The Exiled Shalash

Friday, July 14, 2006

Visiting Iraq

In May of 2003, I visited Iraq after a long absence. I did not go there with Americans or Iraqis, I went there alone, at my own expense, to visit my parents, my sister and whatever was left of a life I once so dearly cherished.

I remember when I landed in Amman at dawn, I started having some feelings that I can only describe as having never sensed them before in my life. I was going to an Iraq where there was no Saddam. The bus ride to Baghdad was very memorable, it was packed with mostly Iraqi expats and two young men returning from Lebanon were singing the whole way there. I wanted, despite my awful voice to join them, but something stopped me. When in Baghdad, I surprised my folks by showing up as though I was coming from the market. Our street looked very much the same, I remember vividly the last time I was there before I fled. I did not recognize any of the neighbors whom I ran into before entering our house.

Being the first of my exiled siblings to visit post-Saddam Iraq, that first night was truly something, before September 11, I never thought was possible. I was there, in Baghdad, with my folks and my only sibling who remained in Iraq, a younger sister. It was surreal and "surreal" barely does any justice to what it really was like to be doing something you had giving up all hope of ever doing.

Only in my sweetest dreams did I think that returning to Baghdad would ever be possible again. I had not gone to Baghdad to stay, I thought I was only visiting. But one extension of my vacation after another made what was supposed to be a one month visit, a permanent stay. I had left behind very little in the West and there was no reason for me to leave my country again.

I helped my dad with his shop while I spent the remainder of my time going through his books that survived the sanctions. You see many Baghdadi families were forced to sell their books in the 1990s due to terrible economic conditions. Surely I missed my books, which were in storage in the East Coast, but being in Baghdad was worth being away from my books.

Sometimes at night, my little sister and I would drive around and get lost, because with all the road closings and the checkpoints, we usually had no idea where we were going, but it was safe. We would look at the lights of Baghdad and bet how long it would take before this or that neighborhood would lose power, I was damned good at that game.

The so called insurgency started to get stronger every day. It was no longer safe to drive at night nor was it safe to visit certain neighborhoods. People started getting killed. News of random rape, kidnapping and murder started to surface. At night, we would hear gun shots and we would know they were not celebratory because they were accompanied by sounds of RPGs. My sweet Baghdad was no longer fun.

Some of my friends began to leave for Jordan, Kurdistan or Syria. I stayed until my folks convinced me to leave. My next-door neighbor whom I had helped with his English homework several times and with whom I had shared numerous stories about life in America informed the insurgents that I was an "American agent." Despite the numerous opportunities, I never once even thought of working with the Iraqi or US government because I wanted to help my father with his shop, but that didn't matter to Sunni militants who were looking for any excuse to behead a Shi'a Iraqi returning from exile.

Time had come for me to once again flee Iraq, just like I fled Saddam's Iraq. I arrived in the United States depressed, waiting every day for a miracle that would end the insurgency so that I can return to Baghdad. But days turned into weeks and weeks into months. My neighbor who had informed on me apologized to my parents before one day, they told me that he had been killed.

I forgive him for taking me away from Baghdad and not because he's dead, but because 35 years of Saddam's Iraq had changed the very culture of the country.

A few months ago, I decided to once again go to Baghdad, this time through Kurdistan. Being in Arbil International Airport was like being in a different country, it didn't feel like Iraq. I took an Iraqi Airlines flight from Arbil to Baghdad.

Baghdad has changed since the last time I was there, everywhere you go, you can see that this city is at war with itself, demolished buildings, dirty streets, pick-up trucks with machine guns on top of them, rumors, conspiracy theories and generally news about murder, rape etc... What's most extraordinary though is that very seldom can one find a smiling man or woman. Everywhere you go, there are sad people who have no idea where their lives are going.

I left Baghdad almost without hope, I say "almost" because otherwise, what is the point?

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