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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Reminiscing with new acquaintance

I was lucky to meet in London, an Iraqi with whom I can share all the memories, views and the life we lived in Iraq during the 80s and 90s. Most of the Iraqis I have met in London, either belong to the generation who left the country before 80s, or were second-generation immigrants, whose idea of Iraq is inherited from their parents. There was no shared memory to reminisce about, nor a shared experience to discuss. But this new acquaintance provided me with what I needed. Yesterday was our second meeting, and for the second time we spent hours talking about the life we lived in the 80s and 90s. We shared cultural references that other Iraqis in London would never have understood, or realized its significance. For the second-generation young Iraqi, who was with us, we were speaking a secret language, she was unable to decode its references.

But the real exciting factor for me was the space of freedom to discuss Iraqi politics since the 80s without fear of offending someone who was hard-core enemy of Saddam, or someone who thought Iraq was done when Saddam ascended to power in 1980. It was refreshing to be able to breathe out thoughts that nowadays are considered forbidden sentiments that betray the Iraqis who suffered under Saddam.

I grew up in a family that was not interested in politics, nor religion. I was one of millions of Shia Iraqis who lived unharmed under Saddam's rule. My only grievances against Saddam was the endless wars we lived, growing up to the sounds of bombing and women and orphans wailing the loss of their loved ones. I am not minimizing the significance of these, but through my readings I can't toss it all to the shoulders of Saddam and the Baath and blame them for the increased number of widows and orphans in the country. There were two countries fighting in the 80s, and Iran had a big share in the Iraqi blood shed for this war. I also remember very well how the Kuwaiti delegation was indifferent when Saddam gave his speech in the Arab Summit in May 1990, where he warned them against trespassing on Iraqi's bordering oil well. Was it right for him to invade the country and allow the army to commit all these atrocities? Definitely no. However there is another side for the story, in which the ugliness committed in Kuwait was not totally Saddam's fault, but had to do with individual human conscience.

When the Iraqi army controlled Kuwait, many Iraqis went their and robbed and blundered the country, Yes, there were not stopped, but they should have never done that. My uncle used to drive a lorry there to bring different second-hand goods and sell them, but my dad warned my mother not to buy one single thing coming from Kuwait. I still remember the fight when my dad became mad at my mother for accepting a gift from my aunt, which was Kuwaiti dresses. He told her she would not stay at home if she would bring another thing from Kuwait to the house.

During the 90s, all Iraqis suffered because of the sanctions, and Saddam's started a phase of self-adulation, considering himself as the hero of Arab Nationalism against western imperialism, a postcolonial rhetoric as a feminist from Iraq I refuse to subscribe to. However, the US determination to invade the country, and their dirty game with the so-called Iraqi political opposition give some credit to this rhetoric.

Millions of Iraqis have rediscovered their history after 2003, under the confusion of the hundreds of media outlets that give different accounts of the 80s and 90s, and draw different pictures of 2003 aftermath. We were told of how Saddam's tortured and killed Iraqis who were opposing him, or suspected for opposing him. His sons emerged as sadists enjoying the atrocities they committed against Iraqis. Horrifying stories started to spread asserting the beastly nature of Saddam and his family, that we no longer think of them as humans, but more of mythic monsters that could have existed only in ancient barbaric times. But these stories did not conform with the kind of life we used to live in the 80s and 90s. At least, they didn't match the life I have lived.

Do I want Saddam back? definitely no. Do I have nostalgic feelings toward his rule. Yes, to certain extent. Any one of my generation, who grew up in the 80s and 90s, can't escape comparing between Iraq then and now. Even if their comparison ends illogically in favor of contemporary Iraq, at least there is something that provokes their thoughts to compare.

After 13 years of new Iraq and democracy, Iraq is living in worse conditions than what it used to be during Saddam's times, and this is enough to change the balance to his side. The number of Iraqis killed in those 13 years can be compared to 8 years of war, 1991 bombing and the sanctions years.

If those who rule Iraq today were the opposition Saddam was fighting and tried to isolate his people from, then hats off to Saddam, for they proved him right. These people are too incompetent to be rulers, to be given the power keys to my country.

Those who rule Iraq today have no vision, no plan for the country they rule. They are inconsiderate of the sufferings of Iraqis. They have turned our country to an abyss we just want to escape. Their only achievement which they take pride in is the religious militancy, and the spread of religious Shia rituals. Yes, marching, chest beating and wailing the religious leader who died 1400 years ago is far more important that the hundreds of Iraqis dying every week just because they decided to go to work, study and live a normal life. Religious parades, and loud commemoration of the Taf battle that happened fourteen centuries ago are more important than the millions of displaced Iraqis living in destitute in and outside the country.

They claim to fight ISIS because they reject their militant Islamic state, but they end up banning whatever goes against Islam, forming Islamic armed forces, whose loyalty is torn between Iran and Iraq.

I admit that I miss that solid firm rule, when my country was safe, secular to a certain extent, and when education was rewarded. I miss having an identity, a culture. I miss having a life that doesn't involve wailing and mourning for almost third of the year.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Woman on a Journey

"Do you measure the extent of your struggle by whether you die or not?"
"In my country? yes we do. The living are accused; the dead are pure, innocent. Death liberates them from accusations, accountability and self-doubt"

Haifa Zangan, Women on a Journey (2001)

When I was in Iraq, I had no interest in Iraqi literature, nor in Arabic. My sole interest was literature written in English, whether British or American. Since I was young, I was eager to read anything that came from worlds unknown to me, giving my imagination the freedom I was longing for. However, when I arrived to London last year, my reading, and literary interest started to have different turns.

