Iraqi Voices Reflecting on Home, Exile, and the Future

The Road to Understanding Syria Goes Through Iraq:
Returning to Iraq After a Decade in Exile (Part Two)

On June 23, I wrote to you the first part of a “thick description” of how I saw and what I saw in Iraq when I returned to it after one decade in exile in 2015 to conduct a year-long anthropological research for my doctorate degree. I wanted to paint to you an image of what has become of Iraq, after 14 years of its invasion, to hopefully give you some important clues as to why the Syrian war has been happening since 2011, and what kind of Syria do the involved neocolonial and imperial players want to create once they finish destroying Syria as we knew. I strongly insist that the road to understanding the future of Syria goes through what has been happening in Iraq for the last 14 years. Today, in this second part of the article, I would like to provide a “thick description” of my last week in Iraq. Of course, between the first week and the last week so many things happened just like so many things happen between birth and death. Many pages were filled, resulting in nearly 430 pages of my dissertation, which I hope to turn into a book to be read by as many people as possible one day.

The Last Week

During my last few days in Iraq, I went on a short road trip around the north. I wanted to embrace for one last time its hills and mountains, its fields, waterfalls, springs, lakes, flowers, streets, buildings, and skies. On my last day in Erbil, I paid one last visit to the convent that supports the internally displaced people in the Christian district of Ankawa, followed by a visit to Saint George’s Church, where I was baptized as a child. I took a short walk in its small and magical rose garden. I smelt every rose my nose could reach. The scent of the roses filled me with life and hope. Next to the convent there was a shrine under renovation. Most of the workers doing the renovation were displaced Christians from the Mosul area. As I entered the site, the construction workers surrounded me and greeted me warmly: “are you here to light candles and make a wish,” one displaced old man asked me in Aramaic. “Yes I am.” He immediately ran to Virgin Mary’s statue right on the opposite end of where I was standing, picked up some candles, and came running to hand them to me. He then said, “Let me get the priest’s permission to open the door and let you inside the shrine.” He did.

As I was lighting the candles, I started humming one of my favorite hymns, “My Home is your Home”, by the Lebanese singer, Fairuz. I always loved this hymn because in it, Fairuz speaks directly and honestly with God about her pain and suffering. She allows her sorrow to flow like a river as she tells God:

My home is your home, I have nobody

I called your name so much

until the horizon has expanded

I waited for you at my door

and at every other door

I wrote you my pain on the setting sun…

Don’t neglect me, don’t forget me

I have no one but you

Don’t forget me…

My country has turned into an exile

My path has been covered with thorns and weeds

Send me someone tonight to check on me…

I waited for you at my door

and at every other door

I wrote you my pain on the setting sun…

While humming these words, a few things crossed my mind. First, it occurred to me that, despite being one of the most meaningful and powerful hymns for many Lebanese people during Lebanon’s long civil war, the hymn was first sang in 1972, three years before that war had erupted. It was as though Fairuz knew beforehand what was coming as she says, “my home has turned into an exile.” I thought how artists, writers, and thinkers who are genuinely and strongly connected to their time, space and people, always sense disasters before they befall. They are not magicians with crystal balls. They simply use their other well-trained senses, beyond their five senses, to feel the upcoming earthquake, to sense the eruption of the upcoming volcanos, the approaching hurricanes. They signal what they sense in their works, while many people don’t take their warnings seriously.

Second, it occurred to me that Fairuz, in her hymn, is speaking to God about exile. It occurred to me that there are some striking similarities between God and exile. Like exiled people, God has often been a political and a politicized figure in history. Like exiled people, God’s power lies in God’s existence everywhere and nowhere. It is similar to how countless exiled people feel. They have a multiple existence, but multiple existence can also be akin to nonexistence. God, therefore, is the ultimate expression of exile. God, if exists, should understand the meaning of exile more than anyone else.

