I carry the Middle East in my blood.
43.6% of me is Iraqi, Turkish, and Armenian. That comes from my parents and grandparents. 6.2% of me is South Asian: the remnants of my great grandfather, an Indian man who fought for the British and found his way to Iraq. I even carry tiny pieces of my earlier ancestors, who lived in an 11,000-year-old settlement on the southern coast of Cyprus.
But if you asked, I’d just say Iraqi. Baghdad, Nineveh, Al-Anbar, Kurdistan, Saladin – my ancestors came from all over what was once known as Mesopotamia, the Land Between Two Rivers. The cradle of civilization, with a capital that was later known as the Paris of the Middle East.
I did not grow up in Iraq. I grew up in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. All I ever saw of Iraq was the red sandstorm that rolled into Abu Dhabi one weekend. It filled the air with a fine terracotta dust. I watched it from inside our first floor apartment which sat prettily in front of the Persian Gulf.
“That red sand is from Iraq,” my grandmother observed, sitting in a chair by the ceiling-to-floor windows that dominated our home. She was snapping peas.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I know everything,” she said mysteriously.
When I was in sixth grade, I remember someone announcing on the school bus that Saddam Hussein had been captured. Naively, I thought to myself that this meant the war would be over. It wasn’t, of course. All of it had been an elaborate ploy to get at the oil that bursts at Iraq’s permanently damaged seams.
I shared a cavernous room with my grandmother, and she would tell me stories at night if she was in the mood for it. She claimed to have stopped a murder, and once told me that she’d grabbed a poisonous snake by the head. But she’d also tell quieter stories, usually about Baghdad. The door was always kept unlocked and people would burst in demanding conversation and a fresh cup of Turkish coffee. My mother and her brothers would sleep on the roof under the big, luminous, Arabian moon with only a net to protect them from mosquitoes. At the time, Baghdad boasted a night sky that was blanketed in more stars than you can imagine. So they would lie there all night, under the great, wide, endless expanse with the sickly smell of night-blooming jasmine rising up to meet them from the garden below.
I was in college when I learned that a lot of people do not see Iraqis as human beings. But I look ethnically ambiguous. My mountain-dwelling ancestors gave me their wide, dark eyes and sloped nose, but they also gave me their pale skin. So I pass, and people treat me like a human being, but not my people. Never my people.
Iraq is now primed to become a battleground, what with the attack on the airport in Baghdad. I do not know my homeland or my people, but I somehow feel the emptiness of having nowhere to go. I will never have anywhere that is mine.
“You have more freedom of speech here than you would in Iraq,” someone told me once.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said acidly. “I’ve never been.”