Quick! When you hear the word “Iraq” what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Write it down. Now let me tell you what it brings to my mind.
“You are a tough Iraqi girl”, my dad tells me at age 16 as I am about to undergo a minor surgical procedure. “I am a tough Iraqi girl”, I repeat after him. My dad gives me the thumbs up and smiles. “That’s my girl” he says, “Don’t worry it is a minor surgery, everything is going to be fine” he continues. As the nurse hauls me away on a bed on wheels towards the surgery room, I look back. My dad looks like a deflated balloon. He is hunched over and looks worried. The smile is gone. He doesn’t look all that tough any more.
I am a tough Iraqi girl. I have told myself that through out my life, especially during trying times. At age 8 I decided that I wouldn’t cry anymore, because crying is a sign of weakness. “A true Iraqi never cries” I thought to myself. Initially it took an effort to fight the urge to cry, over time I lost the ability to cry completely. I have a tendency to smile or giggle even in the most stressful situations; a reaction that puzzles and sometimes disturbs people around me. It took even more effort to regain the ability to cry later on, but that is another story.
In September of 2000, I was 8 months pregnant with my third child, recently moved back to Canada and working my tail off at a high stress job. My husband is traveling all over the world with work. Finally, he comes back from what I thought to be his last trip for a while. I felt relieved to have him back home. He can help me bathing the kids in the evening as bending over has become hard, he can also help me carry the 1.5 year old to the car in the morning as she is becoming too heavy for me. One evening right after dinner, his graduate student calls from Jerusalem. He is writing his thesis and freaking out, as many students do during this stage. My husband tells him not to worry; I will grab the first flight to Israel and spend a week with you. Later he tells me that his student needs emotional support, he has to be with him. “What if the baby comes a week or two early? You will miss the baby’s birth?” I ask. “I am starting to get tired and I need some emotional support too”, I continue. My husband chuckles and says: “I am not worried about you at all, you are as strong as a horse.”, Damn! I fooled even my husband with the tough act, so strong as a horse I had to become. That’s what happens when you are from Iraq.
[tip for married men: Don’t tell your wife that she is strong as a horse when she is 8 months pregnant and asking for your help.]
One year later my co-worker comes into my office and tells me, “how do you do it? You have three young kids, a more difficult job, yet you come every morning with a smile on your face and you look great, I have a much easier job, just one kid and there are times when I think I am gonna go crazy, so how do you do it?”. “Oh piece of cake” I tell her, “You just need to be organized that is all.”. She leaves my office looking even more puzzled. I don’t tell her how I get up at 5 in the morning to get everything ready and run around like crazy till 10 pm. I don’t tell her that there are days when I don’t feel like getting out of the bed but I force myself. I don’t tell her that there are days when I feel I am gonna go crazy too but I force myself to smile. That is the tough girl’s trick. When everything is falling apart, smile and keep saying, this too shall pass. This too shall pass, this too shall pass.
Few days before the second American lead war on Iraq, we call my uncle in Baghdad. We try to be cheerful but everything we say sounds like we are saying good-bye. My uncle asks my dad if we are doing well. He had heard over the news that in North America people of Arab decent are being harassed. “I am worried about you”, he tells my dad. Uncle is in Baghdad, days before the war, and he in worried about us living in Vancouver. My dad asks uncle why he doesn’t move out of Baghdad before the war as the fighting is bound to be intense in Baghdad the most. “My son is in the army and he is stationed in Baghdad, how can I run to safety and leave him? If Baghdad is nuked I want all of us to die together”, is his response. We hang up the phone and look at each other, “Do you think we will hear his voice again?”… This too shall pass, this too shall pass. We have been through this once already, no problem, piece of cake.
The war starts and we listen to the news everyday. Somebody at work tells everybody that he has been watching the war and isn’t it cool? Does he realize that thousands of people are getting killed and that many more are being maimed? What could possibly be cool about that. I sit at my desk trying to resist the urge to cry. When I feel that it too strong I go to wash my face in the washroom. I can’t be seen crying, I am a tough Iraqi girl. Somebody I know starts telling me some of his personal problems, he is unhappy in his job and other aspects of his life are not going as he would like them to be. I want to tell him that his problems seem incredibly trivial at this point, but instead I listen carefully. I give him the pep talk about how life has its ups and downs and we need to face each stage with courage. Later I email him Gobran Khalil Gobran’s poem “Joy and Sorrow” from his book The prophet. I am sending the poem to my friend, really I am sending it to me. I really want to believe that there is joy at the end of this sorrow, I want to believe that there is a flip side to this coin, I want to believe that there is a light at the end of this tunnel.
This Iraqi woman, wants to erase a name from her life and make it disappear from her heart. she wants to hop around Iraq documenting the collateral damage without it cracking her spirit. If I ever find the erase button, I hope to share it with the rest of the world.
And then, the ultimate tough Iraqi guy gets captured. Only he turns out not to be tough at all. In fact he looks pathetic, he looks disheveled. I should be happy, I should be celebrating. How I dreamed of this day, how I fantasized about Iraq with out this man. Only now I feel depressed. It takes me a long time to figure out my strange reaction. Fair trial, not a fair trial, I don’t care. I hope they hang him upside down and kick his head in. Why did we let this pathetic loser rule our life?
To all of you who know me in person, I have a confession to make. I am not tough at all. It is all a big act. Really I am a big wimp. I am gonna spend the next two weeks sulking and feeling sorry for myself. Yes! I know that feeling sorry for myself is unproductive. But, I have been productive since I was 8, I deserve a break. I am contemplating not taking a shower over the next two weeks, perhaps if I look and smell like horse shit, it would give people a good indication of how I feel on the inside. Perhaps it’s time to redefine what the word Iraq brings to mind.