From Iraq to Ireland: Heather Flowers and Mutual Human Experiences

After more than one month of travels, I come back to you with thousands of faces, tears, smiles, and stories. I come back dragging behind me heavier luggage filled with old and new wounds, joys, and deep human connections from remote corners of the world that at first glance seem like foreign places, until we dig a bit deeper beneath the surface. As I open my diary, my eyes fall on the now drying heather flowers one of my new Irish friends handed me as a token of friendship and remembrance of the countryside, the wilderness, the small towns, and the cozy villages that we drove through and walked around during my recent visit to Ireland. My eyes also catch the notes I have written down about the rich Iraqi-Irish human connections, commonalties, and conversations. It is these mutual human experiences that I want to share with you today. I want to capture the ties between my Iraqi past that now makes me feel like a seven thousand years old man, combined with the age-old Irish wounds of colonialism, domination, and marginalization that resemble everything we have been experiencing in Iraq for the longest time. As painful as these connections are, however, they are also what make us understand each other in powerful ways beyond the rhetoric of media, politicians, and war profiteers.

The story always starts in the same way when people ask me the simple, yet most difficult question to answer: “where are you from?” I often wonder why of all questions people start with this one that has become the hardest for me and countless other exiled people to answer. The question is especially hard when asked in crowded and fast-paced places, or during quick encounters which make a short answer inadequate and a long one potentially uncalled for. This time, however, the question came from a genuine Irish stranger whom I didn’t know will turn out to be one of the most caring and kind souls I have encountered in my travels. “Where are you from?” he asked me in the café. I wasn’t ready to give a long answer, considering the time and the place. I suddenly had a blackout and drowned in my own thoughts. I thought to myself: why is it that the first thing people want to know about me is where I am from? If they only knew where I am from, they would perhaps know that where I am from—Iraq—happens to also be the deepest wound on the geography of my body and soul, and so they would tread gently on my wound by not asking that question in the first place. Is there something in my eyes, something written on my forehead, something in my looks, or some marks inscribed on my other body parts that immediately tell people that I am from a place that lost itself and lost me to exile on a cold, dark, and sad winter night? Why don’t these strangers just start with the more common and safer usual remarks about the weather being nice, dreadful, or whatever? Of all questions, “where are you from,” is the most delicate and complicated for people who have lost their home and all the things they loved. I would be doing myself, my past, and my existence a huge injustice if I simply choose the short, yet technically correct answer, “I am American.” At the same time, I would be doing America and all the people, places, cities, countries, and families that have embraced me and bestowed an unquantifiable amount of love upon me injustice if I simply say that I am Iraqi. Who am I then? Am I everybody and nobody? Am I everywhere and nowhere? Is a state of multiple existence the only thing that captures my reality and the reality of countless other exiled and displaced peoples around the world today? Is a multiple existence a good thing or is it akin to nonexistence? Am I like God who is everywhere for those who believe in him and nowhere for those who do not?

I returned to reality as I saw the Irish stranger still staring at me and waiting attentively for an answer. I chose the shortcut answer that I hoped won’t lead to a complicated conversation. “I am from the US,” I said. The stranger went on to say that that was nice and hoped that I was enjoying Dublin. “But where are you originally from?” he continued with a tone of insistence and skepticism. As it had happened many times before, the short answer is never sufficient for an interested conversant. In fact, it often makes the shortcut response backfire and lead to an even longer conversation, which reminds me of one of my dear professors who always advised “we have no time for shortcuts!”

The Irish stranger was right to insist on where am I originally from? The US is neither enough nor convincing. “I am an Iraqi-American. Does that explain better?” I decided to just go ahead and give him the slightly more detailed response while holding my breath. Life has taught me to omit the word “Iraq” from my responses when encountering strangers, because the word has been so demonized, stigmatized, and misunderstood that it may potentially cause unexpected reactions from strangers about whom I know nothing but my first instinct as a guiding compass. The word “Iraq” has the potential to drag me into long conversations I may not be prepared to have, either due to the wrong time, the wrong place, the unenlightened politics of the questioner, or all of the above. Nowadays, thanks to the continuous consequences of the US occupation, the word “Iraq” has the added bonus of dragging us into conversations about the thousands of refugees flooding Europe, ISIS, and many other topics that require serious and heated conversations that strangers may not be prepared to have or willing to hear at the time of asking. I am not embarrassed by the word “Iraq” that still rings like the most beautiful musical tone in my ears, but I am also a person who doesn’t easily retreat or withdraw from a conversation, especially if the other person really needs to know a different version of the story that media propagandists and warmongers have succeeded to conceal from them.

Fortunately, the Irish stranger very much welcomed the addition of “Iraq” to my response, which became the topic of our conversation for the following few hours that evening. I was deeply touched not only because this stranger understood well what has been happening in the Middle East for the last few decades, but also because he was eager to learn more about it from someone with a first-hand experience with events. “I have never met an Iraqi before,” he told me.