As I finished lighting the candles in the shrine, I remembered that I had asked most of my interlocutors at the end of every encounter to share some final words about how, after all their painful experiences, they would define “home” and “exile” today. I also asked most of them to share some final words on their hopes, pains, dreams, and wishes about Iraq. It is to their final words and wishes, as I share some of them below, I lit these candles in the shrine. It is to them I dedicate these lines also. In what follows, I would like to capture for you selections of final words of exiled and internally displaced Iraqi academics from different sites of this research, as they reflected, directly in their own voices, on everything their country has been through. The collage of voices below are diverse in gender, ethnicity, religion, political affiliations, and academic disciplines. I use pseudonyms to protect the privacy and safety of the participants. I capture this collage of voices because we often hear from so many “experts”, commentators, and pundits about all kinds of complex issues produced by refugees and displaced people, yet we rarely hear directly from these people in their own voices. We rarely know how they feel about living in exile and displacement. We hardly hear about their direct voices telling us how they cope with this tremendous pain and these unquantifiable losses.


Iraqi Voices Reflecting on Home, Exile, and the Future


I feel lonely in London. I want to write many books, but given everything I have been through, I lack confidence. Writing is an extreme act of self-confidence…I am not married because I don’t believe in marriage. I still don’t have an academic job or any job for that matter. The image people had of me as a strong, intelligent woman at the university in Iraq cannot be fathomed by people here. All they can see is a job-seeker, or just a failure, I am sad to say. This is especially hard for me because in the Middle East-and probably in most parts of the world- women are defined by one of the two roles: either a wife and a mother or a proud working woman. I currently have neither…


You know how overwhelmingly rejuvenating the scent of Iraqi roses is? I have never smelt any roses like Iraqi roses. Ever. I always missed them here in London. When my sister died, I went to Iraq in 2003 to attend her funeral. I took a quick visit to my late mother’s old house now occupied by other family members. I saw lots of roses in her garden. I decided to cut a few stems to bring them and plant them here in London to remind me of home. I hid them well and managed to get them past security points in airports. I planted them in my garden here. When they bloomed, to my disappointment, they still didn’t have that strong scent. They smelt like any British-grown roses. This is ‘home’, my dear Louis… ‘Home’ for me has become no more than a container for our ancestors, our loved one’s bones. It is a place where memories once lived and thrived. Today it is just those distant memories. Nothing else.


Living in exile is hard. I don’t take lunch time at my current university in London, because I feel some inferiority complex dealing with westerners due to what I have been through. There are huge cultural differences. Adapting has been extremely hard. I am not like other young refugees who can do a better job adapting. Here, faculty come by sometimes and knock on the door announcing lunch time. They like to hang out at this time every day. I always find excuses not to go. When I do hang out with them for lunch, I feel that their talk, their style, their interests, their daily activities are so alienating and disconnected from my life experience. I try not to talk, but then I also try not to make them feel that I am distant. I try to smile, but I find it hard to find a mutual topic of interest. I feel we are from two different worlds. My previous position in Baghdad was very different. I was so close to everyone. People knew how I felt without me saying a single word…I try to get accustomed to life in exile. I try to be involved even in areas that do not interest me as a female scientist, like women’s rights! I try to be involved even when I am not really interested. This is my way for adapting…Here everything is about grants. You have to have projects/research ideas and get grants to work on projects. We did not have any of this in Iraq, so it is really hard to get accustomed to this system of constantly having to market yourself. I am struggling in every way you can imagine. I find it hard to ask people questions, because they may think I am stupid, or Iraqis are not qualified enough…In return, as a woman, I feel freer. I can do anything I want by myself, and nobody would bother me…


What is home? Home, to me, is a kind heart. It forgives you your mistakes. It embraces you and embraces your talents and skills. In it, you feel that you are building an unshakable base. It is freedom. It is a place in which you can walk proudly, with your head high, your chin up. You can walk without kneeling for anyone. I’m too old now and my hopes have faded through my long exile in Amman, but I have some hope. My hope is that you and your generation will do something good for Iraq. Please don’t give up on Iraq…


