It’s 4:30 in the morning in Baghdad. I’m listening to the sounds of the prayer call intertwined with a rooster crowing. It’s actually quite beautiful.
The only thing to rely on with absolute consistency in my country seems to be the call to prayer, a song about how God is great. I believe in God. And that He brought me here to my homeland, something I never dared to believe possible, proves to me beyond measure how great He is. Not that He needed to prove anything to me.
My parents left Iraq more than 30 years ago. Before I was born. They met at the University of Baghdad just a few minutes away from where I am actually standing. They slept on flat rooftops under a sky my father told me was full of stars, more than they have ever seen elsewhere. And their lives have since taken them everywhere.
I am disappointed that I can’t see the stars my father told me about my whole life.
It smells of burning in the air. It’s the generators that switch on and off throughout the day as the city’s electric grid – overcome by the influx of electronics and goods after sanctions were lifted – rolls on and off. The mansions of the Ba’athists still stand. They are stunning and far grander in decorum and architecture than I’ve seen in the most expensive neighborhoods where I grew up.
I am happy I at least got to see the rooftops that the Iraqis still sleep on. I wish I could see the constellations change from their view over the decades, fading to the very few stars I now see.
The dusty air blocks out the stars by night but makes it possible to stare directly into the sun by day.
My mother used to tell me the story of the last flight they took out of Iraq. Even at a young age I knew it was a very sad story. I hated hearing it, but I wanted to. I’ve had nightmares my whole life, throughout my teenage years and before and after, of someday returning to Iraq. It was a confused sense of the miraculous, coupled with my family’s worst memories of being captured, imprisoned, kidnapped and seemingly permanently trapped in our destructive homeland.
It didn’t feel that way when I boarded the last flight that would take me into Baghdad. The journey had been four days.
I felt nothing. For days I felt a foreign numbness I never expected. This was supposed to be my dream come true. A biblical return to the promised land that God didn’t grant one generation, but did the next.
I never thought I would come back alone. I always pictured my entire family with me. It’s silly, in retrospect, to expect that much.
I got the window seat I had prayed for and stayed glued to it, an airline map in hand, wondering, “Is this Iraq?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now flying over Iraqi airspace,” the pilot said in his Arab accent.
I felt nothing as I stared over the vast stretch of desert bordering Jordan. Checking my map, then back to the window. Then it happened. I spotted the Tigris.
The Dijla. The ancient river marking the Cradle of Civilization. That cradled the Garden of Eden. The river on which my parents were on a church cruise infamously ruined when Saddam’s brother boarded their yacht and started a fight leading to the arrest of every Christian man, including my father. The Dijla, along which there were parties and clubs where all my friends’ parents met, and where they later married. Where my uncles danced, where my mother wore beautiful dresses I can only see in old black and white photos, where an amusement park stood.
I began crying when I saw that river, sympathetically replenishing its now-receded waters. Moses felt this at seeing and not touching his land.
I wanted to jump from the sky, to dig my hands into the dirt that was once my ancestors’. Where Assyrian kings and queens marched and ruled a vast empire, where their relics still stand proving their existence, where their bones are still buried, where they all spoke my language. Where they know how to pronounce, beautifully, the name I was given.
I didn’t stop crying until I entered Baghdad International Airport. And then, immediately, someone shouted my name across customs to me, in a voice without question or frailty. Beautifully pronounced.
The customs agent looked at my American passport and back at my name. Back and forth.
My name is Iraqi, my passport is not.
“Ey,” I smiled back.
“Isim ktir hilou.”
They still looked confused. My Iraqi name didn’t match my American passport. Hababeen, if you only knew: My Iraqi identity didn’t match my American life.
“…bas awil mara fil Iraq.”
“Ah! Ahlan wa sahlan!” They all cheered and talked into each other so that I barely understood them, welcoming me and excited to see my odd cultural concoction.
They had been expecting me. I’m finally home.