It was early in 1991 when they came to take my father again. The previous times, I was too young to remember, but this time I was almost 6, and my memory was strong enough that the sounds and images from that day would haunt me forever.
We lived in the Adhamiya neighborhood of east Baghdad, close to the Tigris River, in a tiny bungalow my father built after an earlier stint in prison. I was playing outside with the neighbor children when a car pulled up. It was a civilian car, and the two men inside were not wearing uniforms. One of them stepped out and very casually, as if I was supposed to know who he was, asked me to fetch my father for him. “Baba, your friend wants you!” I shouted into the house from the front door, not wanting to enter and risk forfeiting the precious last few minutes of my playtime.
A moment later, my father appeared, a hand raised in greeting. “Give me a minute to change,” he said to the man, as if pleasantly surprised to see him. “You don’t need to,” the man said. “This will only take a few minutes.” But my mother, having rehearsed this moment countless times in her mind, quickly retrieved the clothes he wanted. My father changed right there in front of us, calmly and without hesitation, while the man stood by impatiently and told him to hurry. Before they left, my father kissed me goodbye.
I do not recall my mother’s reaction as the car sped off, whether she burst into tears or swallowed her grief and kept pretending that nothing was wrong, but I know now that she was thinking that we might never see my father again. The secret police were exuberant practitioners of the bait-and switch. “A few minutes” in their parlance, could mean anything from a few hellish days of interrogations to life in prison. Or, just as likely, death by execution. My mother was wise to the tactic because they had once tried it on her. This was in December 1984, when they arrested my entire family. I have no memory of that day, because I was only 4 months old, but my mother has told me that the arresting officer instructed her to leave me on the floor of our home as she was being led out the door, falsely assuring her that she would be back soon. She still gets choked up talking about it. “What would have happened to you if I’d believed him?” she’ll say. “What if I had left you?”
I have grappled with that question myself. Perhaps I would have died there on the floor. Or maybe the neighbors would have heard my screams and come to my rescue. Instead, my mother persuaded the officer to let me go with her. It was a gamble. She didn’t know where they were taking us or for how long. Furthermore, she was Kurdish, a second-class citizen in the eyes of the regime — not to mention married to a political subversive. Not long before the men from state security came to arrest us, some of my father’s fellow dissidents were captured, and my father had made a plan to take the family out of the country through Kurdistan. He managed to reach the border, but the authorities had been alerted and he had to turn back. So the knock on the door that day was not unexpected.
In the Republic of Fear that Saddam Hussein created, ordinary Iraqis were split between those who mindlessly defended the dictator’s absurd whims and those who kept silent and survived by trying to make themselves invisible. And then there were people like my father, the rebels, who opposed the regime actively and at great risk — not just to themselves but also to everyone they loved. As with all despots, collective punishment was a hallmark of Hussein’s survival strategy. Wherever resistance raised its head, the heavy hammer of the law fell. In this way, the regime multiplied its enemies and stoked the animosities that would later erupt in civil war. Although now, 17 years after the overthrow of Hussein, as many of Iraq’s youth rise up in solidarity against the corrupt and incompetent government that replaced him, to me his most enduring legacy is not the divisions he created but rather the impulse to transcend them. The world may have given up on Iraq, written it off as a lost cause, but from my vantage point, as someone marked at infancy as an enemy of tyrants, a rebel by birthright, I see quite the opposite. I see hope.
In 1984, we certainly weren’t the only family in prison, but we must have been one of the biggest. In addition to my parents and me, the security services had also detained my maternal grandparents, as well as nine of my aunts and uncles, four of whom were minors. We were split up: The men were sent to Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, and the women were sent across town to Al Rashad. My mother was a 23-year-old university student, anxious and fearful, suddenly faced with the unfathomable responsibility of caring for an infant in a squalid, overcrowded prison. She tells me that during those first dreadful days as a prisoner, she never put me down, afraid that if she did I would be taken away from her. Naturally, she was also worried that the filthy jail floor would be a hazard for her infant.