The role of the academic and the intellectual amid all this is to give hope. There is hope. I try to maintain my roots in Iraq by keeping in touch, virtually and physically, with friends and family. I ask constantly about the people I love in Iraq. Many of them also call me, and they connect their children with me whenever they need any assistance here in Jordan. My role is not to be an impediment in anyone’s way, even in the way of those who hurt me and hate me…I am ready to intellectually support and advise any students through the University of Baghdad from my place here in Amman…Some of my former students and colleagues in Baghdad make me feel guilty for not being there with them in this struggle, but I always remind them that I didn’t leave at will. I left by force when my husband was kidnapped. I never wrote my memoirs in my life, except the days when my husband was kidnapped, because they were the most difficult days emotionally and psychologically ever. They were truly hard times…


All over the world, wherever you are allowed to work and have a secure roof over your head and just laws, you can feel at home. This was the reasoning of all those who came to exile. But, there is a difference between being a ‘native’ and a ‘resident’ of a place. So, for me, I do have a native place, it is Iraq. At the same time, I honor the exile in Jordan that has helped me and gave me a shelter, so it is also my new home…One way to overcome exile is to make sure we don’t get alienated from each other as humans…We should do everything possible to avoid getting alienated from ourselves. That is the only real battle. The only battle worth fighting…


I refused many offers to go to the West. I had several opportunities, including resettling in the U.S. through the International Organization of Migration (IOM), but I refused. I want to be here in Jordan, despite all the difficulties. The culture here suits me more. And, more importantly, I want to keep an eye on Iraq…


Home is memories, childhood, and youth. My dream is for Iraq to be safe and in social harmony. I want the ethnic conflicts to end. I wish to go back one day, but my hope weakens when I hear the news. I am scared of dying here in Amman. I want to go back to my friends and tell them about what happened to me in exile. My mother’s passing here in November of 2013 was a loss as big as losing Iraq. It was the hardest thing. Mother is belonging. You belong to your mother. Your country, symbolically, is like your mother- it gives you lots of things that your mother gives you. They are both wells of love and kindness.


There is too much violence around the world. It is so harsh out there that it feels impossible for us to be able to change society, affect policies, increase awareness, fight ignorance, and still make a living in exile. As a result, most Iraqi academics and intellectuals choose solitude and exile. I wanted Jordan to be a temporary station in my life of exile, but now I am more frightened than ever that exile is my permanent destiny…


For the new generations, ‘home’ is connected to self-interest; it must be a profitable place. It is a pragmatic place. This is precisely how those who chose to settle in places like Europe and the U.S. think of the concept of home. For me, ‘home’ is the place where my people are being tortured as we speak now. It is a place where I grew up and where my dreams grew up with me. It is a place where I learned how to serve people. I won’t be the first one to say this, as many poets and philosophers had said it before me: a human being finds himself in what he gives to others. To realize yourself, you have to serve others and to give them tirelessly. Home is not to establish yourself in the European sense of the word- to look for what only benefits you as an individual. Here in Jordan I do serve people, but this service is at a humanist level. At home, my service takes a different dimension, it becomes a national duty. Right now, I feel that I have not given Iraq the care and work it deserves, but I don’t have a choice in that. This is precisely why I have been trying to resort to online education, so that I can help Arab, Iraqi, and international students whom otherwise I wouldn’t have a chance to reach out to. Exile took so much from me at the psychological level. Exile is suffering, sleepless nights, and anxiety. But, exile also gave me priceless opportunities to learn more about other experiences, other countries, and other people. I have authored five academic books since I settled in Amman, all of which are taught in several universities in the Arab world.


My hope for the future is that we get rid of this ideological, political, and religious game. There is hope that Iraqis will gradually wake up and start to believe in home and citizenship rather than ethnic, religious, and sectarian divides. It will take time, but it will happen. I know it will happen.


