Finding your identity far from home

The guy who took us from Baghdad to Najaf, where my father was buried, drove like someone from 2Fast 2Furious Baghdad Drift. It was me, my grandmother, my great aunt and my little brother. This was the first time I had been in Iraq since I left in 2006.

The city was both strange and familiar. It is customary for people to visit the gravesites of passed loved ones, it’s almost like a duty. But I’d been away for so long, and I had changed so much. I didn’t really know what to expect.

We arrived at the desolate graveyard, and my grandmother bought some rosewater from a kid by the side of the road. It took us a while to find the door to the family crypt but we got there. Inside the stuffy crypt, my grandmother recited some Suras from the Qur’an, and we stood there for a while. Then suddenly, they started sobbing.

I say this in the least disrespectful way, it was awkward. I tried to cry, I really did. I squeezed my eyes and scrunched my nose, it just wasn’t working. At that point, it had been seven years since his passing.

I felt guilty. Why couldn’t I cry? And with that guilt came a strong feeling of disconnection from my family who stayed back.

I didn’t know where to look or what to do with my hands, the crypt seemed smaller and smaller every second.

My grandmother started calling my dad’s name and sobbing pretty hard… And then her phone went off. It was ridiculous. She had an old Nokia brick phone and it was set to the cheeriest ring-tone. It resonated loudly in the small room.

She immediately stopped crying. She picked up the phone and said “Uh-huh… Yeah… It’s on top of the fridge.” Her voice didn’t quiver, it was as if she hadn’t been crying at all. But after a little pause, she started crying again.

I couldn’t understand it. How could she call up such deep grief and put it away with the same ease? I felt like I was missing something fundamental. Whatever it was, it created a chasm between my distant family and me. I simply couldn’t relate.

***

I brought this scene up with my mother when I visited her in San Diego last March. She’s applying for asylum there with my siblings. My little brother says everyone looks like The Dude from The Big Lebowski. She thought it was funny, but her laugh rang false. I think she has always struggled with the path she took while raising us.

I suppose in my distant family’s perspective we’ve been corrupted by ‘Western culture.’ They would disapprove of basically everything I do.

I think the reason why mourning loved ones is so important to them is because they have a very strong sense of community. They put so much emphasis on the sect of religion they belong to, the neighbourhood and country they live in, because that’s where they find their identity.

This is where the difference begins. My mother brought us up to think of ourselves as individuals. I think she did this to protect us from the inevitable pain of being disenfranchised. She knew Iraq wasn’t where we would stay, she saw the disconnection coming.

***

I was only seven when my father passed away, but I think about him sometimes. I haven’t forgotten all the sacrifices he’s made for us and I haven’t forgotten him. This thought comforted me when I couldn’t cry in the warm Najaf crypt.

I also thought about him on those beautiful sunny days in San Diego. A city halfway across the globe from where my mother was born and raised. But in so many ways, it is a perfect illustration of her view of the world.

We drove around a lot, and we talked a lot. She lit up every time we drove by a sandy beach or a hill covered with green trees. I don’t see why being happy and safe is disrespectful to her late husband.

On that trip I learned that I will never see the world in the same way as my family in Iraq. I also learned that I can’t do anything about that, except love them despite the differences.

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