BABYLON- AL HILLAH,
I have come back. Finally, I am here, standing on the same unwinding road that I was forced to bid goodbye to in what seems to have been eons ago and yet, it feels like I never really left at all. Seventeen years have passed since my nightmares first began to unfold into reality; the summer of 1990 forever haunts me. So full of emotion, my eyes tear up as I am still trying to process my arrival. Truly, I feel as if every time I inhale and my lungs expand, I am instantly pricked with a million needles and, whenever I breathe out and my lungs deflate, it's as if I've lost my soul altogether with the carbon dioxide waste. My heart must be shouldering bricks and my legs are but trapped in cement shoes, I just know it.
Why am I back here? I have already lost everything. I am entering a town filled with past ghosts and demons. I tell myself that I need not revisit this sad reminder of the irreparable yet my feet continue marching along this corkscrew path. A vague and dusty town's silhouette enters my field of vision and I spot that it is indeed my neighborhood, and my heart cannot help but skip a beat. I come to the realization that this bewitching road will lead me to the place where I have detained all the most precious moments of my life.
I now stand staring at the once lush, now dust ridden street where the neighborhood children and I used to play. I remember dueling with marbles for the sole purpose of earning more marbles and bragging rights, of course, and how we'd fight with sticks and stones against the next block's kids as if defending off our motherland. We Iraqis have a saying after all, "It's my brother and I against our cousin and it's my cousin and I against all others." Even throughout childhood, Iraqis are taught much about alliances and enemies.
We Iraqis (although my passport now labels me Australian) are all for going on and about against something or someone you see. Some people say it's because we are freedom fighters carrying brave men's blood, because we carry the blood of heroes and patriots; others say it's because we're a people drunk on blood spilled and mixed in by the Euphrates, blood of the world's greatest martyr, Imam Hussein; and the rest, they talk about us saying we are a violent people simply because we carry too much angst after going through a plethora of tragedies. I am again reminded of the year 1990 and promptly feel a chill go down my spine. We can't allow our past to chain us to our fears forever; I try to calm my rattled spirit. I can never forget that it's on this same once green and off beaten road that I, quietly and without notice, fell in love with the woman of my dreams and destiny; the woman I know now as my wife.
I walk around my neighborhood searching for the river we used to skip rocks in, thinking it might have been re-routed only to find out that it had turned into a pipe. A pipe! Ha, talk about pipe-dreams! The irony of it all, really. Now, oh God almighty, I can't decide whether I should hold on or let go, forgive or forget, charge or retreat as all the bits and pieces like minuscule shards from a broken mirror collect in me, and I am painfully being pieced together. Seeing all these unwanted abrasive changes, yet, for the first time in a long time, to be able to walk side by side with myself after having been through such a long journey, I find everything to be a humorous mixture of the chaotic and the beautiful. I sit in front of whatever remains of my ancestral home.
It is in these moments, when I'm in between laughing and crying, somehow, I then will assuredly say to myself that life will go on. I look around and realize that what's in our heads are only in our heads. The world is still as busy and bustling as ever. It's going to be okay, it must. We get up and dust the dirt off and get back on the saddle. We live on. We will someday find a prince or princess to ride off into the sunset with, soon. I don't want to say that life is as easy as putting your two-cents in everything you do or everyone you meet. It's nothing like that. My story proves it, all our stories prove it. This time though, through my story, let it not only serve as proof but also a voice, a candle, and a memorable tune to be carried with the arid, Arabian winds for each of our (the people of Iraq's) sake.
From my middle school years have I seen the look of utter relief on my father's face as he would spot us coming home from school, in one piece. From my high school years have I seen my elder brother and cousin being tossed from one jail cell to another, one torture chamber to another as they kept their heads held high, fighting for freedom against Saddam's terrorizing regime. For years did I hear my mother's desperate cries so many goddamn times as her shrieks haunted my sleep. I knew she was thinking of my brother in every prayer, it was all she could do. All the while darkness filled her chest as she dreaded and prayed for if and when my brother would come home and how bad the scars he'll be carrying this time. I've watched my father break down and beg multiple times to multiple people to just please, please release his son- alive.
I've witnessed my brother, time and time again, deliver a speech to the underground freedom fighting youth (which he was head of), telling them to believe that they can end Saddam's oppressive dictatorship, that no more families should lose loved ones at this dictator's heartless whims, and that Iraq belongs to the people, not to the president. With my own two hands have I learned to treat my brother and his comrades' wounds as they miraculously manage to make it home alive home after days, weeks, and sometimes months of torture. I've tended to some heroes who lost teeth, eyelashes, earlobes and nails as they were ripped right out of their bodies during their torturing.
It was in the year 1990 that I lost the dearest thing to my soul, my elder brother. It was in the year 1990 that, due to utter despair over brother's demise that my father followed soon after, as his health promptly deteriorated. It was in the year of 1990 that my mother lost her smile. It was in the year of 1990 that I forever lost my country as my home. It was in the year of 1990 that the Gulf war would bring an end to everything and everyone I had ever known as whatever survivors will become shells, ghosts of what they once were. It was in the year of 1990 that the world around me faded in gunpowder gray smoke and rusty red ashen ruins of what were once homes and schools and places of worship. It was in the year of 1990, with the odor of blood and disease everywhere, that I sensed the start of my waking nightmare as it began unfolding right before my eyes.