Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Iraq had too much past, too little present

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As part of a recent six-country tour, I went to the cradle of civilization, whose historical contributions are the bedrock of many nations in the world, including the West.

I'm speaking of Iraq, whose capital is Baghdad, a city I took great risks to flee in disguise more than 20 years earlier.

I arrived by air from Beirut. By the time the 90-minute flight was completed, anxiety had wrapped its arms around my heart. A barrage of thoughts rained down on me. I was heading off to a politically unstable place where well-equipped militia and war profiteers and plunderers control the country. A visitor like me would be at their mercy.

The good memories from my stay in Beirut evaporated when a swash-buckler with a civilian outfit approached me at the arrivals desk at Baghdad International Airport.

Holding my Canadian passport in his hand, he asked me my full name, to which I replied "Hani Al-Ubeady."

With orotund voice he again asked, "What is your Iraqi name?"

"Hani Al-Ubeady," I repeated.

He got agitated and raised his voice, asking me again the same thing.

After moments of great discomfort, I realized what he was asking for. The passport said I was born in Iraq, but my name was Canadianized, just a first and last name. He suspected I was not Iraqi and wanted me to prove otherwise by giving my formal Iraqi name, which must include my first name, my father's name, my grandfather's name and my last name.

That incident reminded me of a similar but reverse situation that I had to deal with on my way to the Caribbean island of Santa Lucia in 2005.

At Montreal-Trudeau Airport, an American customs officer interrogated me for almost an hour. He was asking me about my visit to Iraq in 2003. He saw me as Iraqi, not Canadian.

I jokingly tell my friends that being an Iraqi Canadian means that I have to have a thick skin for interrogation -- from all directions.

In Iraq I am a Canadian. In Canada, I am an Iraqi.

As a teenager, I decided to leave Iraq without telling my family about my plan of departure, a plan that I did not necessarily design. Between the years of 1986 and1990, I made a few attempts to leave Iraq, each ending in failure. The last attempt proved to be successful when all the components of migration success came nicely together.

Leaving Iraq more than 20 years ago was not an easy task for experienced smugglers, let alone for me, a dreamy teenager, whose motivation was neither political nor economic, but rather a sense that future dreams were largely invalidated by a judgmental and patriarchal community.

I left Iraq with one of my adult cousins who was politically coerced and had no choice but to leave. It was an awesome opportunity for me to tag along and be his travel companion. My cousin and I left Iraq illegally, as the intention was not to go back again. We had to choose a route that took us to a neighbouring country -- Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria or Saudi Arabia. The choice was Saudi Arabia.

We fooled the Iraqi checkpoints on the main highway that leads to Saudi Arabia by disguising ourselves with different uniforms and outfits. We practiced making our faces stern to look like soldiers.

If we had been caught, we would have been jailed, tortured or executed as traitors.

We had carefully studied the situation prior to the trip. There were some tense moments at various checkpoints. When the taxi driver became too busybody and started asking us about our trip's purpose and as to why we chose this particular route. I blew the cover by not containing my emotions and keeping cool; I started criticizing the government, society and the whole way of living in Iraq then. Thankfully, he didn't betray us.

And we made it.

I left Iraq loaded with a cultural repertoire most of which I do not personally agree with.

As I said, I did not leave for economic or education reasons as Iraq had an excellent publicly funded education system and an oil-rich economy. I left Iraq in search of an environment in which personal freedom, dignity and aspirations are valued and validated. Iraq did not offer me these basics of respectful and creative existence.

Iraq is too influenced by its past -- thousands of years, numerous dynasties and empires existed on the land of Mesopotamia.

Thousands of years of history have given birth to an extremely pragmatic and judgmental society whose traditional priorities did not recognize mine.

It is a society that is preaching about the past glories and the awe-inspiring achievements of ancestors whose teachings, admittedly, echoed in all corners of the Western world.

In taking this route, however, the society has missed the present civilization's procession and lost touch with the present, while coquettishly flirting with the success stories of Al-Andalusia (Arabs of Andalusia, Spain from the 9th to the 15th centuries).

Yes, they have the right to be proud of the past, but only if today's generations of Iraqis -- and the entire Arab world, for that matter -- practise what they preach of values and morality.

Even though I was born in Iraq, I do feel more Canadian when it comes to personal values and intellectuality. My goal is to have my kids raised with universal values, armed with love, acceptance and peace. Being both (Iraqi and Canadian) is a cultural wealth from which my kids will nurture their personal belief systems and be better world citizens.

 

Hani Al-Ubeady is an Iraq-born Canadian who works as a refugee councillor at Welcome Place in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J19

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