As I started sharing more and more stories about my life, the tragic invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent chaos and destruction that was caused following the 2003 occupation, the stranger who displayed a deep knowledge about Irish history and politics, both during the centuries of British domination and following independence, started to share with me important moments of that history and how much of what has been happening to Iraqi people, Palestinians, Syrians, and the Middle East in general is similar to what the Irish had experienced from nearly eight hundred years of British rule. Although I knew a good deal about how the English ruled Ireland, I took a great solace in hearing an Irish person recite some of it and share stories that had so many commonalities with the painful reality of the Middle East today. I suddenly realized that it is important to never lose sight—and insight—of the fact that what is happening today has happened yesterday and will probably happen tomorrow as well, if we don’t truly understand, learn from, and interrogate history. It may happen tomorrow again if we don’t fight with all our strength so that it doesn’t repeat itself in the way it is today in the Middle East.

After sharing so many war and exile stories, I decided to soothe the atmosphere by chatting about the influence some great Irish writers have had on me when I was in high school. I joked that even though much of my previous academic training had technically been in “English” literature, most of my favorite writers are in fact Irish. I mentioned how much writers like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Edna O’Brien, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and many others have inspired me as they taught me about dissidence, social justice, and the desire to never quit searching for meanings and deeper truths. The Irish stranger also joked that perhaps many Irish people’s dislike for rules and order goes back to the colonial domination under which they had to always follow and do what the English dictated. He mentioned how he once parked at an illegal place to take care of a quick chore, and as soon as he opened his car door, an English man parked behind him and asked whether it was legal to park there, to which he responded, “no it is not legal to park here,” which left the English man in shock of how could an Irish man parked illegally tell him that he couldn’t park at the same place! We also shared stories about our farming backgrounds, our families, and what it means to grow up with a few siblings, three in his case and six in mine, with whom one has to share every morsel, every laughter, and every tear.

The next day, the Irish stranger was no longer a stranger. He rather turned out to be quite familiar with everything I had known, loved, and cherished all my life. The new Irish friend invited me to one of the most memorable trips through the beautiful Irish towns, villages, and breathtaking wilderness of Wicklow. He also shared with me his memories of his late parents who loved farming and the countryside of Ireland, which equipped them with so much kindness and wisdom throughout their lives, just as the Iraqi countryside and mountains have done to my own parents and ancestors. He told me how his mother dedicated her entire life to her children and was always present in their farm house, even after they had all left the house: “Every time we visited our home, we would go and greet my mother through the kitchen door that was always unlocked. She only left home to go to church on Sundays and to town one day per week to buy some necessities. After she died, I visited the house and forgot for a moment that she was no longer there. I put my hand on the handle of the kitchen door to realize that it was locked for the first time ever in my life!” He also told me about his father’s passion for farming, the land, and life in the countryside: “When my father got sick, I was very busy with my studies. However, it was on a Monday, I still remember, when I had a feeling that I needed to see him so badly. I went to visit him that day. On my way, I bought him a sandwich that was cut into two halves. He ate one half and I decided to keep the other half for him to eat the next morning. I visited and had a very special time together on that Monday. On that same night, however, his health deteriorated and he passed away. The next morning I opened the fridge to see the second half of the sandwich that he will never eat.” He said that with tears flowing down from his eyes.

The next day, after spending the most magnificent time in the Irish countryside, my Irish friend said goodbye to me with three red apples from his garden, a small branch of heather flowers, and three volumes of James’s Joyce’s Ulysses with a dedication on each volume. On Volume I, he starts the dedication with Seamus Heaney’s beautiful words: “I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.” The dedication ends with the Irish words “go n eiri an bothar leat” [May the road rise up to meet you]. On Volume II, the dedication expresses his sincere wishes that I take with me many beautiful moments from Ireland and that I will return again and again in the future. Volume III’s dedication starts with W.B. Yeats’s line: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

I left Ireland feeling a great joy, but also a sense of emptiness that one experiences when saying goodbye to a dear friend. I left with one more new friend on our planet; with heather flowers that are drying between the pages of my diary, but will remain evergreen and everpurple in my memory; with James Joyce’s Ulysses, of which Joyce said that he had wanted to describe Dublin in such a detailed way that if it suddenly disappears off the face of the earth, people would be able to reconstruct it by reading the book; and lastly, I left with three red apples kissed with Irish sun and washed with Irish rain. All this started with the short and painful question of: “Where are you from?” And I am so grateful for that question that proves to me over and over again in every place I visit how our human stories and histories can be more mutual and interconnected than we ever imagine. It proves to me how, contrary to what warmongers want us to believe, many of us in different parts of the world are allies not enemies, once we actually start talking about who we are, where are we from, and where are we heading to. These mutual experiences are especially necessary in these dark times of increased hatred, racism, and violence that are hitting almost every country around the world.

And so, to my new Irish friend and  to all those who are willing to share deep moments of mutual human connections I say: I am an exiled Iraqi who happens to be an American too, who happens to have experienced and felt so much love and enjoyed so many opened homes, hearts, and arms in many countries. My dream has always been the same ever since I opened my eyes in war-torn Iraq. My dream is that Iraq and every country that is now burning with the fires of war, exploitation, and indifference will heal. My dream is that, building on Margret Atwood’s insight, we become lifeboats not sharks to each other. My dream is that where I am from doesn’t become just a nostalgic memory from a past of a self that has been lost forever. I hope where I am from is not like the kitchen door of my Irish friend’s mother that will never be opened in the same way again, or like his father’s half sandwich left in the fridge after experiencing the great loss from the previous night.

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.