I am unhappy and uncomfortable overall. This situation, the hardships, the wars, getting exiled to Amman, and more importantly, my husband’s illness really broke my back.  I married this man because I loved him, despite age difference and our different ethnic backgrounds…I used to be known among people for my smile. I don’t smile anymore. My intellectual life is not what it used to be. I have authored 18 books, many of them are taught as textbooks in Arab countries like Bahrain and Sudan.  However, the last two years in exile have been so hard on me. My daughter left for the U.S. My son got diabetes. My ill husband may not live long. I shoulder all the responsibilities around the house. I feel so tired and don’t know how long I will manage to do all these duties. I always wanted a husband with my father’s attributes and my husband had perfectly fulfilled that. He has always been loving, kind, helpful, and supportive and always there for me, but his illness changed things. I used to be pampered by him all the time. You can call it Oedipus complex. I loved my father so much. More than my mother, God rest her soul…My husband reminded me of my father. I didn’t look tired, overweight, and neglected like this. It is true that I am not beautiful by the highest standards, but I looked decent before I was hit by all these hardships…


War and exile have taught me to love myself, to reconcile with myself and with others. They taught me to forgive, to return offenses with goodness. Exile gave me many things, but war and exile robbed me of the opportunity to go see my favorite man in the world—my father—for one last time before he died in Baghdad. I will never recover from this wound. My father was a just man. He loved his sons and daughters the exact same way. He gave us all the freedom we wanted to be whoever we wanted. When I was an undergrad studying biology, his favorite thing in the world was to have lunch with me and listen to my college sorties and adventures…I am sorry to be very pessimistic, but I think that Iraq will only get worse. Many people have died and it is impossible to forget those who died. There is so much hatred and feelings for revenge between people. It takes a great degree of awareness to learn how to have a dialogue that allows people to eventually mend the wounds and forgive each other…


As much as we love the homeland, when the homeland rejects me, when it can’t allow me to exist, then the meaning of home must also change. When I go to Baghdad now I feel alienated, because people have changed, or those I knew have left altogether. In fact, even my own family changed. People even within the same family have changed in different ways as a result of these circumstances. I still feel pain and cry every time I walk in Baghdad’s streets, but I also like my dignity and want a better life. If a foreign place is going to offer me dignity and a comfortable life, I accept that. What happened has changed me in so many ways. Now I care and love myself more than ever. I used to compromise a lot of who I was as a woman and an academic. Now I put myself and my well-being first. After all my sacrifices, I came out empty-handed, so this taught me how to reconsider my love for myself. Exile is offering more than what my country has or is able to offer me. Jordan has offered me security and dignity. The U.S. might offer the same. It may offer me new opportunities. Alienation is something inside of you. You can treat it by reconsidering your life, making new friends, looking for new ways of life, interests, and healthy relationships. Iraq is unable to offer any of that at this time…


Iraq is not home. It is foreignness. I don’t feel it is my homeland, because a human has no value in Baghdad. I feel more respected in Kurdistan than in Baghdad given what I have experienced…Nothing makes me sadder than the fact that my country was totally destroyed. We used to live, love, and enjoy every bit of Baghdad, which was the most beautiful city I have ever known. We used to walk its streets and alleys every day of the year. It never ever occurred to us that it would be destroyed like this. It never occurred to us that such ugly reality would befall Iraq. I haven’t been to Baghdad since I left it 12 years ago. I can’t go back. I don’t want to go back, because I don’t want to see what had happened to it. I will not be strong enough to bear all this destruction, to see it before my eyes… [He started crying].


Iraq as a homeland attracts us as a magnet, but it at the same time repels us and pushes us away. It is the most difficult home to be part of. At this point, the worst thing that could happen to you is to be an Iraqi living in Iraq. If you are an Iraqi living abroad, you are better off. If you are a foreigner living inside Iraq, you are fine. But if you are an Iraqi living in Iraq, that is the worst position to be in! In brief, being an Iraqi, defies all the laws and theories of physics and chemistry!


