Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Iraq had too much past, too little present

  • Print

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

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Drew Willy signs with Bombers through 2017

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A pelican comes in for a landing Wednesday afternoon on the Red River at Lockport, Manitoba - Standup photo- June 27, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Young goslings jostle for position to take a drink from a puddle in Brookside Cemetery Thursday morning- Day 23– June 14, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

  • Africa edition

    Africa is one complex and gloriously unmanageable 'theme' to choose to kick off our 2012 series, Our City Our World, which is why it took up the whole newspaper on Jan. 18.

  • China edition

    Hard-working Chinese immigrants, once banned, have risen to the highest echelons of Manitoba.

  • Germany edition

    German immigrants have played a surprisingly large role in the development of the province.

  • Iceland edition

    Arriving in Manitoba in the 1870s unprepared for a brutal winter, Icelandic settlers and their descendants have left their mark on our province.

  • Italy edition

    Industrious Italians rose from peasant roots and adapted to Canadian society by mastering L’art d’arrangiarsi (the art of getting by).

  • Latin America edition

    It used to be the only time Prairie folks met Spanish-speaking people was when they vacationed down south. More often now, they're the people next door.

  • Middle East edition

    When the first Middle East families immigrated to Manitoba, mosques were unheard of and even yogurt was exotic. But now all that has changed.

  • Philippines edition

    A booming Filipino community nearly 60,000 strong has transformed Manitoba.

  • South Asian edition

    As the city's Indo-Canadian population experiences dramatic growth, its pioneers recall their warm Winnipeg welcome.

  • Ukraine edition

    Scarred by Holodomor, the Ukrainian community helped shape Winnipeg's cultural mosaic.

  • United Kingdom edition

    Manitoba's history is built on a foundation provided by settlers from the U.K., who came here seeking better lives.


Should the August civic holiday be renamed to honour Terry Fox?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google