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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


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