The most difficult question you could ask me is to define ‘home’. I can’t express what it is. I miss my village a lot. If you travel the whole world, you will always miss the land where you were born, the soil where your body was conceived. Waking up every morning, looking at the fields, smelling all kinds of fresh natural scents, the smell of hot bread baked with wood fire in mud ovens, the women on their way to the fields, including me and my sisters. We used to get up at 4am and go together to the field. We mostly grew cucumbers and potatoes, because they were more on demand, but they also required much harder work than other produce. Even during the UN sanctions, growing these two crops was better for us to make living. But we worked from the early hours of the morning till late evening…For me, my late father was everything. He was home! Even when I miss the village today and want to see it again, it is simply because he loved it, he was in it once. I miss every place his feet had stepped on. Home is the place that enables you to discover yourself and my father was the one who helped me discover who I am. He is a man who happened to live in and love that small Turkmen village where I was born and raised as a little girl. After my father’s death, places ceased to have any big impact on me. I can survive anywhere. No place is my home anymore. I don’t feel places anymore. The village will always be home because of what it meant to my father.


My dream is very simple: I want to be safe. As an academic, I wish that the next generation will be as faithful academics as we were to our students. As dedicated as we were during the UN sanctions on Iraq, despite the fact that we made next to nothing for living and we lived in poverty. For me, my part is almost over, I hope the next generation will be more dedicated.


My feeling in Kurdistan is like a delayed feeling of exile, a delayed feeling of alienation. It didn’t happen at first, it showed up later with changing circumstances and discourse. You know in Linguistics, particularly in pragmatics, we use the terms ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’. Implicitly, you are displaced, but sometimes you look at everything around you that can have a soothing effect that make you forget or simply turn a blind eye to the fact that you are actually displaced. Yet, sometimes a single remark or situation can bring it all back and confirm the fact that you explicitly don’t belong here. A very simple example, my son comes back from school looking very sad. When I ask what is wrong with him, he says that the Kurdish kids at school call him ‘Da’esh! You are ISIS!’ This hurts you so much, so you know that these children who call your child these things are hearing them from their families and the grownups surrounding them. An eight-year-old child won’t just call his classmate ‘Da’esh’ without hearing it a lot at home or on TV. The encounter of my child at school becomes like a mirror of the milieu in which we are existing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all people think this way. My neighbors are Kurds and they are so kind and respectful, but politics and the propaganda machine and media are making a huge negative impact on people. Furthermore, whatever paperwork you have to deal with here, the first question asked is ‘where is your residency card?’ An Iraqi shouldn’t be asked for a residency card in his own country. When you need a residency proof in your own country, this is the ultimate expression of exile. You are exiled in your own country. If an Arab is caught at any checkpoint without this card, it will be a big deal. You will be treated like someone who crossed borders into a foreign country without a passport. [He started tearing up and choking]


No moments remind you of how exiled and alienated you’re in your own country like when you go to renew your residency card here in Iraqi Kurdistan. That moment is exactly the moment you are reminded of your positionality here. Simple as that…Home is the way you long for all the things you love, like you long for your mother. Your mother is home, wherever she is, it seems to me. It could be that if you can’t be home but if you have your mother next to you in exile, then that can in some ways still make it up for you.


