I was born in 1978. I think the conditions surrounding my birth are a good snapshot into the remainder of my life and the context of where my family was. My parents got pregnant with me while living in Beirut; my mother is Iraqi and my dad was from Palestine. My parents were both political activists and were volunteering with the PLO as engineers at the time. Conditions were deteriorating so my mother decided to go back to Iraq a few days before her delivery date and that’s how I came to be born in Iraq. My father also left Lebanon to Jordan and was imprisoned by the Jordanian intelligence services for his activities in Lebanon. He spent a couple of months in prison and I spent my first months without having met him. Since my father wasn’t Iraqi I couldn’t get an Iraqi nationality, so my mom issued a temporary document so that I was able to travel to Jordan with her. My father met us when he came out of prison and our family tried to restart their life there.
I have two brothers, I’m the oldest. The middle brother Khalid was born in Saudi Arabia and my youngest brother Majid was born in Jordan. It’s funny because I have an Iraqi accent, my younger brother has a Saudi accent, and the youngest of us has a Jordanian accent with a hint of Egyptian from his university years. We’re a very confusing family. I grew up between Saudi, Jordan and Iraq. The holidays that I remember the most from my childhood was celebrating Christmas. We’re actually not Christians but for some reason back in the 80’s, growing up in a middle-class, secular Arab family Christmas was considered a cultural not a religious celebration for us. When I was in Iraq, my favorite food was this hotdog place in Baghdad. My family always made fun of me for being so anti-Arab in my food taste. I liked some Iraqi food like dolma and kebab and qima, but the food I always went out of my way to eat were these hotdogs and burgers. When I moved to Jordan, the one and only place that I ate almost every day was McDonald’s in Amman. The irony is that even before I even thought about moving to the US – and I never really thought about it until the Iraq-Iran war – my favorite foods were burgers and hotdogs.
I started my schooling in Iraq. We went back to Iraq in 1991 right after the war, while everyone was leaving the country. This was because my dad moved back there after the Iran-Iraq war in 1989 for better economic opportunity. The economy in Jordan was slowing down so he came to Iraq and opened his own water treatment company to support us in Jordan. After the 1991 war the value of the dinar dropped and he wasn’t able to support us anymore and we went back. I started my high school there and stayed in Iraq until 2003. The US was bombing every day, economic sanctions, it’s a very formative experience and I still carry many of the habits I developed with me during those years. For example, my wife always makes fun of me because I won’t throw anything away. During sanctions in Iraq we never threw anything away, we always fixed everything. It’s like an OCD for me, I can’t throw something and replace it, I always try to fix it.
We lived in a rich neighborhood in Baghdad called al-Mansur. I went to a nice school. We had a computer at home too. At the time, it wasn’t a common thing, not many families could afford to have a PC at home. One day my dad brought something interesting that was illegal to own: a satellite dish. We had to install a tent on the roof to hide the dish but I remember we went from having two Iraqi channels heavy with propaganda to having over 500 channels from all over the world. Everyone loved it, all my friends came over to watch it and it was all very hush hush. We even had an evacuation plan for how to hide it if anyone came knocking. The life that I lived in Iraq was simple and safe. Aside from US bombardment, I didn’t really ever feel unsafe. This was also the case in undergrad. We’d hang out, go out for beers at the river, grab sandwiches at midnight.
Both my sides of the family (Iraqi and Palestinian) are rich with stories of ‘leaving’. What does leaving really mean? For my grandfather or father, leaving meant something different to them than what it meant to me. My dad’s side of the family is from a little town called Birqeen in Jineen. That family tree goes back there for generations, so when 1948 happened and my grandparents had to leave, it was an instrumental moment in their lives. When 1967 happened and the Israeli’s showed up and demanded that they leave, when they loaded up their truck and drove away to cross the river into Jordan, it wasn’t something they had planned. The same applies to my Iraqi side of the family. The situation was deteriorating and they just needed a solution. For me, I didn’t only have one place to call home. I grew up with a family that was always moving. I grew up in 7 different apartments, went to 10 different schools, had various different childhood friends. There is no exclusive and continuous definition of home for me during my childhood and definitely not one that is tied to place.
I left Iraq the day after I graduated college and went to Jordan. As part of my master’s degree in Jordan, I founded a post-war reconstruction organization in Iraq. I suspended my degree, took a sabbatical and left my job in Amman to live with my parents during the war. I didn’t want to be disconnected from my family, having experienced that trauma of being separated from my dad in 1991. I decided I’d rather live in a warzone with them than live far away and not know whether they’re alive or dead. During one of my trips to the south conducting work for the organization, we crossed paths with a militia group. They abducted me and a couple of guys that were with me, interrogated us, displayed some power and felt good about themselves then let us go. This was before people started showing up in trashcans with bullets in their heads. I was one of the lucky ones that got pushed around a little and then released. After that, I thought maybe I shouldn’t stay there. Maybe I should take a break. I didn’t know that that would be it, the last time I leave Baghdad for a long time. I left in February 2004.
A few months after I left, my younger brother was kidnapped by a group. We thought he was killed. It was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. My mother had to leave a few months after me because she was stopped at gunpoint next to our house. This small gang stole her Mercedes. Khalid disappeared for weeks, my dad was visiting morgues every day trying to find him. He went through dozens of bodies of kids that were his age and looked just like him not knowing whether the next face was going to be his son’s. It’s true these stories people tell about how the pain of a missing person hurts more than the pain of being told someone had died. Now that I’ve experienced both I can confirm that. When Khalid was missing, there was an overwhelming need for closure. It was an awful experience. After a couple of weeks he called my dad from a prison in the ministry of interior. He had been abducted by government forces, so my father paid the bribes necessary to secure his release. After that incident, Khalid was put in the first car out of Iraq to Jordan. My father followed soon after. It was hard for us to leave of course but compared to other horrific stories of people getting murdered and raped, I’d say we were lucky. I wrote this blog memoire about how it felt having Khalid finally join us in Amman. It’s called Khalid’s eyes. In it I talked about the moment he arrived. Everyone came out to celebrate and congratulate him, as though he had just gotten married or graduated. We were happy that he hadn’t been killed but in the middle of it all, he didn’t look like he was ok.
My father passed away last year but the rest of my family is pretty tight. We text every day. I’ve been in DC for 12 years now, I have two kids, both born here. I’ve owned homes here, I’ve lived here, I’m married. I moved to the US when I was 26 or 27. Ironically, I haven’t really had much of an attachment to any place as much as I have to DC. What does home to me mean as a half Iraqi half Palestinian that grew up in Jordan, Saudi, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, etc? Right now, home is DC. I know that because whenever I leave I feel like a stranger. When I go visit my family in Jordan or when I go to Iraq or Palestine for work trips, I feel like a foreigner. But in DC I feel like we’re all foreigners, everyone that is here is a community of strangers so I don’t really stick out as much. When I go to Jineen I definitely stick out.