At the beginning I resisted people's expectations that I would be excerpt of Iraqi or Arabic literature, sparing no effort to prove that I am capable enough to read and scholarly investigate English or American literature. For some reason, it hurts my pride to have people asking me about Arabic literature, feeling that their inquiry came with the assumption that as an Arab, I would never be as good as the native English in reading their literature. Thus, during the first months, I resisted the demands to read or research Arabic or Iraqi literature. Due to some complications with my fellowships and a pressing of feeling of isolation, I worked hard to have my world acknowledge me as scholar of multi-ethnic American poetry, the genre that I focused on in my PhD, and the projected I proposed for my postdoctoral fellowship. After couple of seminars and conference presentations, my agitation calmed down, motivating me to think practically of my future.

As I started my second year in London, and a tick-tack sound in my mind keeps reminding me of how much time I had left before my visa expires, I urged myself to think of my next step. I needed a plan, I needed to become employable. Yes, I tried my best during the first year to fill in the research gap I had in my CV, signing up for couple of criticism projects that resulted in couple of forthcoming publications, besides establishing good networks with scholars. But, it would be years before I achieve what my peers have achieved so far. The fact I was from Iraq would not really help me to consolidate my CV, and I didn't want to play the victim in my application statements. I needed to offer potential employers much more than the victim scholar from Iraq. Thus, instead of a victim, I am a feminist from Iraq. But how can I claim to belong to that country, which nothing connects me to except for my passport?

I know the most important history of the country, the last four decades, because I have lived them. I knew the intellectual environment because I was university lecturer. All I needed was to find my game, the pitching offer, which came from that rich knowledge I had. I am a scholar of literature, why not bring my feminist interest into the Iraqi literary landscape?

I admit my interest started as academic venture that can change my credentials. I investigated and laid hand on Haifa Zangana's "Women on a Journey". Fortunately, I didn't struggle with Arabic, which was the main reason that drove me away from Arabic literature. I found a translated copy of the novel, which made it easier for me to read and work my scholarly way through its content.

The novel sets in London, tracing the present and past of five Iraqi women refugees as they navigate life in the foreign lands, away from the home they knew and left. All the characters speak to me in one or another. I found myself like Om Mohammed, who is always conscious of her foreignness. Back at home, I was pretty fluent and articulate in English. I used to give my lectures in English, making few mistakes. Students used to record my lectures and listen to them, admiring my fluency and always asking me how I have acquired this semi-native level of English. However, I came here and found myself incapable of producing sound sentences. I always use the wrong tense, the wrong verb and stutter when I speak as beginner learner of the language. In my mind, I am very fluent, but as if my mouth resists this fluency and prefer to interrupt the flow of words that come from the brain. When I speak to non-natives I recover my fluency, but against the staring eyes of the natives I lose my self-confidence which is replaced by overwhelming feeling of foreignness and alienation.

Because of the growing feeling of alienation, I find myself like Sahira and Majada, indulge in the past, that probably never existed to me. I spent many days retiring early to my room in the top floor of the house, contacting no one, and indulge in self-pity for what I lost in Iraq. suffocated by the sense of estrangement from everything around me, I recovered that lost relationship which brought me nothing but pain in the near past. I received that skype call when I was in the library, feeling lonely and incapable of making sense of what I was reading, as if I lost my English reading skills. I answered the call, and retrieved all the feelings that I had lived for the last five years in Iraq. I was familiar with these feelings, I knew how to navigate that world of desperate love. Instead of feeling guilty for abandoning the sinking ship in Iraq, now I can indulge again in self-pity for my broken heart.

The sense of guilt I continuously feel was common between me and Adiba. We both chose to survive, to live, than stay and die in the abyss of Iraq. But unlike Adiba, I didn't want to live in denial of my exile. and resurrect a dead past. I was reading Adiba's character, and can relate to her search for her husband, while she knows he is dead. She lives in denial of her trauma, denying the death of her husband, blocking herself from moving on. I did the same when I answered that call. I was abandoned, humiliated, deeply hurt, but instead chose to go back to the darkness so I wouldn't see the reality of my present situation: 38, alone, no future prospects in foreign land, cut off from everything familiar. This reality was too much to handle, and the past sounded more safe with its familiar darkness than the piercing sun of the present.  

Like Iqbal I tried to move on, and establish a life in London. I met people, outside the university and library. People less skilled in English, to redeem my self-confidence. I went out with men, became part of the social life in England, even if it was pretentious and unreal. But it was better than the state of self-pity and victimization. I went out with Portuguese man, Indian, Spanish, and Kurdish Iraqi. In a word, I lived.

By the time I finished the book, I realized that I was on a journey like these women, a journey of exile. Like them, my real journey in life started when I landed in London, a journey that is still going. I have no idea where I am going to land next, for I am on the move. However, like Om Mohammed, when I go back to my small room I have been living for the last 14 months, my little home; like Sahira and Iqbal I have decided to move on from my past and embrace my independence and freedom and be open to future adventures; unlike Majada I won't allow my past to compromise my sanity, gladly embrace my identity; unlike Adiba, I faced my trauma, and walked toward the light.

The Journey continues