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Friday, November 4, 2016

Fragments of the so-called Iraqi Identity

I met fellow Iraqis in England in an event organized by a former colleague. The event title was a bit strange in English, or thus sounded to me, "Chew & Glue", but the intention of it was interesting to me: to bring Iraqis in diaspora together and work something out of this meeting. I attended because I felt lonely in London; it had been only few months since I arrived and didn't form many friendships. Through the same colleague, I got the opportunity of volunteering in an Iraqi Charity in UK, for one day a week. However, discovering the religious atmosphere and ideology of the charity, I started to feel uncomfortable going to a place which felt like what I had escaped from in Iraq. "Chew & Glew", for me, was another opportunity to connect with the community, hoping for better associations.

There I met group of young Iraqis, who grew up in UK, whose idea of Iraq was romantically nostalgic inherited from their parents who left the country in the good 70s or early 80s. At that time, Iraq was a beloved country to its people, who lived the "good old days", or what we say in Iraqi ايام الخير 'Ayam al-Khair'. When they knew of my recent arrival from the country they were eager to visit, they showered me with questions about the country they were so excited to visit and live in. Their excitement sounded weird in my ears and my brain couldn't understand why anyone would be eager to know about a country that, in my view, had been a residence of all evils.

I went home after the event, happy that I made good impression, made contacts with people who found me a potential of some sort. But that night I couldn't sleep, as I was conflicted over my hatred of the place that everyone I met that day was so excited to visit, support and probably live in it. I wanted to dismiss their excitement as romantic nostalgia and eagerness to belong to the land their parents they belonged to, but instead I was blaming myself for not sharing the same feelings, for being happy just because I managed to escape that abyss. I was overwhelmed with guilt that night for not wanting to belong to Iraq, for wishing to be born any other thing than Iraqi, and enjoyed different life than the one I experienced in Iraq.

Through the contacts I made in "Chew & Glue", I became part of Iraqi Transnational Collective, a grass-root organization of young British Iraqis who were trying to bring the Iraqi community together and promote solidarity between Iraqis at home and in diaspora. The first even we organized was about Iraqi women and their experiences at home and in diaspora. I was there to talk about being Iraqi scholar in a major university in Baghdad. All I could contribute through my presentation was to add darker colors to Iraq's image in the minds of those young Iraqis longing for the country they never knew, and add to their parents' frustration over the country they escaped years ago!

What captured my attention again is the optimism, the ready-made postcolonial arguments of the first generation Iraqis, which were also repeated by their sons and daughters, who were trying to overcome their hyphenated identities by over-leaning to side of the hyphen: their so called "Iraqiness". Iraqis, first generation or second-generation immigrants, were vehement defenders of their Iraqiness, that I started to wonder what was meant by this identity they defended so much! What was the mental image that occupy their brains while their tongues rolled in defending their Iraqi identity?

Through my reading on hyphenated identities and the nostalgia that accompanies this hyphenation, I became more and more interested to discuss the subject within Iraqi context. For me, Iraq is the worst place to live, we Iraqi are lost in different ways depending on what generation we belong to: the elder generation that grew up in the 60s and 70s adhere to a traditional Iraqi society (not religious in the strict sense), but believe in the ideal of "glorious Iraq" of the good old days; my generation is lost in the rhetoric  of the Baath which usurped all patriotic emotions to represent its so-much hated ideology. My generation lost their childhood in the 80s war, to become a teenage and young adult in the sanctions and grew to adulthood in the ethnic-sectarian conflict following 2003. The younger generation lost their childhood in the deprivation of the 90s, and their early adulthood is shattered in the blasts of the 2003. Voices that tell us to be optimistic because they have witnessed better days are deaf to our frustration, to our sufferings, and the fact that their "good old days" is only a myth, or اساطير الاولين.

To speak of our loss and frustration seems to be taken as high treason against the beloved country. The Islamists at home find in any note of frustration a direct criticism of their "Islamic" vision of Iraq. Thus we need to be happy, proud of being Iraqis, to belong to the land blessed by Allah, Mohammed, and his progeny. To be thankful that we are born in the land in which many Imams were buried, as if the couple of these blessed lives killed on this land, more dear to their creator than the millions of Iraqis losing their lives for no choice of their own since 80s!! Iraqis in diaspora find in our loss and frustration a treason to the dream, a justification of colonization, selling out the country to the west that rejected them (though accepting them in their lands). Both ask us to love and shed more blood to keep what is so-called Iraq one land, ignoring the fact that what we have suffered in Iraq is far more serious than keeping this map intact!

The same arguments of Iraqi diaspora were repeated in a yesterday's even on Iraqi identity in diaspora. Instead of discussing how Iraqis are integrating and conceptualize their identity away from home, the attendants turned to a platform to repeat postcolonial arguments, to blame outside forces for making Iraq the terrible country it is today, for making it the worst place to live in!

I was reading Evelyn al-Sultani's views on her multi-ethnic identity as half Iraqi and half Cuban living in the US. While she feels she is  all of the fragments that constitute her multi-ethnicity, she is also frustrated at the attempts to fragment herself so she can belong to all the components of her identity. Her revelation is one honest account of being what we are, without the attempts to engage in postcolonial rhetoric of fragmentation imposed by the evil colonizers on the innocent and united colonized.

None of the Iraqis gathered yesterday can answer what they meant by their Iraqiness: the speakers referred to certain identity denominator, like language and food. I don't like many of the traditional Iraqi dishes, does that make me less Iraqi? I think it does, as I have been told many times by enthusiasts of these dishes. I like Indian food and certainly love Indian music and songs which I grew up listening to them, does that make me Indian? I have read English literature all my adult life and can't force myself to read one book of Arabic since, does that make me English? Maybe the fact that I can't write self-expression in Arabic support my Englishness, and hyphenate my identity at home as well as here!

I find in Al-Sultani's final note on identity a relief to my inner conflict:

"Identity must be re-conceptualized, so that we can speak our own identities as we live and reinterpret them in multiple contexts".

Identity is not a static concept exists in fixed conditions. It is dynamic, changes, shifts, develop and evolve over time, through places, and between contexts. The ready-made rhetoric of postcolonial discourse over the evil role in fragmenting the concept of identity in their previously colonized countries have become out of date. There a need for new conceptualization of identity, but in stead of each trying to do it on behalf of a nation, or community, let's each individual try to understand why he/she thinks they are Iraqis, British, Indians or Canadians. Language, food, music, religion all are global commodities now, and people from everywhere can buy them and make them part of their day-to-day reality without visiting the place they originating from. I love Indian food, passionate about their music and understand hindi, but have never been to India and definitely I am not Indian! or Am I?



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