is the negative. It warps your perception. In the case of the Middle East, I never saw the coffeehouses or the magnificent cities or the diverse universities. All I could picture was a desert wasteland riddled with bombings and military clashes. “Civilization” was hardly even a word I related to Iraq. Unsurprisingly, then, in the bitterness that followed my parents’ divorce, when my mother once suggested to me that if Baba really cared for his home, he would go there to protect it, I was angry she could say such a thing to me about my own father. I assumed that there was no way Baba could plausibly return to Iraq. Looking back, I realized the comment had been a jibe at her ex; she was probably trying to wound his reputation. My parents divorced on bad terms. But in the moment, all I recognized was that to go to Iraq meant certain doom. More than a decade later, I was shocked to learn Baba really had wanted to return to Iraq. And he did return. I finally realized that he actually was considering doing exactly what my mother said he wouldn’t. My mother’s comment, then, must’ve held more significance than I’d ever realized when I was young. Maybe he went to save face in front of my mother. Or maybe he truly just cared about his home.
Baba had shrugged and sipped his tea before continuing. “I went back to see my friends, to see my home, to see my city, but ultimately to look into the possibility of going back and participating in the rebuilding of Iraq, having the scientific background, the experience of many years in the West, and the wealth I have accumulated. I could be of use there.”
Baba had explained his reasoning so nonchalantly that his words hardly held the weight of their implications. I’d tried to imagine growing up without him. If he’d stayed in Iraq as he’d initially intended, after all, that’s what would’ve happened: I’d have no connection to him, and, perhaps even more importantly, no connection to my culture. I’d looked around the living room where we were sitting: at the Persian rug beneath us, the Islamic paintings Baba had brought back from his pilgrimage to Mecca, the glasses of tea, and, finally, at Baba himself. What’s worse, losing a parent or losing an identity?
“The regime had just fallen and things looked like they were bad, unstable, so I thought it will get, eventually, slowly, stable. Then I would come back and assess – I even located business opportunities there, but, you know, from that point, 2003 until now, it’s a downhill trend that never stopped getting any worse. It’s constantly going bad and from bad to worse. And now we are at the very bottom and we don’t know how far – I mean, we just, every time we say it can’t go any worse than this, it seems to go worse. There’s no end to how bad it can be.”
Baba had been referring, of course, to the precarious political situation installed in Iraq by the United States after the 2003 invasion, followed by the rise of ISIS. In other words, if America hadn’t royally screwed up their intervention in Iraq, Baba probably wouldn’t have been having that conversation with me. Instead, he’d be helping rebuild the fallen nation. He must have had so much hope in those early stages in 2003. Since he was a resistance fighter striving for democracy during his high school and college years, I can only imagine what participating in the rebuilding of Iraq would’ve meant to him, before those hopes were crushed.
As Baba described that trip, I learned how Majed came to this country. “I saw some of my friends,” Baba had said, smiling for the first time during that conversation. “One of them was Majed.” He’d explained that after visiting his old friend, Baba had convinced Majed to move his family to America, where my father would give Majed a job.
“I saw Nabil!” he continued, laughing. “You know, the city has changed so much. You can’t easily remember where things were. But Nabil’s house was on a corner of two streets. And I looked at that house, and there was a man in the garden, outside the building. And I couldn’t recognize him because he looked too old. It was Nabil, actually, turned out to be. But he – he just looked – you know, compared to me, like he was fifteen, twenty years older.” The joy in Baba’s laughter upon recalling this memory had remained in his face until now, when he frowned again. “His life was so bad in Iraq that he and the people that stayed there…they all aged severely compared to people who left the country before. Like me.” Baba paused as he reflected on his reunion with Nabil. “People say ‘You’re not from here, are you? You came from outside.’ Although you speak exactly their accent, they can tell by the way you behave, by the way you express yourself, by the way you look, that you’re no longer one of them. The country went through such a hard time that the people’s character had been crushed.”
After that, Baba didn’t speak for a while, but I gathered that was the gist of his return to Iraq: hopeful for the possibilities but let down by the reality. Though he was born and raised in Baghdad, Baba’s final sentiment echoed how I feel today about my own connection to my Arabness. While Baba felt disconnected from those who, though they grew up in the same environment, lived out completely different adulthoods, I feel disconnected from him because of how differently we were raised. It’s impossible to compare 1960s Iraq and 2000s America, but while I can’t share language or social norms with my father, he no longer shares experiences with his friends who suffered under Saddam Hussein in the ‘80s and ‘90s. For both of us, pride and connection alone weren’t necessarily enough. He and I aren’t so different after all.
Seeing the way Iraq has deteriorated even over just my lifetime, not to mention Baba’s, I’m finding it difficult to want to see where my ancestors came from. Worse still was the hopelessness in Baba’s voice as he’d described the Baghdad he returned to in 2003. If he couldn’t find what he was looking for when he went back, and if he deemed the situation too volatile for him to live in for the rest of his life, what’s in it for me, someone who’s unable to speak Arabic and knows so little of the culture?
Baba and Majed continued their conversation as I reflected on that night I’d spoken about Baba’s return to Iraq. From the few phrases I knew of Arabic, I gathered that they’d moved past me, no longer interested in percentages or Arabness. For them, I suppose, it was much less consequential how Iraqi they perceived me to be. For all I knew, Majed’s question might just have been an offhand thought he shaped aloud, not really meant to be pondered or even answered. Out of the three of us, after all, I seemed to care the most about not only the question, but also Baba’s response.
I examined my teacup, resting with its saucer on the coffee table in front of me. Only a few dregs of black tea remained in the bottom, along with a couple loose tea leaves clinging in a trail up the side of the teacup from my last swallow of tea. Tiny flowers with red petals and golden centers were painted around its middle. As the men next to me continued to talk, I clutched the teacup and saucer and went to the kitchen to rinse them. The dishrack was stacked with the dishes my stepmother and Majed’s wife had already cleaned.
I wondered what the women thought of my Arabness. I watched them from the sink as I cleaned my teacup. My stepmother glanced over at me, then returned to her conversation with Majed’s wife. Maybe it offended them that I hadn’t helped out earlier. Maybe they were jealous of what they saw as boldness, but I saw as normal. Sitting there at the kitchen table they’d just finished clearing, they weren’t so unlike the men in the other room; they just followed a different post-dinner ritual. They were having their own conversation in Arabic, their own tea from fancy teacups from the same tea set steaming in front of them. My stepmother’s chin was propped on her palm and she idly stirred her tea as Majed’s wife told her a story.
In all honesty, it’s probably all in my head, and they likely have no opinion on my Arabness.
I turned off the faucet and placed my teacup upside down on the dish rack, nestling it between the dishes all of us had used at dinner.