Sunday, July 12, 2009

“love is like war, easy to begin but very hard to stop”

Day 1, failure 1. Laughing in delirious hysteria at 5:45 am at Salar in her green Chuck Taylors and abaya (abaya is the long, black dress that women in the east traditionally wear in the name of modesty, culture and/or style). I discovered we weren’t the easiest targets in line—there were two British guys, late twenties. “Layla—after a Amoori’s lecture, you will not talk to them. This is practice and you will restrain yourself.” My cousin and uncle had spent the previous night begging me to be inconspicuous, and preferably mute. "Layla, you will get kidnapped. And when pretty young things get kidnapped..." Feeling curious (and gregarious) as ever, I found myself drawn to them like a magnet. Military? No, wrong luggage. Journalists? No cams. Tourists? Highly credible, as Iraq must be on the Travel Channel’s Top 10 Destinations. What did they want from my Baghdad?
“Excuse me, what are you doing traveling to Baghdad?” The guy replied “Work. Is that passport in your hand American?” As curious as I was, he wanted to figure out what was up with the girl in the abaya and Californian accent. “Sure, sure. What kind of work? You’re not military and I know you didn’t find that job on!” He laughed and explained that he was an airport employee and had been an Iraqi resident for three years. Not completely sure of why some British kid would work at the Iraqi airport during his prime, I let it slide. “Three years? You are more Iraqi than me!” I teased.
Day 1, failure 2. Another British guy on the plane. “Umm…excuse me.” Moms shot me a glance, as she had already lectured me about not speaking English in Iraqi territory. “Can I borrow that People magazine you were reading?” I had a lot of Michael Jackson to catch up on. Suddenly, the million dollar word echoed in my mind: inconspicuous. Finally, after a couple hours on a Russian plane, salvaged and without a logo, we arrived. I crossed paths with the British airport employee. “You’re home,” he smiled. “You too, I guess” I slyly replied as I descended down the old aluminum stairs. I took a deep breath and my heart began to pound. I remembered what it felt like to crush again. Baghdad, my love—it’s about freaking time.
We walked into the airport, and I suddenly understood why the British guy worked there. I needed my aviators, I was walking through the Top Gun set, baby! Western guys in khaki donned gold chains around their necks and strode from customs to baggage claims like locals. I double-checked my boarding pass to make sure we didn’t accidentally hop a Dubai-somewhereinthemidwestorpossiblyflorida flight. I looked up through a window to see palm trees in endless sand. Nope, I was home.

Suddenly, I had a realization. This war--the topic that always comes up when people ask me about my background in the same fashion every time--was finally going to take a turn. "If you don't mind me asking, what is the appropriate name for that on your head? I always see you girls, and I don't want to be un-PC. It is just so gorgeous! Oh my, is that embroidered? You must be from Iran. Are you from Iran? I have an Iranian friend who looks just like you! You all have such big eyes." says the liberal and spiritual Californian. The typical profile consists of a good looking mid-aged lady who has spent a lot of time to looking like she hasn't spent much time at all on her appearance. Overpriced flip flops and designer sweatsuits.
Sometimes I bring it up. Whenever I see a man in uniform, I am drawn without return. "Hi--pardon me. Have you been to Iraq?" I painstakingly try to get every glaring detail from the adolescent, generally lost and confused and unwanting to return.
Suddenly,this realization. May be trivial, but the next time that I have a conversation about Iraq, the following part may be omitted:
Everyone: Where are you from? Are you Persian?
Layla: No, no. I am Iraqi. My mom's Kurdish and my dad is Arab--I am totally Iraqi.
Everyone: Oh, wow! When did you come to USA?
Layla: Born here.
Everyone: When's the last time you went?
Layla: The summer before the war...2002...but...we used to go quite often....
At which point, there is an awkward pause as the person ponders how I am "totally" from a country that I wasn't born and and haven't visited in nearly a decade. As our visits came to a halt, I remember being asked when I had last visited my home. With time, my answer drifted from "last summer" to "a couple of years ago" to "the summer of 2002," however long ago that may have been. I would grow more defensive about the emphasis on my heritage while time would drift us apart. Well, ask me now baby! Summer of 2009! And no, it wasn't that scary.

Anyways, back to Baghdad. At this point, we hired a driver to take us out of the airport, controlled by America and limited to travelers, into the free-zone. The 10 km journey consisted of barracks and sand. “This is the safest place you could possibly be,” I told Salar. “Do they have hotels here?” She replied. I will get to intros later, but Salar is known for being the nervous one. Sixteen years young and generally overly cautious, her meticulous ways tend to pay off mainly in the kitchen. Her adventures involve egg substitutions in red velvet cakes, so Baghdad was a bit of stretch for her adolescent soul. I laughed and she looked down at the pocket behind the driver’s seat and froze. “Layla, a gun.” she whispered.
In the free-zone, a band of 10 year old boys made a humble living transferring suitcases from car to car. Finally, something familiar. Raggedy clothes and bare feet, the poverty was all too familiar. Now there were just barbed wire and barracks added to the equation. The thirty-minute journey to my aunt’s took an hour, thanks to checkpoints. Throughout the drive, I peeped into buildings only to find myself facing rifles all too often. We finally arrived Shara’a Falesteen (Palestine Street), the street that I used to bike through with my posse of boys. I jumped on my cousins, and spent the rest of the morning meeting their husbands, fiancés, and kids—what has been their lives since we had last seen each other.
We ultimately migrated to the house that raised me, summer after summer—the same house that raised my mother. The home with the swimming pool that hosted us night after night at 3 am. My grandmother’s home. We turned the corner only to be stopped by…a gate. A checkpoint and a rifle right infront of my grandmother’s home. Apparently, in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyya, 252 gates have been built for protection. I walked into a strange home that was so familiar. I couldn’t help but wonder where I was. The home wasn't my home away from home. I was at my grandma's house, Allah yerhamha (God bless her soul), and she wasn't here--nor were the regular 27 occupants, 2/3 of which had been nomads from rural Kurdish villages who heard there was a Tylenol bearing American. This house should have been annoyingly loud, yet all I could hear was my own heartbeat. I couldn't help but daze off, lost in a conversation that I had the previous day with my uncle in Dubai. Once Baghdad elite, and owner of the home that I was roaming around, my uncle and I were on our way to the TGI Fridays overlooking Ski Dubai. Generally calm and charming, Khalu had an outbreak. "Why TGI Fridays? TGI Fridays and America stole my life. My home. My country. America made me homeless."
I went to my grandmother’s room only to find an empty mattress and pictures of my sister and me along with other grandkids. I stared in disbelief, and slowly grew more and more depressed. The electricity shut off, setting off a feeling of nostalgia. I lit a candle and roamed around the home alone. Rooms without furniture or life. Where was my wealthy uncle and my amazing cousins and their perma-party house? Where even the 70 year-olds wouldn't sleep before 3 am? Oh yea, Dubai. It was all wrong. So wrong. I slept in my grandmother’s room that night.

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  1. Incredible, I patroled along Palestine street many times 2005-2006. I met some really nice people there. I remember driving by Mustansariyah(SP) University among other places and things (some good, some bad).

    I am enjoying your Blog! Glad to see your trip worked out well for you!
    I am currently enjoying Najaf which is how I found this blog (unjobs linked our pictures from Flickr).

    Very Respectfully,

  2. Stefan--I am humbled, thank you. I appreciate your readership, and do not doubt you will leave Najaf without learning how to make the perfect chai.

    Best wishes always,