She settled into a daily struggle to keep us both alive, but survival wasn’t her only priority. She was also determined to give me a happy childhood. Over the next year and a half, she played the role of mother with boundless energy and optimism, going above and beyond to ensure that our circumstances did not impede my early development or sully my first impressions of the world. I spoke my first words and took my first steps under the roof of Al Rashad. My first food other than milk was prison gruel, which my mother merrily referred to as “mushy yummies.” Our fellow inmates were “big sisters” and “aunties.” In lieu of toys and picture books, she made use of her vivid imagination to keep me happy and engaged, concocting fantastical tales of the world on the other side of the bars, or at least a saccharine version of it, with cozy homes, lush forests and rivers and a friendly population of cats and birds.
The real world, of course, was much uglier. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives in Hussein’s horrendous war with Iran, which dragged on for eight years. So heavy was the death toll that boys were being conscripted and sent to the front lines. And it wasn’t just the Iranian Army killing Iraqis. Fearing an internal revolt, the regime began arresting anyone even vaguely suspected of sympathizing with the enemy. Just telling a joke about Hussein was considered tantamount to treason. As much as she tried, my mother could not completely shield me from that reality. Its most visible manifestation was the guards, the macho men in dark green uniforms who lorded over Al Rashad without compassion or humanity. I would scream in terror whenever I saw one, which only made them furious, and they would shout at my mother to silence me at once.
As the regime grew increasingly paranoid, the prisoner population at Al Rashad swelled beyond capacity. Eventually it became so packed that my mother and I were transferred to a ward that housed inmates sentenced to death. Twice a week the guards would show up with a list of names and haul off the condemned to be executed. My mother can still remember the faces of those young rebellious women.
We were abruptly released in the spring of 1986, just before my second birthday. Two years later, the war with Iran ended in a stalemate, and in 1990 Hussein marched his army into Kuwait. Their defeat by a U.S.-led coalition was a hopeful sign for many Iraqis, particularly the disenfranchised Shiite Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north: It seemed that the hated regime was finally crumbling. At the urging of President George H.W. Bush, fury against the regime ignited into an armed revolt, and in just a few weeks the rebels seized control in all but four of the country’s 18 provinces. It seemed only a matter of time before the regime would fall, but then the Americans withdrew their support. Apparently afraid that a Shiite takeover of Baghdad would empower Iran, Bush maintained a policy that allowed Hussein’s loyalist forces to fly their helicopter gunships and maul the rebels from the air — abandoning the Iraqi people to a shriveled regime thirsty for revenge.
The assumption that my father would join the hapless revolutionaries is what brought the security services back to our house in the spring of 1991. They took him away for five months. My mother, little sister and I made many unsuccessful attempts to visit him during that time. The prison guards would have us wait for hours outside in the hot sun only to finally inform us that the prisoners were not allowed visitors that day. We managed to see him just once. I recall being shocked by how thin and frail he was and that he kept smiling and joking, to calm the atmosphere I suppose. He looked even worse the day they released him. Our extended family gathered at our house to celebrate his freedom. Though he barely resembled the man I knew, I clung to him when he walked through the door, determined to not let him go. He would later tell me that at that moment exactly, despite being utterly weak and exhausted, he decided it was time for us to leave the country.
Our opportunity came a few months later, when Hussein briefly opened the borders to facilitate a mass exodus of his political rivals. Civilian air travel was banned in Iraq, so we took a bus to Jordan. About 18 months later, and after many more travels, we reached Copenhagen, our final destination. It was a jarring transition, from the motherland of blood and turmoil to a country commonly considered one of the happiest in the world, two starkly different realities that I would now have to somehow reconcile.
