My arrival to Baghdad begins badly- my cell phone is dead in my hand and I have no idea where to go. I stand outside, in the hazy sunshine, and feel like a foreigner.
My uneasiness takes the form of uncharacteristic confusion. I cannot remember the name of my meeting place at the airport, the stop where I am supposed to meet my cousin and I have no idea how to get there. What if I can’t find him? What will happen?
I stand, immobilized, clutching the dead cell phone. I speak Arabic fluently but at this moment, I can’t utter a word. I stand there looking at my bag and the phone, and hope it will miraculously ring. Then a man, a shuttle cab driver, sensing my confusion and anxiety asks me where I’m going and I feebly answer something about a meeting place.
“Abbas?” He suggests.
“Yes.” I confirm. Of course- that central taxi stand. Abbas.
“That’s where I’m going,” he says and points to his almost full GMC.
There’s one seat left in the back, which I climb into and squeeze in with my knees crisscrossed. I look anxiously around me wondering where the rest of the passengers are going? I see two women sitting in the row in front of me and feel a little calmer. The exchanges are polite and ordinary and Iraqi. I hear the accent and am immediately warmed by it. I’m finally here, there’s no mistaking this for anywhere else.
On the shuttle ride from the airport, the initial sights are both more reassuring and alarming; the well paved roads, the flowers, grass and fountains decorating the median strip, but then the ominous cement barriers everywhere that give the trip an abrupt stop-and-go and the need to constantly brace for danger. There are Iraqi troops and police stationed at the many checkpoints. I have reason to dread the checkpoints. This is where most attacks happen.
In 2004, my cousin Ali, a cameraman from the Al Arabiya station, was shot by American troops at a checkpoint. The Americans mistook Ali’s camera for a weapon, and he and his accompanying reporter were shot dead on the spot. My cousin Basma, his sister, has built a house with the reparations given for his death. On this trip, I will visit her house for the first time.
The Americans are gone now. All the checkpoints are manned by Iraqi police and soldiers dressed in the uniforms left and paid for by the Americans. Despite their full-out military gear, the Iraqi guards seem so casual as they smoke, chat on their cell phones and wave us through. I don’t know whether to feel relieved or frightened by the lax security.
We arrive at a taxi stand and I see my cousin. I smile for the first time. He can’t see me though he’s looking at the tinted windows and obviously wondering if I’m in this car or another GMC. I’m eager to get out but I don’t have any Iraqi dinars to pay the driver. Again, I panic, and then a fellow passenger offers to pay for me. The rest of the Iraqi passengers are looking at me and wondering where I’m from. I haven’t said a word, I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t have any Iraqi money.
The driver drops me off in front of my cousin, and I remind myself not to yell out his nickname or kiss him in public. I must behave by Iraqi etiquette now that I’m here. As I approach him, he reminds me not to kiss or hug him. I don’t. He beams at me with a big smile and shakes my hand. He repays the other passenger and within a few minutes my bag and I are in his car and we are hugging and kissing. I’m feeling more relaxed and safe. We drive to his sister’s house where everyone has gathered to meet me.
I’ve never been to this cousin’s house before and haven’t been to Iraq without my mother. Khala Fatima, my mother’s elder sister and the matriarch of our family, comes to the door first. I haven’t seen her in seven years; the last reunion was in 2007 in Syria when it was too dangerous to meet in Iraq. I’m delighted to see she looks roughly the same but when I go to hug her, she seems to shrink in my arms.
She’s shorter and rounder. I hang on to her the longest, and try to take in all that I think I’ve missed and all that I think I’ll need for my future memories. Now, I am conscious of her diminished frame and frail health. Her hair is dyed a dark brown and her eyes are teary. When I let go, she kisses me and keeps looking at me.
“Nadou, it’s been too long.”
“I know, Khala.”
She can’t hold back the tears and lets them roll down her cheek. She just saw my mother in me.
We walk inside and immediately my other cousins and a bunch of children I’ve never seen except in photos surround me. I kiss them all as Iraqi custom dictates; kiss one cheek, then the other, then the first cheek again. One by one, the cousins and relatives I know and then the new little children and new spouses. We sit in a few minutes of silence. I’m more than just exhausted from the overnight flight; it’s the tension leading up to my being here. It’s still early, around 9 am. My cousin’s house is impeccably cleaned and organized; everyone is dressed and made up and I’m worried about how disheveled I might look having not slept or even looked at myself.
My mother’s absence is felt by all of us as we start in on small talk.
“How was the flight?”
“Not bad but the timing was not good.” I had taken the aptly named red-eye.
“You must be tired?”
“I’m happy to see you all.”
“It’s been so long and so overdue. I can’t believe I’m finally sitting next to you,” my aunt says as she holds my hand.
“I know Khala. I can’t believe it either.”
We have breakfast and catch up. Catching up on all those years, life events and memories takes a while, but we start with the most recent events and work our way back over the course of the week I’m there.
Seeing Khala Fatima is one of the primary motivations for this trip, as she’s the eldest and the dearest to me- I want to see her, spend time with her and have no regrets.
I miss my mother now more intensely; she has been gone seven years, taken too young and too quickly. My aunts resemble her and share her mannerisms, which brings her back to life. I see my mother in her sisters and they see her in me. We all realize, though we don’t say so, that I’m going to have to do from now on. The constellation is broken but our embrace attempts to close the circle.
Now I know why I had to come here- for this. I don’t have to tell them my grief- they share it.