The definition of ‘home’ for me has become quite cynical and bitter. It is this: it is that I have two houses that I wanted to be my homes, but I can’t live in either. I have one house in Baghdad and one in Anbar, but I live displaced in a rented place here in Erbil. I have two homes, but I am homeless because of sectarianism and violence. Oh, and there is one more huge irony in my story that you must mention: since all my IDs are originally from Baghdad because I was a resident of that city for most of my life, and since I escaped it under threat of sectarianism, Baghdad has refused to grant me a single dinar from the money they allocate for displaced people. The reason they cite for denying me that is that I am from Baghdad, and so I don’t qualify for the displaced people’s support…


Home is a lost dream that I will never be able to retrieve. Exile is what is left after that loss. It is like being boxed in an elevator for the rest of your life with people you may or may not like, but you have no choice until that elevator stops and you’re set free—which is when you die… Furthermore, I am more certain than ever at this point that ‘home’ is definitely not a flag for which we have to fight and die. The flag—any flag—is appointed by the hunter. I find that all flags do not represent a nation. What represents any nation is the untold stories, the silenced stories of its people. The louder we become about flags and such rhetoric, the weaker and less secure we’re in our supposed homes. The truth is very simple, and it is this: a mother on the last minute of her life on her deathbed tells her son ‘be careful, son, when you sleep cover yourself and protect yourself from cold,’ this is the ultimate truth of what home is. The homeland is the time when you truly feel that you don’t have to talk about a lot of things, because they are already granted to you as a human—it is all those things that go without saying…

The Last Day

It was a beautiful spring day in April of 2016. The rain from the last night had just washed the streets of Erbil to give the green grass and the wild flowers covering the fields, the two sides of the streets, and in between the houses, yet another boost for their short lives. It won’t be long before summer’s unforgiving heat will come to dry everything for the next few months until the first rainfall that usually comes sometime between October and November. As a child, I still remember the smell of the first rainfall after summer’s dry months. That encounter between Iraq’s dry lands and the first rainfall in autumn remains my most favorite perfume in the world. I can’t believe I was in the car on my way to the airport. I am leaving Iraq already. My sister and brother-in-law were driving me to the airport.

The radio was on with a contemporary version of a folklore song in Kurmanci Kurdish “Ha Gulê” sang by the Iraqi Kurd singer, Zakaria, singing “diwerin gula biçînin” [come, let’s plant flowers]. It occurred to me how most of the folklore songs in Arabic, Kurdish, Aramaic, Turkmen, Persian, and Turkish have flowers as a recurring theme. If it is accurate to say that our folklore reflects our long history and rich culture, then it follows that these languages and cultures have often cared about planting and sharing flowers. I remembered hearing that version of Zakaria’s song for the first time when I was an undergraduate at the University of Baghdad. I danced to it for the first time in an Assyrian Christian wedding I was invited to by a dear friend in Baghdad in May 2002. That night my friend and I danced like crazy. Despite being too upbeat for my taste, I have always loved dancing to this song. Its melancholy yet upbeat melody always convinces me to move my body. Even if I listen to it after having the worst day possible, this song would simply turn me into a dancing Greek Zorba. At that moment, Zakaria’s words seemed at once ironic and painful, “come, let’s plant flowers”? I wished if everyone would take these words seriously. We need to plant fields of flowers not mines for each other. Yes, this was my only and final wish to add to the list of my interlocutors as I was leaving Iraq. I wish I could convince all Iraqis from all their different backgrounds to plant flowers.

Here I was again on a plane. Here I was again up in the air landing just for short periods of time on transits to connect from one flight to another, to fly from one continent to another. Here I had just left Iraq, the home that I am no longer sure is a home anymore. Here I was once again heading to exile. And just as returning to Iraq after ten years in exile made me feel as though I was back inside my mother’s womb, leaving it felt like a rebirth of some sort into this harsh world. Perhaps this explains why, during my flight on the way back to the U.S. I kept thinking about Charles Baudelaire who wrote: “As a small child, I felt in my heart two contradictory feelings, the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.” I was excited about how much I have learned, changed, and grown throughout this research at human, scholarly, and spiritual levels. Yet, I was horrified about what is coming. I was horrified that I had to turn all these stories, experiences, images, and moments into one dissertation that will do justice to all interlocutors. I was horrified about how I would ever put the first line on the paper to tell this story, let alone finish telling it. I confess that I hate finishing stories. Stories should never end.


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