A lot changed after we left. The Americans returned. Hussein fell. There was a civil war. By the time I reached my 20s, the Iraq of my childhood had been buried in dust. These days, whenever I return to visit, I feel like a foreigner walking down the streets of Baghdad, unable to turn off that little voice in my head constantly reminding me that I don’t think or act the same way as the people do here. All those years of chaos changed them just as peace changed me. When I look at my aunts, uncles and cousins who never left Iraq and contemplate all that they endured — the violence, the persecution, the stigma of our family’s history of political resistance — I cannot help feeling privileged for having escaped. Sometimes I tell myself that I should let go of my past and move on appreciatively, as life has awarded me a second chance.
But there is something that always pulls me back to Iraq, a single strand of connective tissue that no amount of time or distance can seem to sever. I have felt its tug lately more than ever — specifically since last October, the month Iraq’s youth took the fate of the country into their hands. Pro-democracy protests have frequently flared up in Iraq since the height of the Arab Spring, but this time the movement had enough momentum to threaten the political status quo. I closely followed the news as the revolt spread. Demonstrators from all over the country descended on the streets of Baghdad and other major cities by the tens of thousands, chanting, “We want a homeland!” — a rallying cry that emanated from long-festering resentment over rampant government corruption that has reduced much of the population to insurmountable poverty in the wake of the American occupation. Their grievances were only further validated by the regime’s brutal response. Hundreds of peaceful protesters were killed in the crackdown — not just by government troops, but also by the dozens of militias, political groups and foreign paramilitaries who rushed in to exploit the chaos to advance their own agendas.
At first, seeing all those rival factions climb over the shoulders of the protesters to snatch a piece of the pie, I couldn’t help thinking that the movement was misbegotten. Once again it seemed the Iraqi youth were being used as cannon fodder in a geopolitical power struggle that would only exacerbate the dismal conditions that had pushed them into the streets.
Then I realized I was missing the point. A single photograph circulating on social media last year opened my eyes. It was a picture of a teenage boy at a protest, most likely in Baghdad. He was squatting on the asphalt with a small Iraqi flag tucked against his chest and a half-eaten sandwich in his hand, as if he had taken a break from demonstrating to replenish his energy. His weary eyes and unclean clothes and feet suggested that he had been away from home for days, adrift in the tear-gas haze of peaceful rebellion. He looked to be about 13 or 14, certainly too young to have witnessed the last regime collapse. He did not see how the Iraqi people sang and danced in the streets, oblivious of the dark days ahead, unaware that their liberators, those “good-will ambassadors” in tanks and camouflage, would destroy their cities, take control of Iraq’s oil, install a new government just as corrupt as the old one and ignite the fuse of a sectarian war. He was young enough, in other words, to still have hope, to risk his life for a shattered dream. He held the torch of freedom my parents once carried, and, through the same darkness, was continuing the struggle to exorcise this house of horrors so that some day all Iraqis may have a place on this earth to call home. His faith was all that mattered.
Iraq may be the country of origin listed on my passport, but it was never my home. Hussein made sure of that. As far as he was concerned, my family didn’t belong in Iraq. We were traitors. The enemy. Prison was the only place we belonged. So I trace my roots back to Al Rashad. I may never have a country to call my own, but I will always be a prisoner who grew free. I will always belong to those who don’t belong — the rebels, the destroyers of tyrants. I belong to my mother and father, to my “sisters” and “aunties” who perished in Al Rashad, to that boy in the photograph with dirty feet and bloodshot eyes, to the Iraqi youth who triumph in their optimism, who persist toward a life of peace in a country that has known only war for half a century, whose hope is our only hope. I belong to the rebels because they alone give me faith that one day children in Baghdad will walk to school unafraid, that they can keep their families and extended families and that never again will they be diminished because a militia deserts them or a sect threatens them or a dictator wants to drown them in gas. I belong to the rebels of this generation and past generations, even if the parties in the conflicts have sometimes exchanged places, with the oppressed of yesterday becoming the unjust of today. Even so, it is always the rebels’ side I am on.
Hawra al-Nadawi is an Iraqi writer whose most recent novel, “Qismet,” was published in Arabic in 2017.
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