In Baghdad I was in Catholic school from kindergarten until high school. The school was run by Catholic nuns, who spoke English and French. Jews, Christians and Muslim students were attending the same school. It took me a few years after I attended the school to realize I was a Muslim and not a Christian.
I remember going to the small church we had at school, I was told that the Virgin Mary would listen to our prayers. I used to kneel in front of her statue and ask her for the impossible. I thought all the time that she acknowledged my presence and always looked at me with a loving smile. I kept wondering if she was hearing me or laughing at my nonsense. The smell of the old wooden pews is still in my nose. Wherever I travelled, I used to go to churches to light candles but the smell of the churches wasn’t the same. Is it because the smell of the earth in Iraq was different?
We sang the Xmas carols in English and in French in the church during Xmas. The echo of our voices used to reach the wooden ceiling. There was a small window on one side of the church where white pigeons were watching us while we were singing. During that time of the year, we were all looking for a few days of vacation.
During the holidays, we were invited for a Xmas dinner. My mother was a school principal and her best friend and assistant was Christian. I remember Khala (auntie) Ghazala, she was very close to my mother, and I knew even when I was a kid that all my mother’s secrets were with Khala Ghazala. My mother trusted her more than she trusted my real aunt.
Khala Ghazal belonged to a well-known Christian family. Her family and ours were very close. Her brother designed our house which was located in one of the best neighborhoods in Baghdad, the house were all the good memories were.
Khala Ghazal invited us for Xmas dinner. My mother chose a red dress with a white collar and a satin belt for me to wear. How do small things stay in the memory even when we age? I still remember the shoes I wore; they were shiny black shoes with a flower on the front. I had thick black long hair. My mother combed my hair, braided it, and tied it with red and white ribbons.
When we arrived at Khala Ghazal’s house, I knew that Khala Ghazal would be my Santa and that she would give us presents. The Xmas tree was tall; I remember where it stood and still remember the decorations on the tree. I sat on the floor beside the tree, looked up, and there was Virgin Mary statue hanging on the tree. She had a beautiful smile and her hands were opened wide, I didn’t ask her for the impossible that time, I was asking her if she knew what Khala Ghazala got me for Xmas.
We, the kids started playing, time passed, and then we were called for dinner. The big dinner table was full of Iraqi food, and in the middle, the turkey was lying on his back waiting to be eaten.
All that I remember now are the voices, were we all taking at the same time? Was there music? I don’t’ remember, all that I remember is that we were happy being together.
The time came for Khala Ghazal to give me my Xmas present. She called me. I stood in front of her, excited and happy. She gave me a small box. I was disappointed thinking that the bigger the box was the better the present it would be. I asked her if I could open the box she said yes. I opened the box and there was to my surprise, a watch, with a pink bracelet. I hugged her, kissed her on her cheeks and I told her that I loved her so much.
Xmas that year was good to me and so were other ones that followed.
Khala Ghazala died a few years ago. When I heard the news I looked at the watch I was wearing and realized that a long time had passed since then. My mother had died while I was living in exile. Baghdad has witnessed brutality and wars. There is no Santa roaming in the streets of Baghdad. Kids in Baghdad might not get presents as other kids all over the world do.
Xmas in Canada
Since I came to Canada twenty two years ago, I have known that Xmas is for going home, for being with family members and for celebration. I don’t have a family here anymore as my oldest son is living in China and with the younger one, even though he is living close to where I live, we don’t see each other that much, and he celebrates his Xmas with his girlfriend’s family. I belong to a big family but my family members are scattered all over the world. My good friends in Canada are my family now, and I am lucky to have them in my life.
Xmas reminds me of the war in Iraq in the early nineties, when the Americans turned the sky of Baghdad “into a Xmas tree” from their continuous bombing as Wolf Blitzer at CNN described it. Xmas and the death of the innocent people was one in the eyes of a CNN reporter.
It has been twenty years, but Xmas still reminds me of the death of the Iraqi people who did nothing to the Americans who celebrated that Xmas in the nineties and others after that. Xmas reminds me of the thousands of Iraqi kids who don’t go to school because they have to support their families. Xmas reminds me of the suffering of my own people because of the wars which were launched on them by killers who claimed that they would spread democracy in Iraq.
I wish I could be able to move the time backward so that I could sit on the floor of my old school’s church, look at the Virgin Mary’s face and speak to her again “You are a mother, how did you allow this to happen to the Iraqi children and why do they have to suffer from poverty, cancer, literacy and wars, Why .. Why?”
I also wish I could be able to tell the Iraqi kids to hope for good days to come.
Nesreen Melek is an Iraqi exile living in Canada.